D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee will hit campaign trail with Mayor Adrian Fenty

By Nikita Stewart and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 4, 2010; B01

Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was planning to team up with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on Saturday morning at a reelection rally in Chevy Chase as Fenty tries to fire up his base for an uphill fight against D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

The rally was planned for Broad Branch Market, within walking distance of the Chevy Chase Community Center. The center is one of four neighborhood polling sites that were to open Saturday for early voting before the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. This is the first year of early voting in the city.

Rhee, who has questioned her ability to work with Gray if he is elected, has been hinting for months that she might hit the campaign trail to show her strong support of the mayor. But Rhee's appearance with Fenty on Saturday would be the first time she was the centerpiece of a campaign event.

Earlier in the week, Fenty said he would continue to reach out to voters in the city's eight wards. The rally with Rhee appears aimed at voters in predominately white Ward 3 who are concerned that the chancellor will not stay on if Gray is elected.

"Her appeal is very, very strong with our core of supporters for school reform. She embodies that. To have her out saying she supports the mayor 100 percent, it motivates our voters," said Sean Madigan, a campaign spokesman.

The event comes a day after Gray, who had a double-digit lead over Fenty among Democratic voters in an August Washington Post poll, unveiled two new television ads: one commending his leadership and another questioning Fenty's "apology tour."

Gray continued Friday to solidify support, receiving an endorsement from the Sierra Club, which criticized the Fenty administration for trying to divert funds from the city's new bag tax that were intended for the cleanup of the Anacostia River.

After a week-long delay, Gray unveiled a public safety plan that would deploy more officers to the neighborhoods, reestablish the position of deputy mayor for public safety and provide vocational training in the D.C. jail to combat recidivism.

"Vince Gray knows that you can't talk about giving our kids a world-class education or attracting businesses and creating jobs, without discussing the imperative of creating safe communities," his plan states. "The quality of public safety services varies by ward and neighborhood -- even by street. . . . Too many children and families are being victimized by violent crime for no other reason than they live in a dangerous neighborhood."

Earlier Friday, Fenty and Gray faced each other at a televised debate on WTTG (Channel 5). Fenty pressed Gray to say before the primary whether he would retain Rhee and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

Gray refused, repeating his previous position that he supports school reform but will not make any personnel decisions until after he has been elected.

The Washington Post poll showed a racial divide in opinion on Rhee, much like the division over Fenty.

Among registered Democrats surveyed, 41 percent of said she was a reason to vote for Fenty, and 40 percent said she was a reason to vote against the mayor. The racial division was stark: 68 percent of white voters polled said she was a reason to support Fenty and 54 percent of blacks said she was a reason to vote against him.

Despite what is expected to be a majority-black electorate in the primary, Fenty has steadfastly backed Rhee and continues to use her performance as an election issue. Fenty appointed Rhee shortly after the D.C. Council approved the mayoral takeover of the D.C. public schools. Since then, Rhee has been controversial locally and widely praised nationally for her efforts to improve schools.

Critics asked whether anything Rhee said about Fenty or Gray would be in violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law that limits the political activity of D.C. government employees as well as federal workers.

Bill Lightfoot, chairman of the Fenty campaign, said the campaign thinks that Rhee's appearance would be in compliance with the law. "As long as she does something on her own time and does not use her official title, the law does not apply," he said.

Rhee did not return a call seeking comment.

Other members of the administration also were expected to campaign with the mayor Saturday.

The campaign also expected to have a large presence in Ward 6 at Eastern Market Day to promote early voting at the nearby Hine Junior High School, one of the four polling sites opening Saturday. The other two sites are Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Ward 5 and the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center in Ward 8.

A fifth early voting site opened Monday at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics offices at Judiciary Square. Early voting hours are 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The Sierra Club's D.C. chapter endorsed Gray despite Fenty's efforts to create bike lanes and promote mass transit. Gwyn Jones, who chairs the D.C. chapter, credited Gray with fighting Fenty proposals to cut funding for energy conservation and tree canopy restoration and with opposing the unsuccessful effort to redirect bag tax revenue to help balance the city's budget.

"Our records show that he has been a 100 percent green voter for his entire tenure," she said of Gray.

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