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Mary Cheh's endorsement of Vincent Gray is a hard sell for Ward 3 voters

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; B01

When D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) endorsed Council Chairman Vincent Gray for mayor last week, a lot of her constituents were shocked and dismayed. "I've gotten more negative than positive reaction, that's for sure," said Cheh, whose ward is predominately white and well-to-do, and a stronghold of support for Mayor Adrian Fenty and his bid for reelection.

For the first time in years, Cheh told me recently, Ward 3 is starting to feel good about the city. And they attribute that good feeling to reforms made by Fenty during his first four years.

Many white folk had been in a funk since 1994, when Marion Barry won reelection for a fourth term as mayor, following his release from prison on a drug possession charge, and told them to "Get over it."

The Fenty campaign has made sure that they hadn't, stirring up fears that Gray would take the city back to the "bad old days."

Cheh's mission, then, with less than a week before the Democratic primary, is to persuade them otherwise, get the progressive-minded residents of the ward to join Gray's "One City" movement, appreciating that progress and integrity are not mutually exclusive.

"What I say to them is, yes, it's true; Fenty has done some good things and deserves credit," said Cheh, who, like Fenty, was elected in 2006. "But he has also spent down our money. We are at our credit limit and he is precariously dipping into reserve funds. He's also created a very toxic political environment, alienated all groups that should be partners as we go forward. He has built in obstacles to his own continued success."

Enter Gray, a 67-year-old elder of city politics whose life's work is rooted in charitable service -- as director of the city's Department of Human Services in the 1990s and more recently as director of Covenant House in Southeast Washington. He also represented Ward 7 on the D.C. Council before being elected chairman.

A gentleman, Gray's personal kindness has sometimes been mistaken for weakness, his deliberative legislative style as a sign of indecisiveness. And that's when those who have underestimated him learn about his jujitsu style of politics, practiced compassionately most of the time, that can break through bureaucratic obstacles -- or bring a hard-charging political opponent to his knees.

Cheh's effort to reach out to him across the two great geographical divides that separate their wards by race and class -- Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River -- has a healing quality all its own.

"Fenty made progress because he inherited a surplus of resources, money and goodwill, and he used it up," Cheh said. "Now we need someone who can reweave the social fabric that he ripped apart and take us to the next level."

Cheh is under no illusions, however; it's going to be a hard sell, even with her experience as a public interest lawyer and former middle school soccer coach and referee.

Gray's de facto opponent in the race is Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is most popular in Ward 3 and has indicated that she will quit if Fenty loses. Cheh shares her constituents' enthusiasm for Rhee and hopes that she will stay no matter who wins.

"When I go into the schools, I notice a new energy and excitement, a sense of mission and growing confidence that something good is happening," Cheh said.

And yet, if the reform is so fragile that it can't last without Rhee, then was it really reform or just an illusion? Even if she stays, progress is likely to stall -- if it hasn't already.

According to a recent Washington Post poll, nearly six in 10 black Democrats see Fenty as caring primarily about upper-income residents; more than four in 10 see him as disproportionately concerned about whites in the District.

Whatever euphoria is being felt in Ward 3, it's not happening east of the river. And Fenty seems incapable of addressing it. In predominantly black wards 7 and 8, where he carried 54 percent of the primary vote four years ago, just 14 percent of Democratic voters there favor him over Gray.

Of course, whites are not likely to be guilt tripped by such sentiments. Marion Barry tapped that out a long time ago. But not caring what black people think of Fenty is not the same as not caring about the quality of life in black neighborhoods.

Nobody can say Ward 3 doesn't care about the rest of the city.

"One of the reasons I came out for Gray is that he is committed to improving schools, and I know he's smart enough to do it in a way that makes people throughout the city feel like we are all in this together," Cheh said.

Remember, Ward 3 voters put her in office. And chances are good that her bid for reelection Tuesday will succeed.

Whether or not she succeeds in making the case for Gray, it would have been worth the try.

E-mail Courtland Milloy at milloyc@washpost.com.

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