At debate, D.C. mayoral hopefuls Fenty, Gray promise a more inclusive government

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Council Chairman Vincent Gray faced each other two weeks before the mayoral election in a Washington Post Live debated moderated by The Post's Eugene Robinson.
By Tim Craig and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 1, 2010; 11:01 PM

Adrian M. Fenty, who became mayor as a dynamic young council member who would bring a new urgency to reforming the District government, acknowledged on Wednesday for the first time that he may lose the job that voters in every precinct in the city chose him for in 2006.

"If you do not find it in your hearts to forgive me and give me a second chance, I will have no one to blame but myself," Fenty said at the end of a one-hour debate with challenger Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, at the Newseum.

Fenty pleaded with the city's voters in one of the last debates before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary to "forgive" his mistakes and give him another chance to create a more inclusive government. "If you believe like I do that we can never go back to the dark old days of the past . . . I ask you to believe in me again," he said.

Trailing by double digits in a recent poll, Fenty repeatedly returned to the theme that has dominated his campaign in recent days, his acknowledgment that he has made "mistakes" and his pledge to "change."

But it was Fenty's wife, Michelle, a lawyer who has avoided the limelight, who most powerfully expressed the pain she said the mayor has felt as black residents, individually and in a Washington Post poll, portrayed Fenty as out of touch with African Americans. After the debate, she was twice overwhelmed by emotion as she described what she and the mayor have felt in recent days.

"It hurts. This is his city, and these are his people," she said, surrounded by reporters standing to the side of the stage. "It's so painful to hear that people think he's arrogant. As his wife, I'm here to tell you it's absolutely not true."

But Fenty's decision to apologize to former supporters, a strategy that began two weeks ago, has overtaken the message many observers say he should be stressing to connect with voters: his record of improving schools, cutting the homicide rate and streamlining city services.

During the hour-long debate, Gray said Fenty's apology was not "a change of heart, it's a change of strategy." The chairman presented himself as a mature leader who would work to repair the hard feelings caused by what he said were the mayor's shortcomings, including a go-it-alone approach. Gray said he would be a "partner" with the public and other government leaders to ease divisions among residents and address the city's economic disparities.

"It is time we bring collaboration, integrity and sound management back to the mayor's office," Gray said at the debate, sponsored by The Washington Post with media partners WAMU radio (88.5 FM) and NBC4. WAMU broadcast the debate Wednesday evening, and it will be carried on NBC4 at noon Thursday.

Pressed by questions from the debate panelists, the two leading candidates for mayor disagreed on a wide range of issues, including parking-meter rates, the city's unemployment rate and the future of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Gray tried to take on the mantle of front-runner, appearing relaxed and at times chuckling at Fenty's retorts. In contrast, Fenty at times appeared irritated, underscoring the challenges he faces in the final two weeks of the campaign.

When the candidates were asked about divisions in the city, where the Post poll showed that blacks heavily favor Gray and whites are strongly in support of Fenty, the mayor said some people had been "left out of the process" by his administration. "It is a lesson learned," he said.

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