By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 6, 2010; B01
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's green-and-white signs blanketed 16th Street NW, where traffic was slowed by dozens of volunteers and staff members waving to passersby and urging them to vote in the Ward 4 Democratic straw poll.
They cheered and shouted like fans at a championship game, many of them arriving two hours before voting began Wednesday evening at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.
They drank Fenty water, waved Fenty towels, and wore Fenty wristbands and T-shirts. This was supposed to be Fenty Country, the ward the 39-year-old mayor represented as a D.C. Council member for half a dozen years.
They even had a theme song.
But by 10:30 p.m., Fenty supporters were hearing a different chorus: "Gray . . . Vincent Gray . . . Gray" rang out as the votes were counted aloud. Fenty's chief rival in the Democratic primary, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, won 581 to 401. He was just shy of the 60 percent of needed for an official endorsement from the Ward 4 Democrats.
Team Fenty was shaken.
Fenty's losses in straw polls before sweeping every precinct in 2006 are evidence that such votes can be unreliable. But Wednesday's straw poll, combined with five others he has lost and the less-than-friendly reception he has received from some voters while knocking on doors in the past few months, are indicative of Fenty's reversal.More negativity ahead?
A year ago, Fenty was widely thought to be unbeatable. But a little more than a month before the Sept. 14 primary, his campaign appears increasingly unable to turn around a deep-seated anger against him in some communities and to regain voters lost in the past year.
The mayor said Thursday that he felt let down by Ward 4, which includes Petworth, parts of Crestwood, Takoma and Chevy Chase. Four years ago, it gave him a record 69 percent of the vote.
"It was disappointing, not embarrassing. . . . We would have wanted to win, but you can't win every straw poll," he said after he cut the ribbon on a new Joe Cole Community Center in the Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast. "I don't usually go in with any expectations. I would have wanted to win, and I can say I was disappointed."
Fenty has raised nearly $4.4 million. The money has paid for an army of canvassers, a TV ad blitz, a go-go music-themed radio drive that began Memorial Day weekend and campaign literature produced to highlight ward-by-ward "results."
Observers say the straw poll results -- which reflect the votes of die-hard Democrats who live in the ward -- could push Fenty to go negative in an effort to broaden the electorate beyond the 100,000 voters who cast ballots in 2006.
Fenty's ads feature supporters addressing perceptions that he is arrogant and indifferent to some residents' concerns. Although Fenty has attacked Gray in forums and interviews, the ads haven't ventured there. On Thursday, Fenty advisers said his campaign is prepared to release ads that would attack Gray's record, but they would not say when that might happen.
Mo Elleithee, Gray's senior campaign strategist, said his campaign is "bracing for an onslaught."
"When you look at his performance in these debates, his tone is becoming increasingly negative, increasingly angry," Elleithee said. "That shows you are worried, and it's a reflection of what we expect to see on the airwaves soon."
But Gray appeared to fire the opening shot in the ad wars this week. His campaign unveiled a YouTube ad knocking Fenty by highlighting his response to a woman upset about the city's unemployment rate and lack of affordable housing. "I didn't do the job I'm supposed to," Fenty tells her on video from a story aired on WRC-TV (Channel 4).
With $568,000 raised as of June 10, Gray has tried to use free media and the straw poll victories to generate enthusiasm. Although pleased with the Ward 4 win, Elleithee called the Gray campaign "the underdog" and said it faces an uphill battle to counter Fenty's financial advantage.
As the campaign moves away from straw polls and into a broader electorate, Fenty's advisers say the mayor will prevail. "Most regular people know nothing of [straw polls]. Most of our people said, 'I can't get over there. I'll see you Sept. 14,' " said Ben Soto, a longtime Fenty friend and campaign treasurer. "It's like a scrimmage. . . . To win or lose means nothing."
Bill Lightfoot, Fenty's campaign chairman, called the straw poll voters "disgruntled," saying that former mayors Sharon Pratt and Marion Barry attended in support of Gray. In his attacks, Fenty has connected Gray to the city's financial crisis in the 1990s by noting that Gray was then director of the Department of Human Services.
"Those are the people angry with Adrian. They turned up to vote last night," Lightfoot said. "It was a return to the '90s. They were disgruntled. They were in control then, and they want to get back in the fire."Taking credit
While voters cast their ballots Wednesday, the Ward 4 Democrats held a forum at the church. Fenty, encouraged by supporters such as Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), assailed Gray's record nearly every time the mayor answered a question.
During the rowdy event, Fenty accused Gray of being unethical because he was investigated for using his council stationery in 2004 to solicit a $20,000 donation from Comcast for the D.C. Democratic State Committee and for allowing work to be performed on his Hillcrest home by a contractor who had business before the council. The Office of Campaign Finance cleared Gray in both instances.
Gray took aim at Fenty for supporting a D.C. voting rights bill before Congress that would have restricted the city's ability to set its own gun policy.
The most heated exchange came in response to a question about affordable housing. In touting what he called the 11,000 affordable units built or preserved by his administration, Fenty accused Gray of trying to take credit for some of administration's successes.
"They are very good at criticizing the mayor for everything," Fenty, his voice trembling, said of the council. "But watch how many ribbon-cuttings they show up to. Watch how many groundbreakings they show up to."
Gray said, "Actually, I show up to these groundbreakings to see how many of these projects you take credit for which you had absolutely nothing to do with."'What happened to you?'
Fenty was also forced to answer a question about his personality from WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin, one of the panelists.
"Mr. Mayor, what happened to you?" Plotkin asked. "Did you have a personality transformation? You were warm, accessible, open, and now people accuse you of being . . . difficult, autocratical and even tyrannical. What happened to you as a human being the last four years in terms of your personality?"
In a response that echoed his campaign theme of getting things done with a touch of humility, Fenty promised to "bring more people into the process" and to "listen" more if he is elected to a second term. But he said he would not apologize for a style that he says has shaken up the District bureaucracy.
"You didn't criticize us for not getting results," Fenty said.
But many Ward 4 residents were not convinced.
Some straw poll attendants who identified themselves as city workers and contractors were wearing Fenty stickers. They did not want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs or contracts but said they voted for Gray.
Willie Cook, a Gray supporter who voted in the straw poll, said that he tells his Takoma neighbors about recreation construction contracts awarded to firms with ties to Fenty and that he gave Fenty and Bowser an earful when they canvassed his block.
"They had the nerve to come on my porch and ring my bell," Cook said. "I said, 'I don't want anything to do with you. . . . You think you own this town. You think you can do what you want to do. You think you can give your buddies contracts.' "
When Cook learned of the results Thursday, he said, "I'm just so high. I'm calling everybody. But I'm not going to take any solace in the straw poll. Fenty is out working every day."
Staff writer Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.