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Fenty-Gray mayoral race centers on style and likeability as much as issues

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 2:04 PM

Mississippi Avenue SE feels like it's having a block party. Horns beep, music blares. Some people wave signs at passing cars while others pull up beach chairs and soak it all in. Chants crisscross the street all day: "Need some change around here! Gray for a change!" "Test scores up! Crime rate down! Four more years!"

The signs and volunteers for Vincent C. Gray for mayor greatly outnumber those for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on this sunny day in Southeast, but Fenty, undaunted by his deflated position in the polls, has waded into hostile territory.

( Michelle Fenty's battle cry )

The mayor who just four years ago won the most sweeping victory in the District's history, prevailing in every single election precinct, now walks a gantlet of shouts, insults and overt acts of disdain. A retired man refuses the mayor's handshake. The head of the city's Minority Contractors and Business Association, Robert Green, shouts at him: "How long you going to keep apologizing? Minority contractors can't get no work." A woman tells Green not to waste his breath: "Don't you know he won't listen because you're not white?" A very loud white man wearing a Gray T-shirt keeps screaming, "Sinclair Skinner, Sinclair Skinner," right in the mayor's face, invoking the name of Fenty's controversial fraternity brother and friend, who has gone from failed businessman to flourishing contractor over the past four years.

Fenty started this visit with a big smile, calling out greetings, but now he steps silently through the barrage, the veins in his head bulging, eyes wide, lips tightened. Finally, a man crosses the street, hand extended.

"My heart was all out for you four years ago," says Yusef Muhammad, still pumping the mayor's arm. "But then you put your back to us."

Fenty doesn't flinch. But his voice is dead serious as he responds: "Maybe if I tell you what we've done, it will open up your mind. The mayor recites his accomplishments right here in Ward 8 -- four new recreation centers, libraries, school improvements, new teachers, fewer homicides. "Doesn't that make you feel a little more open-minded?"

"No," Muhammad says, it does not.

Consensus vs. results

As D.C. voters prepare to go to the polls Tuesday to render a verdict on Fenty, they face two fairly similar visions for the city but two very different styles of leadership. Fenty emphasizes executive power. In 2006, as he constantly reminds voters, he promised energy and action; now, he says, voters should focus on the results, not so much on how he got there. Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, puts more credence in consensus. He believes progress lies in the process, that successful decisions are those that have been methodically vetted with all concerned.

Elections are as much about likeability as ideology or even laundry lists of accomplishments, and Fenty in four years has morphed from the young dynamo with enough confidence to poke fun at himself -- remember the 2006 TV ad in which he puckishly displayed the hole he'd worn in his shoe sole from walking nearly every block of the city? -- to the stern adult who feels compelled to lecture his flock about why he's had to discipline them.

I've had to fire teachers, close schools, bring in top managers from out of town, all for your own good, the mayor tells anyone who will listen. You may not like me now, but surely you'll agree that we're better off. A parent would add, "One day, you'll thank me."

But in politics, unlike in parenting, there is no "one day." In politics, it's all about right now.

'Do you know who Vince Gray is?'

Right now, a quiet man who never held elective office until he was old enough to collect Social Security sidles through the crowd of shoppers at Eastern Market. Most people do not recognize Gray. The candidate sticks his hand out here and there; mostly, he gets quizzical looks. Campaigning does not come easily to him. "It is absolutely energy-sapping to do this day after day," he says. "But you hear people, you meet amazing people."

Gray is aware that to many, he's just one more man in a business suit. Sometimes he plays with this. Tall and polite, he interrupts an occasional stranger in his low, rumbling voice to say, "Do you know who Vince Gray is?"

"Yes," replies a middle-aged black woman, eyes focused on her shopping, not on this stranger.

"Have you met him?" asks the candidate, dressed in a custom shirt with "Vince" embroidered on the cuff, two Blackberrys on his belt.

"No," comes the reply.

"That's who I am," Gray says, and now the woman looks up.

He has her cornered against a poultry counter, and he asks what she's concerned about. She says "Jobs," and he's off. Six minutes later, after a soliloquy on welfare, "TANF regulations" (a welfare program for families with children) and budget debates, and a mini-lesson on what he says is the mayor's failure to consult with the council, Gray finishes. The woman, once again eyeing the chicken thighs, says, "Thank you," and slips away. Gray never quite asks whether she might vote for him.

Schools and jobs

Gray is not the kind of politician who lights up a room. But he connects to voters through his instinctive understanding of just how tightly knit the city can seem. So Gray's first question to most black voters he approaches is, "Where'd you go to school?" When they say, for instance, "Spingarn," he replies, "Dunbar," and then asks them to name great alumni from their high school. If they hesitate, he joyfully reels off names, such as Spingarn's Dave Bing and Elgin Baylor, both of whom played in the NBA (Bing is now mayor of Detroit.)

In contrast, although Fenty is also Washington-born and -bred, voters say something about him feels disconnected. "Power changes people," says Regina Snead, a Gray supporter who worked in a city public school before she says Fenty's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, eliminated her position. "He only cares about his friends and people in Georgetown and uptown, instead of our babies who can't read and write."

Many black voters approach Gray with the greeting, "Lifelong Washingtonian!" What often follows is talk about the city's schools, with Gray saying that teachers deserve better treatment than Rhee and Fenty have given them. Gray also talks about his proposals to boost preschool programs and community college offerings -- plans that his critics say would run smack into the District's harsh budget reality.

Fenty, in contrast, delights in telling admirers of Rhee about her achievements, from new Advanced Placement courses to new athletic facilities to hundreds of young new teachers. But if voters push back about fired teachers or shuttered schools, the mayor explains that he was elected to make change, and that involves pain.

"I apologize to anybody who lost a job," Fenty tells Jackeline Maynard, who complains at a rally in Brookland that she was laid off by the parks department. "I apologize to any of the 2,500 people who've been laid off since I've been mayor. We'd love to keep everybody employed, but we have to run the government and make responsible decisions."

Gray tells voters he's committed to school reform, but he avoids any specifics about whether he'd try to keep Rhee on the job. Mainly, he focuses on the pride many blacks feel in the schools they attended, and the need to improve schools using people already in place.

"I have to send my daughter all the way to Upper Marlboro to get her a good pre-K program," Carolyn Solaru, who lives in Ward 8, tells Gray. "I pay $200 every Friday because I can't send her to Ward 8 schools to pick up all those bad habits, but it's worth it because she's reading and learning Spanish."

Gray tells Solaru she doesn't "need to go to Upper Marlboro. There are a lot of good schools in Ward 8, good teachers." He summons an aide to take the woman's contacts and get her a list of "excellent preschool programs we already have right near where you live."

Fenty and the black community

The mayor's apologies run on TV nearly around the clock, Fenty looking directly into the camera, wide-eyed and penitent. But out on the trail, Fenty can grow flustered by the heat from voters, especially in black neighborhoods.

"I have not been a good communicator," Fenty says over a Vitaminwater at a Georgetown Starbucks. "That is particularly upsetting in the African American community," which still accounts for a slight majority of the city's population. He runs through a list of early, top-level appointments that raised hackles among some black voters -- his police chief, fire chief, schools chancellor, city administrator, attorney general, not one of them black. But Fenty doesn't talk about them in terms of race; rather, he focuses on their D.C. roots (police chief Cathy Lanier, with 17 years in the department; fire chief Dennis Rubin, Washington-born and -bred) and their excellence and energy.

"I told people that it was time to shake things up," Fenty says. "As a candidate, I said we're going to run the government as a private business -- you hire the best talent, reduce positions where you can and hold people accountable."

Fenty says he feels the sense of betrayal around town, and has concluded that "we do not need to completely reinvent ourselves. What I am hearing is that a very critical piece has been left out and that is direct involvement with the people."

That means that in a second term, he would not slow down, but rather speed up: "We will manage time better to move even faster while listening to everyone."

But don't expect a new Fenty. "It's too late for a change of strategy," he says. "I don't think what we're doing now is as much an overhaul as an adjustment. It's not even an adjustment -- it's adding one key item to the list of what we're doing."

Different speeds

Moving through a crowd, Fenty's encounters with voters can be measured in seconds. If someone asks a policy question, they'll get a list highlighting a few actions.

Gray's answers are more detailed, prone to including a comprehensive legislative history of the issue at hand. His answers often go on for several minutes.

Fenty says his campaign style reflects his approach to governing. "As a council member, I was omnipresent, aggressive, brash, never slept," he says. "The whole point of my administration was to bring that energy to the whole government. What's the Fenty style? Identify a problem, charge straight ahead into the problem, solve the problem, people are happy."

But now the mayor says he realizes that that last piece of the sequence has gotten lost too often: "As mayor, if I go full speed ahead and I make the final decision, it looks like I didn't listen."

Gray says going too fast precludes listening and making people feel involved. "Saying you've touched 50 people is irrelevant," he says. "It's the quality of each encounter that matters. It isn't a question of pace. It's a question of process and I think having a process is important. People have to see themselves in the outcome."

The anti-Fenty

To be liked right now, it seems, all Gray has to do is be not-Fenty.

"I thought Fenty was going to be the best thing for the District," says Eugenia Jenkins, who lives in Southeast, works for Marriott and is devoting a big chunk of her weekend to waving signs for Gray. "But once he got in office, he got all arrogant. He doesn't care about certain wards. If you ask him a direct question on the news, he evades the question. It got to where every time he comes on TV, I cut him off. Now he's all 'I'm sorry.' "

But what about Gray, what would he be like as mayor?

"Tell you the truth, I don't hardly know anything about the man," she says. "But I know he'll listen to people and do what needs to be done."

The worry Gray hears most frequently is that as mayor, he'd turn back the clock to a time when the District was the employer of last resort, when the government was so unresponsive that people in nearly every neighborhood were dead certain that the folks across town were getting all the services -- to the era associated in the public mind with Mayor Marion Barry.

An undecided voter, Lonnie Solomon, who lives in the Trinidad section of Northeast, tells Gray that he voted for Fenty last time and respects the progress he's made -- "but I really don't care for him personally." But Solomon also doesn't want Washington going back to the "bad times."

"We're not going to go backwards," Gray promises. Then he asks, "What would help you decide?"

"Jobs, jobs, jobs," says Solomon, who has worked in security but is unemployed.

Gray does six minutes on his economic plan. He says he'll "demand that those who get contracts with the city hire people from the city. A lot of people say that people in certain parts of the city aren't getting what they deserve, and I agree."

Later, Gray says the city is deeply divided, but "it's really an economic divide. Yes, that falls disproportionately by race, but what's really happening is that east of the river, people are exercised about being left out."

Running out of time

With just a few days left, Fenty holds a rally at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast. Gray supporters show up, too, taunting the mayor as he addresses volunteers.

A man in Gray regalia repeatedly shouts a paraphrase from the mayor's closing statement at the last big debate: "If you choose not to give me another term, I have no one to blame but myself."

Fenty stares at the man, to no avail, then asks him not to interrupt. The chanting goes on, and eventually workers from both sides exchange insults while the mayor, his voice now cracking from constant campaigning, tells supporters that "nothing will ever drive me as hard as seeing the people who were brokenhearted by the city I grew up in. I'm fired up." And then his voice softens, and he adds, "We don't have all the time in the world."

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