D.C. mayoral candidates Fenty, Gray face image challenges in Democratic primary

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Five months before the Democratic primary for D.C. mayor, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and chief rival Vincent C. Gray face vastly different hurdles to win, setting up a race that appears to be wide open.

Fenty needs to reconnect with voters who four years ago placed their hopes in a young candidate willing to take on the city's biggest challenges. The relatively unknown Gray, the D.C. Council chairman and former bureaucrat, must introduce himself to much of the electorate and convince voters that he is a viable alternative to Fenty.

Gray, a late political bloomer marking his third campaign in six years, sought to start addressing those concerns Saturday when he officially began his mayoral bid. He unveiled a platform and a message that included numerous swipes at Fenty as he seeks to position himself as the candidate who will fight for new jobs, continue school reform efforts, spur more collegiality between the office and the council, and place a renewed focus on ethical government.

"People in this city . . . want a mayor with the integrity to put an end to cronyism and put the people first," said Gray, a reference to the controversy surrounding city parks and recreation contracts awarded to firms with ties to Fenty. "My friends, make no mistake, I intend to be that mayor."

Gray, 67, leads off his campaign as the 39-year-old Fenty, who won every precinct in the 2006 primary, is saddled by a stunning reversal in his popularity. Polls show he has turned off a significant number of residents with a hard-charging governing style that has shaped the perception that he is arrogant and detached. Fenty, who announced his re-election bid two weeks ago, goes into the race with solid advantages, though, including a massive $3.3 million campaign war chest and polls that also show many residents are satisfied with city services under his leadership.

But Fenty's closest advisers and friends say they are alarmed that the campaign has yet to capitalize on his strengths, such as improved student test scores, fewer homicides, a rising population for the city and new neighborhood amenities. Supporters fear he has been too slow to put together a full campaign team and craft a successful message.

Campaign chairman Bill Lightfoot played down the delay in assembling the team but acknowledged that "there has not been a concerted effort to say, 'This is what I have done.' "

Although Gray did not file to run until late March, his supporters and advisers are confident that they can compete with, or even outmatch, the energetic Fenty in generating enthusiasm and lining up endorsements and volunteers.

"There are a lot of people out there frustrated with Fenty, but not really sure what the alternatives are," said Mo Elleithee, a senior Gray adviser. "We need to show these people that Vince is a credible alternative."

The message

The Fenty team is trying to cast the young, often brusque mayor as a risk-taker who had to anger people to implement policies that have yielded results. The strategy was demonstrated recently at Fenty's campaign kickoff when he explained some of his unpopular actions by reiterating, "We did it because it was the right thing to do."

Supporters and detractors say he remains a masterful campaigner, having raised millions for his reelection. In Gray's case, there are signs that his campaign will try to frame him as less bureaucrat -- he is a former human services director overseeing mental health and homelessness -- and more man of the people.

Each candidate, however, faces challenges.

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