Gray, Fenty campaign styles may speak volumes to D.C. voters

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; B01

Two months before the District's Democratic mayoral primary, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and leading opponent Vincent C. Gray are running campaigns that mirror their leadership styles -- pitting a fast-paced, lean operation against a more deliberate campaign that has put the once-popular mayor on the defensive.

Which approach wins could be an indication of which leadership style voters prefer: that of the mayor, who says he has to make quick, sometimes unpopular decisions to get things done, or that of the D.C. Council chairman, who is more likely to consult constituencies before taking major actions.

And as they gear up for the final sprint to the Sept. 14 primary, the two candidates are relying on different ways to mobilize supporters and win over voters, according to interviews with senior campaign staff members.

Fenty has been relentless at street intersections and Metro stations in the morning and at doorsteps in the evening -- the same tactics that catapulted him from council member to mayor in 2006. He has launched a TV ad campaign in which he does not appear but that includes personal testimonials to counter three persistent complaints: He is arrogant;he does not care about communities east of the Anacostia River; and he has not done enough to nurture small businesses.

As for Gray, he has taken advantage of Fenty's increasing reluctance to appear at candidate forums, where the challenger has wooed voters by engaging them in policy discussions. But Gray's advisers fret that he has not matched Fenty's enthusiasm for knocking on doors as he tries to raise his profile and present a message that goes beyond being an anti-Fenty candidate.

"Vince spends a lot of time reading the research and the data, whereas with Fenty, he was out campaigning," said Neil Richardson, Gray's policy director, who worked on Fenty's 2006 campaign. "From a field perspective, and ideally, it would be great to have Vince out there six hours a day knocking on doors."

Within the Fenty campaign, advisers said their focus groups show that the lack of a communications strategy has fed the perception of arrogance and disarray. "There is an acknowledgment we can do better," said Sean Madigan, who recently took a leave of absence as an administration spokesman to help the campaign.

Gray and Fenty are trying to court voters like Michelle Morris, 76, of the city's Chevy Chase neighborhood. In a Washington Post poll in January, which showed Gray and Fenty locked in a close race, Morris indicated that she was undecided. Reached by phone last week, Morris said she was still on the fence.

Fenty has "done some good things," Morris said, but he is "too detached and imperious" and comes across as "a bit of a phony." Although she respects Gray as council chairman, Morris said, she can not envision him as an executive because she fears that he is afraid to "take great stands."

"Gray may turn out to be someone to look at more seriously, but he's just kind of blah," Morris said.


Fenty has surrounded himself with a small group of loyal advisers, relying on the playbook for 2006, when he won every precinct in the city. But this year, Fenty is also benefiting from a 10-1 advantage in campaign donations in the competition with Gray, and his deep pockets allow him to air commercials and hire canvassers far earlier than he did four years ago. His message has been that he deserves a second term because student tests scores have made gains, long-sought improvements to school facilities and recreation centers have been completed, homicides are down and the city's population is growing.

Fenty advisers say that Gray lacks the same record of accomplishment.

Some longtime political observers question whether Fenty's efforts are enough to overcome what polls show to be high negatives, especially in the African American community. His most visible outreach to African Americans has been a series of radio ads and rallies featuring go-go music performers, a tactic devised by Fenty friend and Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten, a political novice. The Fenty campaign said the effort also involves a voter-registration drive that reaches out to low-income and young African Americans, residents who have been unlikely to vote in mayoral elections.

But sources close to the campaign said Fenty has been unwilling to take advice and slow to grasp that, unlike in 2006, he is not a fresh-faced council member known for constituent service but an incumbent mayor defending his record.

For instance, Fenty overruled advisers who urged him to hold off on the TV ads until the campaign had put together a more comprehensive strategy, two sources close to the campaign said. And some say his style has hampered his ability to build and nurture an electoral coalition. Despite his business-friendly agenda, Fenty lost the D.C. Chamber of Commerce endorsement to Gray.

Sources at Fenty's presentation to the chamber's political action committee said that he seemed awkward and uncomfortable and that Gray appeared more relaxed and conversational. Fenty also could not recall the last time he talked to the chamber president, Barbara Lang, a turnoff for the group.


Gray has surrounded himself with a large team of advisers, including several veterans of Fenty's 2006 campaign. Friends and supporters of Gray's said the campaign needs to streamline decision-making to counteract a vigorous get-out-the-vote push by Fenty's campaign, which plans to take advantage of the city's new, early-voting law.

In addition, the council is not breaking for summer recess until after Tuesday's meeting, and some Gray supporters worry that he has been putting in too many hours on council business and needs to spend more time selling himself to undecided voters. Gray's public schedule has been sparse for weeks, although aides said he has been raising money and meeting small groups of voters in private settings.

A more pressing concern among Gray supporters is that he is too slow to make some decisions. They point to the education plan that he rolled out two weeks ago. A dozen advisers helped Gray develop the plan, and then he and his staff vetted it with nearly 100 government officials, teachers, school administrators, labor leaders, parents and other stakeholders, sources said. Gray is taking a similar approach to proposals on crime, economic development, job creation and fiscal responsibility.

With Fenty on the airwaves and his campaign expected to spend record amounts on the race, aides said Gray is going to need to set aside a half-million dollars just to mobilize supporters during the final 10 days of the campaign. According to their most recent campaign finance reports, due June 10, Fenty had $3.3 million in the bank, and Gray had $371,000.

Gray staff members said they were exceeding their fundraising goals, but some political observers said the campaign is spending too much too quickly, including on such novelties as Gray Pride beads for the Capital Pride parade and battery-powered fans for the Fourth of July parade in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

Douglas Patton, Gray's campaign finance chairman, said that his candidate is in "pretty good shape" but that the campaign needs to make sure that it can withstand an onslaught of advertisements from Fenty.

"When you are dealing with someone who is dealing with $3 million, you better be preparing for [Hurricane] Katrina," Patton said. "You better have your foundation in pretty tight."

Gray advisers, some of whom are so confident that they have started thinking about what a transition might look like, said they will be able to counteract Fenty's financial advantage because they have a growing list of volunteers. "Ours is an all-volunteer army," said Gray strategist Mo Elleithee.

But in an election that could be decided by a few thousand ballots, many political observers are skeptical that Gray's field operation is disciplined enough to coordinate a winning get-out-the-vote effort, especially against a candidate who spends nearly every night collecting names of potential voters. Some Gray supporters said they had to drive to his headquarters to pick up yard signs after the campaign failed to deliver them.

"That tells me they have not put together an organization," said a veteran strategist not affiliated with either campaign, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely about the race. "They are relying on 'I hate Fenty' . . . but that doesn't equal 51 percent. He's got to push it over."

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