At D.C. mayoral debate, Fenty foe Gray steps effectively into front-runner role

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, right, and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray at their debate at the Newseum in Washington.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, right, and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray at their debate at the Newseum in Washington. (Nikki Kahn/the Washington Post)
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By Robert McCartney
Thursday, September 2, 2010

It started at noon but still felt like a prime-time debut for D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray. His debate with Mayor Adrian Fenty on Wednesday marked Gray's first prominent public appearance since Sunday's Washington Post poll finally persuaded much of the city that Gray is actually, truly, firmly on track to become the next mayor.

In the spotlight's full glare, Gray achieved his pre-debate objective to be statesmanlike and "look mayoral."

Fenty often looked either petulant or apologetic. He was still stuck in his dilemma that many voters believe the city's headed in the right direction but dislike how the man driving those changes has gone about it.

While the challenger showed more gravitas, however, some of the potential weaknesses of a Gray administration were also on display. It's fuzzy how he would pay for all the promises he has made to broaden education reform, add job training and build more affordable housing. He also remains painfully vague about whether there's any chance he would keep Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and it took a follow-up question after the debate to clarify that he's leaning toward keeping Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

Beginning the final run before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, which is decisive in the heavily Democratic District, Gray went into the debate in a political environment utterly transformed by the Post's poll showing him with a 17-point lead over Fenty among likely voters.

Now everyone, including Fenty, accepts that Gray is the front-runner. Although the council chairman is not naturally charismatic, and at age 67 is 28 years older than the mayor -- Fenty pointedly mentioned his own "high energy" -- Gray stepped into his new role effectively in the debate at the Newseum organized by Washington Post Live.

Gray was tough but measured in his criticisms of the incumbent and sprinkled in some humor. When Fenty predicted that Gray would place all the blame for high parking fees on the mayor and none on the council, Gray drew laughter by saying, "I want to congratulate the mayor on being a mind reader."

Gray deftly handled the sensitive question of why there's such a big racial divide in the campaign. The poll showed he draws overwhelming support from African Americans, while Fenty enjoys a large edge among whites. Gray shifted the topic from race to economics: "There are some people who are relatively comfortable and want to continue on the same path. There are many other people who feel completely left out of what's going on in the District of Columbia."

Gray showed command of the issues, at times even to excess. Only an expert would have understood his arcane description of how to encourage developers to build more affordable housing. But he concluded those comments with words that any voter could understand: "It took 2 1/2 years to get the regulations out of the Fenty administration in order to move forward with that. We have lost hundreds of opportunities to make affordable units available in the city."

On the other hand, even the most creative policy wonk would be challenged to find enough money in a slow economy to fund all the initiatives Gray has outlined. On education, for instance, he wants to continue current reforms, expand vocational and technical training in the high schools, raise funding for charter schools, improve the city's community college and increase adult education to help the chronically unemployed. To pay for it, he wants to save tens of millions of dollars by moving special education students out of costly private schools and back inside the public system.

Special education does indeed need to be overhauled, but that's a difficult undertaking. I question whether it can yield enough to do everything else Gray wants.

Parking rates offer a good example of an internal contradiction in Gray's rhetoric. On one hand, he criticized high parking fees as "outrageous." Moments later, he said the city needs "a forward-looking policy that gets people out of automobiles."

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