Gray's making mayoral race about ethics seen as big risk

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Vincent C. Gray's campaign strategy to cast himself as the more ethical candidate against incumbent Adrian M. Fenty is a risky gamble for a relative newcomer who has yet to withstand the scrutiny and hardball tactics of a high-profile mayoral election, political observers and strategists say.

The D.C. Council chairman's campaign kickoff speech April 24 was loaded with terms such as "cronyism" and "pay to play" as he criticized Fenty's mayoral record and designated himself the candidate to "restore a public trust in city hall."

The strategists and observers, however, say Gray's assault on Fenty's integrity could backfire because Gray has had to answer questions about his ethics, and his staff has only recently begun to vet his background.

If even a minor ethical hiccup surfaces during the campaign, strategists say, Gray's candidacy could unravel. And with signs pointing to an open contest, observers expect a gritty battle that is likely to leave both Democrats bruised by the Sept. 14 primary.

"What Fenty needs to do is muddy the waters," said Chuck Thies, a longtime local political strategist who supports Gray. "You can define yourself, but you don't want to be defined by little details in your background that can be hyped."

Fenty, who largely steered clear of negative campaigning during his 2006 run, said in a recent interview that he plans to focus on his "own campaign." He added, however, that "Gray's record will come out" because of the campaign's "visibility."

"Every aspect of a person's record will come out," Fenty said, "and that is how it should be."

If Fenty decides not to address Gray's accusations head-on, the mayor's supporters are assembling to respond to Gray. Ron Moten, a Fenty friend and co-founder of the nonprofit anti-violence group Peaceoholics, said Fenty backers have reserved the Internet domain names and to push out information about Gray to the public.

"When Adrian fights back, I don't think he will be able to take him," Moten said of Gray. "People don't know what they don't know. So when we start throwing blows back, we are going to see if [Gray] can stand."

In an interview after his kickoff speech, Gray defended his decision to go after Fenty over ethics, saying voters "need the authority to make a decision about who they want as their mayor."

"That is what I intend to do," said Gray, who had a tough race for council chairman in 2006 but has never endured the pressures of a mayoral race.

As director of the Department of Human Services under former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt, Gray will have to answer for a record that includes oversight of hundreds of millions of dollars in local and federal funding, a source of information that Fenty loyalists said they will mine for clues about Gray.

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