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

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.

When Fenty took office in 2007, he began a national search to fill top-level administration jobs, an approach, he said, that helped draw new talent to a government with a long-standing reputation for inefficiency. But Fenty's early hires - and the fact that he chose a city administrator, police chief, fire chief, attorney general and schools head who are not black - contributed to his downfall, leading some African Americans to consider him out of touch with the city's majority population.

Gray said he will not make decisions about his transition or personnel choices until after the Nov. 2 election. But he is expected to begin informal discussions soon about the shape of the administration that will take over in January.

Supporters of Gray and Fenty will watch especially closely as Gray begins what will probably be sensitive discussions about Rhee, who is one of the most admired and most disliked figures in the city. Since taking over the 45,000-student system in 2007, Rhee has won national acclaim for her efforts to boost test scores, refurbish schools and recruit a new wave of younger, more innovative teachers. But she also became a symbol, especially to some black voters, of what Fenty called his "brash" manner and impatience for change.

Rhee and Gray have clashed over her leadership style and pace of reform. Gray declined to say during the campaign whether he would retain the chancellor. Gray warned against any expectation of a quick decision about who will run the schools.

"I don't think anybody believes he has actually made a final decision on this," said one Gray adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk freely about discussions with the chairman.

Despite Gray's support for many of Fenty's school reform efforts, many key Gray supporters, including leaders of the teachers union, are expected to urge that Rhee be dismissed.

How Gray navigates the Rhee decision could set the stage for the rest of his administration, several observers and business leaders said. Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said his organization endorsed Fenty but is eager to work with Gray. Dinegar said some business leaders remain wary of Gray's close ties to unions.

"He's seemingly all in with the unions," Dinegar said. "We're hoping to collaborate. This cannot become a union town."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), a fiscal moderate, said the relationship between the executive and the council under Gray and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), who won the Democratic primary for council chairman Tuesday, would be significantly more collaborative than that of Gray and Fenty. Evans said it would be "good for the city."

Gray's closest advisers are bracing for a crush of inquiries from job seekers, including some who were laid off by Fenty. Lorraine Green, who is chairman of Gray's campaign and is expected to head his transition team, said it's too early to speculate on who will hold key jobs in the next administration.

Evans said the challenge for Gray will be "how to deal with all the groups who come to him saying: 'I supported you. Where's my share?' "

Framework for a team

But the framework of the Gray team is starting to emerge. Many Gray friends and advisers say they expect him to assemble a team including veterans of past administrations and fresh faces.

In an interview with The Washington Post shortly before the election, Gray said voters should look at the type of people who ran his campaign for clues about whom he would ask to serve in government. Several of Gray's top hires in the campaign were unconventional: He hired Adam Rubinson, who had been deputy chief technology officer for former mayor Anthony A. Williams, to be his campaign manager even though Rubinson last ran a campaign two decades ago. Gray's chief strategist, Mo Elleithee, was a veteran of numerous Democratic campaigns in Virginia and around the country but had no experience overseeing a mayor's race. Rubinson could be in line for a job in a Gray administration.

Reuben O. Charles II, 41, a wealthy venture capitalist who lives in Wesley Heights, also could play a key role in a Gray administration, perhaps becoming chief of staff, said people familiar with the campaign. Charles, a native of Guyana who moved to the District three years ago after starting his career in the Midwest, spearheaded Gray's fundraising effort.

Charles helped Gray raise $2 million by aggressively targeting young professionals, many of whom had ties to African and Caribbean immigrant communities.

"If you would have asked me this question three years ago, I would have laughed you out of the room," Charles said when asked whether he would join the administration. "But I would contemplate very seriously if such an offer was raised."

Suzanne Peck, a former chief technology officer of the city, was also a major Gray supporter and fundraiser who could play a key role in the administration.

Others mentioned for top jobs in a Gray administration are better-known locally. Stanley Jackson, who was deputy mayor for planning and economic development in the Williams administration, has been mentioned as a possible city administrator. Robert C. Bobb, who was city administrator under Williams, is another Gray supporter who could return to a city job. Bobb is emergency financial manager of the Detroit public school system and commutes from his home in Washington.

"I have a job to do in Detroit," he said at Gray's victory party. "I have a contract until March. Then I'm back full time."

craigt@washpost.com marimowa@washpost.com

Staff writers Nikita Stewart, Bill Turque and Henri E. Cauvin contributed to this report.

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