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

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.

Gray answered the question about race by shifting to a discussion of economics. As mayor, he said, he would focus on the plight of unemployed residents, especially in wards 7 and 8 east of the Anacostia River, a population that he said the mayor has neglected.

"It's not a racial issue, it's an economic issue," said Gray, adding that "this government and this mayor have not done anything to help get people back to work."

Fenty tried to contrast his record on improving student test scores and building recreational centers with Gray's service as head of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s under Mayor Sharon Pratt. Fenty also sought to tie Gray to council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

When Fenty was allowed to ask a question of Gray, he read a recent quote from Barry in a Post story in which he vowed to seek the "spoils" of a Gray victory. Fenty asked the chairman how he would respond to demands from his broad coalition of supporters, including Barry.

"That is an easy question," Gray said. "You always make decisions based on the best interests of the people." Gray said he would not be "responding to Barry" but to the 70,000 people Barry represents in Ward 8, one of the poorest sections of the city, with an unemployment rate of nearly 30 percent.

Heading into the debate, Gray's advisers said his challenge was to appear like a leader ready to take over as mayor. Gray came across as confident, but at least twice he got bogged down in bureaucratic lingo as he explained his policies on affordable housing and overhauling the juvenile justice system.

There was a clear distinction between the candidates when it came to leadership style. Fenty pointed to the people he has hired for the city's top jobs, including Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Transportation Director Gabe Klein, as evidence of his effective management skills.

But Gray took issue with many of Fenty's appointments to boards and commissions, saying they were unqualified. Many of the appointments have been held up by council objections, an obstacle Gray said could have been overcome by better communication on the part of the mayor. "I would have loved to have had a partnership with you, and I certainly have tried, but you refused to meet with me," Gray said. "We could have done better than that, and you could have done better than that."

Fenty, who said Gray is partly to blame for the fractured relationship, interjected, "You, too."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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