By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010; B01
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty set up his reelection bid Friday in a 30-minute State of the District speech that touted rising test scores for the long-troubled public school system, a record-low homicide rate and a growing population that reflects the continued rebirth of what he likes to call "a world-class city."
The speech outlined the accomplishments of a results-oriented mayor whose reelection campaign is likely to focus on convincing voters that he deserves the credit for the city's success.
In his 2006 election, Fenty (D) made education a top priority, promising to improve the schools academically and physically. "Go by some of our schools these days. When's the last time you heard about a boiler not working?" he asked an audience of about 180 elderly residents, mostly African Americans, who were bused to the new Deanwood Recreation Center in Ward 7 for the event.
Although his mentions of improved technology and transportation largely fell flat, Fenty appeared to touch the crowd when he talked about improving education, fighting crime, helping the homeless by building permanent housing and bettering neighborhoods through economic development. He pointed to the new $157 million St. Elizabeths psychiatric facility that he said is part of an effort to revitalize Congress Heights in Ward 8.
The mayor, criticized last year for failing to talk about the city's HIV/AIDS crisis in his address, said the epidemic is "one that is just not talked about enough." He said the city is seeing a decline in the number of new AIDS cases.
Fenty is facing a challenge from D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), who edged him out in several polls, including one in January by The Washington Post. Eleven candidates have filed for the Democratic primary.
Fenty will kick off his campaign Saturday by officially opening his campaign headquarters on Georgia Avenue in Ward 4, where he served as a council member for six years before becoming mayor.
The Post poll and other surveys show that Fenty's popularity -- displayed in 2006 in an unprecedented win of every precinct in the Democratic primary -- has plummeted. Although more than half of residents think that the city is going in the right direction, just 42 percent approve of Fenty, according to The Post's poll. Fenty's numbers dive even more dramatically among African Americans.
The poll also showed that large numbers of residents and a majority of blacks don't see Fenty as honest and trustworthy.
Fenty's choice for a backdrop -- the $33 million Deanwood Recreation Center still under construction -- appeared to be a dismissal of the probes into the parks and recreation construction contracts that probably will dog him on the campaign trail.
"This project represents the very best in District government. It exemplifies exactly what our government should be about," he said of the facility.
Deanwood, which will have a library and pool, will be the city's largest recreation center when it is completed. Omar Karim, the mayor's friend and fraternity brother who is working on the project, was on hand to help with tours of the facility.
In December, the D.C. Council unanimously voted to strip Karim's Banneker Ventures of its contract to manage the construction of $82 million in projects after council members discovered that the Fenty administration had routed money through the D.C. Housing Authority and that contracts were awarded without council approval. A special council investigation into the contracts is pending.
Banneker was allowed to keep its contract to manage Deanwood because the project was so far along. In an interview, Karim said the recreation center is about 85 percent complete.
During the speech, Fenty appeared confident and at ease as he stood at a lectern, a line of flags behind him. The only standing ovations were by some audience members when he arrived.
Although he has been criticized in the past year for being standoffish and detached, he was charming as he worked the gym, where tables and box lunches had been set up for the seniors. He held their hands gently and bent down to listen to the soft-spoken.
"Hello, young lady" was his greeting for gray-haired women.
"You're a Redskins fan," he said to a man wearing a Redskins cap.
Juanita Fairchild, 66, who lives in the house where she was born near the recreation center, gushed over Fenty. "Wonderful," she said of hisspeech. "I thought it was great. All the accomplishments he made, the promises -- it's really coming to fruition. The neighborhood has really come full circle."
Others were not as impressed.
"It was a reelection speech," said George Jennings, 65, of Logan Circle. "He's just not my cup of tea. I got my reasons. Gray, I think he's a little more in tune with what the people want."
The Rev. Audrey Wilkins, 61, said she is leaning toward Leo Alexander, a television reporter turned insurance salesman who began a grass-roots campaign last year. "I like Mr. Gray, too, but those people [Fenty and Gray] have been in the business for a while. We need new blood."