As Vincent Gray weighs choices for divided D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee calls election results 'devastating'

Mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray charts the course ahead for D.C. the day after defeating incumbent Adrian Fenty in the democratic primary.
By Tim Craig and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 6:29 AM

On his first day as the District's presumptive mayor-elect, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray said he plans to spend the next two months trying to "heal" a city that seems sharply divided by race, class and geography.

One key question is whether he will try to retain D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, a polarizing figure who openly denounced the outcome of the election Wednesday night in remarks at the Newseum.

"Yesterday's election results were devastating ... devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.," said Rhee, who was hired in 2007 by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and, like Fenty, is deeply unpopular among the District's African American population but strongly supported by whites.

"We cannot retreat now," Rhee said. "If anything, what the reform community needs to take out of yesterday's election is now is the time to lean forward and be more aggressive and more adamant."

Although he handily defeated Fenty in the overall vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary, Gray and the mayor split the city's eight wards evenly. In the District's most racially homogenous neighborhoods, Gray won by 4 to 1 margins in black areas and Fenty won by 4 to 1 in white areas.

Although Fenty emphasized that he will remain engaged for the remaining 100 days of his term, Gray--who faces nominal opposition in the November general election--will immediately face a series of challenges that will help define how he might serve as the District's sixth mayor.

Gray continued to decline to say whether he would seek to retain Rhee, who said during the campaign that she could not imagine working with Gray. Rhee did not criticize Gray directly in her Newseum remarks. She was noncommittal when speaking with reporters earlier Wednesday about her future plans.

Gray said Wednesday that he will reach out to Republicans, independents and Democrats who didn't vote for him to assure them that he will not "turn back the clock" to the era of inefficiency and corruption that many associate with earlier D.C. administrations.

Over the next two months, Gray plans to hold town hall meetings in all eight wards, highlighting his "one city" campaign theme and his reputation for soliciting a broad range of opinions before making decisions. Gray also unveiled a Web site where residents can leave him messages.

"We are going to be moving full speed ahead," Gray said outside the Washington Court Hotel, where he slept after he celebrated his nine-point win over Fenty. "I look forward to that, but I also look forward to people holding me accountable."

Concerns about approach

Gray also faces questions about whether his collegial, collaborative approach can work in a city where voters appear deeply divided over what they expect from their local government.

Although about 80 percent of voters in majority-black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River supported Gray, an equal portion of residents in affluent, predominantly white areas of Northwest Washington voted for Fenty. The results suggest that the District, long a city of economic extremes, remains split over how best to achieve effective government, financial stability, education reform and safe streets.

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