D.C. mayoral campaign's nasty tone won't help the city or the voters

Friday, August 6, 2010

D.C. COUNCIL Chairman Vincent C. Gray's campaign for mayor is steeped in his promise to bring the city together. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's appeal to voters is his clear record of accomplishments. Neither message, though, is being communicated in a race that is fast devolving into a nasty slugfest that dishonors both candidates and hurts the city.

In recent weeks, there has been ugly behavior at a variety of candidates' forums throughout the city. The events are more rallies than real debates; those who show up have made up their minds and both campaigns try to pack the halls with supporters. The result is a spectacle. The Post's Nikita Stewart described the audience at Wednesday's Ward 4 straw poll, like that in Ward 7 two weeks ago, as "raucous"; frightful also applies. There were boos, heckles and obscene gestures. Repeated appeals by the event's organizer for civility were ignored. Outside the hall, sharp words were exchanged with pushing and shoving; we witnessed two arguments that almost came to blows.

Candidates are not responsible for all the actions of their supporters -- but they help set the tone. So it was disappointing that neither Mr. Gray nor Mr. Fenty admonished their supporters to stop interrupting, booing and engaging in other verbal strong-arming.

Most of the invective has been directed at Mr. Fenty, and while his campaign surely has had its excesses, the truly disturbing behavior comes from Mr. Gray's supporters. Witness D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) interrupting Mr. Fenty on Wednesday with calls for the schools chancellor's ouster. Perhaps most appalling was the booing of the mayor at a funeral. There's no question that many of those who oppose Mr. Fenty are driven by anger, which never brings out the best in people. Still, it's hard to reconcile such uncivil behavior with Mr. Gray's promise of "one city" where everyone gets along. That the divide is increasingly breaking along racial lines is all the more troubling.

No one expects this campaign to be fought with kid gloves. It's perfectly legitimate for Mr. Fenty to question Mr. Gray's tenure managing the city's troubled human services agency. Mr. Gray is right to press Mr. Fenty about how the council was circumvented on some controversial parks contracts. They should each be able to raise these issues without resorting to personal attacks. And, in the remaining weeks before the Sept. 14 primary, it would be nice to hear what each has to say about the important issues facing the city.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company