Fenty, Gray fire up the rhetoric; supporters turn up the volume

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; C03

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his chief rival, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, clashed Saturday at a Ward 7 candidates' forum that grew so raucous the moderator stopped the debate to quiet the roaring crowd.

The two Democratic candidates for mayor assailed each other's record, and their supporters tried to drown each other out.

Dennita Ferrell, 34, left disappointed. Ferrell, a stay-at-home mother and an undecided voter, said she wanted to learn more about where the candidates stand on education but just heard "back-and-forth."

"No one is sticking to the topic," she said. "I just felt like I was in the midst of a battle."

The debate was sponsored by the Ward 7 Democrats, a group once led by Gray that is credited with pushing him to run for the Ward 7 council seat in 2004 and for council chairman in 2006, both times successfully.

Gray appears to have made headway on Fenty's home turf, Ward 4 in Northwest Washington, and Fenty is trying to make inroads in Gray's home ward, east of the Anacostia River, before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. Polls show Fenty's popularity has declined significantly among African Americans and residents of the city's eastern side. In 2006, Fenty won 53 percent of the vote in Ward 7. Gray won 82 percent there in his race for chairman.

On Saturday, Gray overwhelmingly won a straw poll, 226 to 64.

Fenty supporters included a mix of paid workers, volunteers and construction laborers. Like fans of the visiting team at a basketball game, they sat together in the bleachers in the gymnasium of Fort Davis Recreation Center. Among them was Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, who is planning to marry Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in September.

When Fenty began to answer a question about homelessness by remarking on Gray's record as director of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s, Gray's supporters began to boo. Fenty looked at his backers, held out his arms and said, "They don't want to hear the truth."

The moderator, Denise Rolark-Barnes, publisher of the Washington Informer, told those in the crowd that the more time they spent making noise, the less time Fenty had to answer questions.

The panel of candidates included former television reporter Leo Alexander; Ernest Johnson; Michael T. Green; and Sulaimon Brown, a former Fenty volunteer who has become known for encouraging voters to cast their ballots for Gray.

The forum was marked by a return to the sort of combativeness displayed in one-on-one debates between Fenty and Gray on July 15 and 16. During the past week, the two leading candidates appeared to take a break from their attacks on each other.

Fenty was on the offensive Saturday. The mayor, who has been criticized over contracts awarded to firms with ties to him, questioned Gray's involvement in a recent lottery contract.

Approval of the $38 million contract stalled in 2008 after council members raised concerns about awarding it to a group that included Warren Williams, a Fenty ally, as the local partner. Gray, the chairman, did not schedule a vote on the issue.

The contract now includes Emmanuel Bailey, the son of a woman who worked for Gray in the Human Services Department years ago, as the local partner. Attorney General Peter Nickles, a family friend of Fenty's, has asked the Office of the Inspector General to investigate. Bailey is also a fraternity brother of Fenty's.

Fenty said the handling of the contract was not in keeping with Gray's portrait of himself as council chairman: "Where was the accessibility? Where was the transparency? Who has the cronies?"

Gray recounted controversies that have marred Fenty's term: the mayor's refusal to give council members tickets to baseball games and the attempted donation of an aging firetruck and ambulance to a city in the Dominican Republic, a plan that involved fraternity brother Sinclair Skinner and Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten, a Fenty supporter.

"If anybody understood that gibberish that you just heard down here about a lottery contract, would you explain it to me after the forum is over? I have no idea what he was talking about," Gray said to applause. "But let me be clear. I promise you this: that I will not expand our fire department to the Dominican Republic. I promise you that you will not have to belong to a certain fraternity to get a contract in the District of Columbia. And I promise you, if you want a ticket to a Washington Nationals baseball game, I'll be happy to see that you get one, all right?"

At the forum's start, Rolark-Barnes asked undecided voters to stand. Four people stood in the crowd, which appeared to number at least 250. She repeatedly asked the crowd to remember the four people who came to hear the candidates.

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