In D.C. mayoral debate, accusations trump issues

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010; B01

In sharp exchanges during a one-on-one radio debate Thursday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his lead mayoral opponent, Vincent C. Gray, accused each other of ethical lapses and lack of transparency, signaling a campaign likely to be soiled by mudslinging in its final eight weeks.

During the hour-long matchup on WPFW, host Jonetta Rose Barras and guest panelists tried to steer the discussion toward issues including the contenders' leadership styles and the recent city takeover of United Medical Center in Southeast. But the Democrats repeatedly challenged each other's ethics.

"They're all going to be engaged in some element of attacking their opponent," Barras said in an interview. "It's going to be very difficult to focus on the issues, because there's not much difference between them on the issues."

Fenty has sought to portray himself as a leader who has made quick, unpopular decisions but has yielded results, while Gray has promised to be more deliberate before making decisions.

"What Adrian is trying to do is redefine Vincent in a way that reduces the sheen on Vincent to see that he is equally tarnished," said Barras, who was joined in the studio by guest panelists Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post and Eugene Dewitt Kinlow of DC Vote.

Meanwhile, Ronald Moten, a Fenty friend and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Peaceoholics, continued to insert himself in the mayoral race. Moten called WPFW in Adams Morgan on Thursday to challenge the assertion by the Gray campaign earlier this week that he is a "crony" of the mayor. After the debate, he presided over a chaotic news conference that challenged the D.C. Council's move to monitor election fraud following allegations that Moten paid participants in a recent straw poll to vote for Fenty.

Moten, who saw his organization prosper with millions of dollars in contracts under Fenty, said he worries that the council's legislation will hinder his efforts to organize go-go concerts to rally African American support for Fenty. "My thing is, what is paying people?" Moten asked. "Is giving someone a T-shirt paying somebody? Is when you do an event and there is free food, is that paying somebody? That is what's got to be clear."

Moten, who is one of the mayor's most visible surrogates, has urged Fenty to veto the legislation. The mayor has embraced Moten, whom he has known since high school, calling him "a fantastic Washingtonian" in an interview with Washington City Paper before the debate. "If everybody in D.C. did one-tenth of what Ronald Moten does for the community and for D.C., this city would be 10 times as far ahead as it already is," he said.

Polls show that Fenty's popularity has plummeted about four years after he swept every precinct in his race for mayor. Residents often point to million-dollar contracts the city awarded to firms owned by Fenty friends and fraternity brothers to renovate recreation centers and parks. A special D.C. Council committee and the D.C. Auditor and the Office of the Inspector General are investigating how the contracts were handled.

Gray called the Fenty administration's transfer of city funds to the D.C. Housing Authority to award the contracts "surreptitious, clandestine and circuitous." The rerouting bypassed the council, which must authorize contracts exceeding $1 million.

Gray, who began his campaign in March with a promise to return integrity and accountability to the mayor's office, peppered his responses Thursday by frequently using the word "cronyism."

"If you are a fraternity brother or someone associated with the mayor, you will get a contract," he said.

But Fenty aggressively offset Gray's attacks by talking about probes that have targeted the council chairman, stopping just short of calling Gray a hypocrite. He pointed to the installation of a fence at Gray's home, which the city has ordered taken down or shortened because it was built without permits.

Fenty wrongly said the fence was built by a contractor that had business before the council. Though developer William C. Smith & Co. helped with other repairs at Gray's home, the Office of Campaign Finance found no violation of law. The campaign finance office also cleared Gray in using his council stationery to solicit contributions for the local Democratic Party, but Fenty raised the controversy during the debate.

"Why don't you get your facts straight?" Gray asked.

But Fenty continued to talk about Gray's tenure as director of the Department of Human Services during the 1990s, saying the agency was "run over a cliff."

"That kind of management record shouldn't even be on the same table," he said.

Gray denied mismanaging the agency and said some services improved under his leadership.

At one point, Gray injected some humor into the back-and-forth with Fenty: "Jonetta's going to be the traffic cop. Start writing tickets."

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