Gray defeats Fenty as voters choose conciliatory approach over brash tactics

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 3:40 AM

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray won the Democratic nomination for mayor, as voters rejected incumbent Adrian M. Fenty's hard-charging style in favor of promises of a new, conciliatory approach to governing a fast-changing city.

Tuesday's vote marked only the third time in District history that D.C. residents have ousted a sitting mayor. Gray even beat Fenty in his home precinct in Crestwood with 56 percent of the vote.

At 2:30 a.m., Fenty campaign spokesman Sean Madigan said campaign workers had arranged for the mayor to call Gray conceding the race. "We reached out to the campaign so that the mayor can get in touch with him first thing in the morning," Madigan said.

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At 1:50 a.m., Gray celebrated his 53 percent to 46 percent victory by asking joyful supporters to honor the man he defeated: "Despite our differences, I know well that Adrian Fenty shares our commitment to this city." But Gray supporters, some of them holding signs saying "BYE!" over a photo of Fenty, immediately broke into a loud chorus of "Nah, Nah, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye."

Elections officials said that votes from 15 of the city's 143 precincts had not been counted by 2:30 a.m. but that the results from those areas were unlikely to affect the outcome.

Gray, 67, led nonprofit social service groups in the District before entering elective politics five years ago. He decided only in late March to forsake his easy path to reelection as chairman and instead take on a well-funded, telegenic mayor who boasted of a long list of achievements.

"To those who say you can't have both collaboration and reform," Gray told cheering supporters, "I say you are wrong. . . . We were outraised, outspent and outnumbered, but we were never outworked."

Fenty, the youngest mayor in the four decades of home rule, drew national accolades for his efforts to reform schools; oversaw a dramatic decline in the homicide rate; and led a successful drive to build neighborhood amenities such as recreational centers, dog parks and athletic fields.

But despite the mayor's frenetic, expensive efforts to promote his accomplishments in all eight wards, he was unable to reverse the widespread belief among black Washingtonians that he favored residents of predominantly white, wealthier neighborhoods.

Gray appeared to have beaten Fenty in the city's majority-black wards, rolling up massive margins east of the Anacostia River.

Fenty appeared before supporters at 1:18 a.m., refusing to concede and rallying his troops with a battle cry of "On to victory."

First returns from the election were delayed for nearly three hours as the elections board scrutinized them before releasing the numbers on the city's Web site.

Elections officials said they were afraid of a repeat of the mess that occurred in 2008, when hastily released numbers included incorrect figures because officials improperly downloaded computer memory cartridges from voting machines. For most of the evening, the election board Web site said, "Election Results: Will be available after results are available."

Around midnight, D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) called the late results "ridiculous. The board wasn't prepared. There is no excuse for this."

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said she was informed that elections workers could not figure out how to transfer results to the Internet. Cheh demanded that the board make public all results: "I don't care if they have to hang it on a chalkboard and wait for technology later."

If he wins the Nov. 2 general election, Gray would be the oldest person ever elected mayor of the District. During the campaign, Gray and his advisers tried to use his age and experience to their advantage, arguing that he was the more mature candidate in a race against a mayor who, by his own admission, was brash, hurried and had made mistakes that sapped his popularity.

Gray has soared swiftly through the ranks of the city's political establishment. A former executive director of the Association of Retarded Citizens and Covenant House Washington, he was elected to the council by Ward 7 voters in 2004.

After only two years in that job, he waged a successful campaign for chairman.

Fenty, who ran in 2006 as a dynamic reformer who would unite a city long divided by class and race, maintained broad support in majority-white neighborhoods. Asked whether he had second thoughts about how he ran a race that he'd once been expected to run away with, the mayor said early Wednesday, "No, I have no regrets."

Part of the divide between longtime residents east of Rock Creek Park, who supported Gray by wide margins, and newcomers and voters in more affluent areas centered on Fenty's schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, whose aggressive, speedy approach to reform matched Fenty's pace.

Gray did not directly address Rhee's future, saying only: "Make no mistake -- school reform will move forward in a Gray administration. And it will be done in a holistic way, with a strong, empowered chancellor who works with parents and teachers."

Interviews with voters Tuesday revealed stark differences in how white and black residents viewed their choices. In several well-off neighborhoods in Northwest Washington, many whites who voted for Fenty said they were baffled by polls showing that many black voters wanted a change in leadership even though they agreed the city is heading in the right direction.

In a Washington Post poll two weeks before the election, Gray led Fenty among black Democrats by 64 to 19 percent. Among white Democrats, Fenty led Gray by 64 percent to 28 percent.

"I know some people consider him arrogant and unfriendly, but I feel he had to make some tough decisions and he did it," said Amy Thompson, 42, a white American University Park homeowner who has five children in the public schools. "I feel like city services are running well. I call for bulk trash pickup, and they are there in three days. That hasn't always happened."

But across town in the Lamond Riggs neighborhood of Northeast, Victor Cumber voted for Gray because he felt the mayor had lost touch with the people who put him in office four years ago. "Fenty is trying to do some things for the city, but I don't see him doing things for the people," said Cumber, 58, who is black. "People need jobs, and the kids need to be taken care of. Why did he have to close some schools and get rid of their teachers?"

Many residents expected that a mayor who won office by knocking on tens of thousands of doors in every neighborhood would be accessible and would make certain that top appointments as well as city jobs would go to D.C. residents. But Fenty's failure to attend funerals of some victims of last year's Metro crash or to schedule a meeting with civil rights icon Dorothy Height became public relations debacles.

Although Fenty pumped millions of dollars into summer jobs for youths, many residents complained that he responded inadequately to soaring unemployment, particularly in wards 7 and 8, where the jobless rate far outpaces the national average.

Fenty's most high-profile initiative -- the takeover and reform of the city's long-troubled public schools -- drew equal praise and criticism for the appointment of Rhee and the terminations of hundreds of teachers and central office staff.

The teacher firings, as well as the closings of two dozen schools, affected African Americans most directly. In a Washington Post poll two weeks ago, Gray led Fenty among black Democrats by a margin of 64 percent to 19 percent. Among white Democrats, Fenty led Gray by 64 to 28 percent. Tuesday's outcome suggests African Americans, who have seen their share of the city's population drop from 70 percent in 1980 to just 54 percent today, are still a dominant force in city elections when they rally behind one candidate. Gray, like Fenty a native Washingtonian, campaigned on a theme of "One City," and appeared to be faring better among white voters than Fenty did among blacks.

With no Republican filing to run for mayor, some GOP leaders planned to write-in Fenty's name Tuesday in hopes he might run in the general election as their party's nominee. But Fenty, a lifelong Democrat, said last week that he would not accept the GOP nomination or run a write-in campaign in the general election.

A Gray victory recasts the balance of power in city government, likely giving more influence to teachers, public employee unions and other labor, business and neighborhood groups that endorsed him. Gray campaigned on a platform that included more funding for early childhood education and support for the University of the District of Columbia, increased job training, deployment of more police officers in neighborhoods and a more inclusive approach to school reform.

Much of the campaign, however, centered on a clash of personalities and nasty accusations between Fenty and Gray over who was more ethical. Gray repeatedly attacked Fenty over allegations that he steered city contracts to two of his fraternity brothers. Fenty, in turn, raised questions about Gray's role in awarding a lucrative D.C. Lottery contract to a businessman with ties to some council members.

Fenty also tried to paint Gray, who headed the troubled Department of Human Services in the early 1990s, as a failed manager too closely aligned to former mayors Sharon Pratt and Marion Barry. Gray, who will face nominees in November from the Statehood Green and Socialist Workers parties even if Republicans fail to run a candidate, said he did not intend to make personnel decisions until after that election.

But Gray will probably face mounting pressure to indicate whether he'd try to keep Rhee as chancellor or, if she leaves, whether a transition would take place in the middle of the current school year. Gray said over the weekend that he would try to meet with Rhee shortly after the primary "so we can get a sense where she is, and where I am, and what the chemistry will be with her as chancellor and me as mayor." Some council members moved Tuesday to urge Gray to keep Rhee on for two more years.

A Gray win also throws into doubt the futures of other high-profile figures in Fenty's government, including Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and transportation chief Gabe Klein, who has headed up a drive to add dozens of miles of bicycle lanes to city streets. Gray has acknowledged that Lanier, who has an 80 percent approval rating in some polls, has been effective, but leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police, which was among the first organizations to back the chairman, have frequently sparred with her.

Lorraine Green, one of Gray's closest friends and a former deputy director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during the Clinton administration, is likely to be asked to head up the transition.

Given the city's limited history with transitions and the highly personal contest between Fenty and Gray, some city leaders fear a difficult hand-off.

"Transitions are always, in the best circumstances, difficult," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who was neutral in the mayor's race. "Under these circumstances, they will be very challenging. I expect that the mayor and Vince will both understand the gravity of the situation and put aside personal feelings. The gravity of the issues we confront demands it."

A year ago, almost no one in D.C. government had even contemplated there wouldn't be a second Fenty term. Despite missteps such as his refusal to hand over Washington Nationals baseball tickets that the team had reserved for council members, Fenty was expected to cruise to reelection, especially after he amassed a multimillion-dollar war chest.

Gray, meanwhile, was preparing to run for reelection as chairman, most likely without opposition. But Fenty's standing among Democratic Party activists began to unravel, particularly after the summer of 2009, when the administration clumsily tried to evict a group headed by former first lady Cora Masters Barry from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, which she founded.

When Height and poet Maya Angelou tried to see Fenty to seek reconsideration of the eviction, the mayor cancelled scheduled meetings, outraging many African-Americans, who saw the dispute as confirmation of long-simmering concerns that Fenty took them for granted.

Questions about Fenty's approach to politics extended beyond African Americans and Democratic activists, especially when controversies arose over his refusal to give public notice of his travels to places such as Dubai, Jamaica and Beijing.

The mayor also insisted on driving himself without security, to the consternation of D.C. police. After a Fenty friend was seen chauffeuring the mayor in his city-issued Lincoln Navigator, the mayor was asked if a friend is allowed to drive him. He replied, "He is if I let him."

Later, news broke that the administration had circumvented the council to funnel $82 million in contracts through the D.C. Housing Authority to build a dozen parks, ballfields and recreation centers. Some of the contracts went to firms with ties to the mayor. By November, Gray's friends reported that he was considering challenging Fenty. But given Gray's reputation for being averse to risk, even his closest advisors were skeptical that he was serious about giving up his safe seat.

A Washington Post poll in late January showed Fenty's standing among African Americans had plummeted since he took office. The poll showed Gray with a four-point lead over Fenty among registered Democrats in a hypothetical matchup, and friends said the findings helped prod the chairman to consider the race more seriously.

While Gray mulled over his future, Fenty continued to be dogged by bad publicity. After a record-breaking snowstorm over the first weekend in February, Fenty initially pushed to open schools and city government on Monday morning, enraging some parents and city employees.

A few days later, when WRC-TV anchor Eun Yang asked Fenty when the snow would finally be cleared from city streets, the mayor snapped that the question "doesn't make any sense."

The snow would be gone, he said, when "the temperature gets warm enough that it can melt."

In early March, the council appointed a special counsel to investigate the parks contracts. Days later, Gray got into the race.

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