Gray's entry into D.C. mayor's race comes with two caveats

By Robert McCartney
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's great that D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray is challenging Adrian Fenty for mayor. We needed somebody prominent to run against Fenty. Otherwise, the mayor would just continue to ignore valid criticisms of his performance, and the District would suffer as a result.

That said, there are two big caveats about Gray's entry Tuesday in September's Democratic primary.

First, Gray needs to show the city that he can do more than just not be Fenty. We already know Gray doesn't alienate people the way the mayor does. Now Gray needs to convince voters that, like the mayor, he has the will to get important stuff done.

Second, there's the coy megamillionaire Don Peebles. I can't tell whether his waffling about whether to run is merely capricious or actually malicious. Either way, his possible candidacy -- he says he's "planning" to file but hasn't set a date -- poses a major threat to Gray.

Even a single well-known, well-funded challenger might have a hard time beating Fenty. If two split the opposition, the mayor needn't worry. He can spend the summer trying to shave minutes off his bicycling times.

Either way, I hope the campaign yields a spirited debate about the weak spots in Fenty's record. Tops on the list is his autocratic, unresponsive attitude. Some residents have told me that they get annoyed when he consistently dodges questions during appearances on local TV stations.

Fenty also needs to be challenged over signs of cronyism in awarding city contracts. The council has held hearings on this, but we need to know more. Peebles has said he encountered a "pay-to-play" environment when he sought to launch a development project in the District.

Gray and Peebles, if he runs, will push Fenty to respond to the dislike of him in the African American community. Polls show that blacks are overwhelmingly disappointed in the mayor. He's seen as favoring white parts of the city and downtown business interests at the expense of poorer, mostly black wards.

In offering himself as an alternative, Gray can point to a positive record as council chairman. Despite a chronic lack of cooperation from the executive branch, the council has tried to carry out effective, professional oversight of the administration. Under Gray's leadership, it unanimously censured one of its own, former mayor and Ward 8 member Marion Barry (D), for ethical lapses.

But Gray's strengths as a legislator and consensus builder are now a problem for him -- because those aren't traits that necessarily make an effective mayor.

A mayor has to be willing to risk being unpopular. A mayor needs to be aggressive to overcome resistance to, say, major reforms in a troubled school system.

Fenty goes way too far in this regard. But polls show that a lot of voters are more satisfied with what he has achieved than with him personally.

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