In D.C. race for mayor, Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent C. Gray are short on details

(Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
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By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

In the D.C. mayoral race, Adrian M. Fenty and Vincent C. Gray meet, on average, twice a week to debate at candidates' forums across the city. But that doesn't mean they've talked about what they plan to do if elected mayor.

Instead, with the Sept. 14 Democratic primary 11 weeks away, Gray and Fenty have been locked in a contest centered on personalities and records, sparring over Gray's tenure as the director of Human Services in the 1990s and whether Fenty deserves credit for improved student test scores, a drop in homicides and improvements in neighborhood amenities, such as recreation centers.

But neither Gray, the council chairman, nor Fenty, the mayor, have rolled out any policies or initiatives they would pursue during the next four years. With the contest centered on bickering and sweeping promises, such issues as continued million-dollar budget shortfalls, chronic unemployment in Southeast Washington, and affordable housing for the poor and the middle class have gone largely unaddressed on the campaign trail.

"They are just bashing each other," Savannah Gibson said last week after a forum sponsored by Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. "I came here to see what they had in mind, but they didn't tell me anything. This city deserves better."

Officials with both campaigns said they are refining their messages to offer more specifics in coming weeks. But political strategists said Fenty and Gray face different obstacles as they seek to develop a message and persona that would offer more insight about how they would govern to an already agitated electorate.

Gray, who remains relatively unknown to the broader electorate, needs to distinguish himself from Fenty on the issues while crafting a narrative that threads a thicket of competing interests to avoid divisions between voters in different parts of the city, some say.

Fenty, who has been fighting perceptions that he is distant and arrogant, might have to acknowledge concerns about his personality, perhaps even make a public mea culpa, and then do a better job of explaining his governing style, observers said. And because many think Fenty benefited from policies and projects that originated with former mayor Anthony A. Williams, some observers said he needs to convince voters that he has a plan for leading a city expected to face tough spending choices.

Strategic advantage

"Neither of these guys are completely comfortable with what the electorate wants," said Chuck Thies, a political strategist who is supporting Gray. "I would like to know what the city is going to look like in 2014 and 2015 after you have been mayor for four years, and the first candidate who makes that shift to talk about that will have a leg up immediately."

Since announcing his candidacy in late March, Gray has managed to use his record as chairman, as well as some activists' anger with Fenty over various issues, to rack up endorsements and win recent straw polls sponsored by the Gertrude Stein Democratic Committee, the D.C. Democratic Committee, and party committees in wards 3 and 8. But as Gray begins reaching out to a wider audience, the clock is ticking for him to define himself before the well-financed Fenty does it for him.

Gray has yet to roll out any policy initiatives, choosing instead to speak in generalities about schools, community policing and ethics. His most ambitious proposal to date is the creation of a unified "birth to (age) 24" educational system by investing more in charter schools, early childhood education and the University of the District of Columbia. He also often promises to create a universal "infant and toddler" preschool but falls short of explaining how he would get that done in light of the city's budget constraints.

"There is no room for any new programs unless you want to de-fund some of the old programs," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a Fenty supporter who chairs the Committee on Finance and Revenue. "And you are going to have to de-fund some of the old programs anyway."

For weeks, Gray has promised that he will soon be rolling out a detailed plan for public education that would explain how he would pay for his initiatives. The campaign has developed schools, jobs and public safety policy teams to develop proposals, but aides say the process has been slowed by Gray's careful vetting of the ideas.

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