By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 11:38 PM
Democratic mayoral nominee Vincent C. Gray kicked off his getting-to-know-you tour Tuesday night in the welcoming Ward 5 - second only to his Ward 7 home turf in the number of votes cast for him in the September primary.
Gray (D) will hold town hall meetings in all eight wards in the next three weeks as he campaigns for the Nov. 2 general election.
Though he faces no formidable opponent and incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has endorsed him, Gray's biggest obstacle appears to be winning over the mayor's supporters. With the election a month away, there is increasing buzz surrounding a write-in campaign that has morphed from a "Run, Fenty, Run" Facebook page into a formal political action committee dubbed Save DC Now.
On Tuesday night in the packed auditorium of the Community Academy Public Charter School in Ward 5, Gray said the series of town hall meetings is an effort to bring residents together with his campaign theme of "One City," even though some people think the city's divisions will never be mended.
"That doesn't mean you should stop trying to achieve it," he said.
The 1,000-seat auditorium was mostly filled with residents from all parts of the ward, including Michigan Park and Bloomingdale, as well as those who live in other wards. Among those in the crowd, some of whom lined the walls and stood in the back of the room, were campaign workers and volunteers for Gray and low-level members of the Fenty administration.
Gray sounded as much like a candidate as a likely mayor as he fielded questions and comments about everything from educating deaf children in public schools to the homeless to bike lanes and streetcars to taxes.
Though Gray said his background in human services helps him understand the social crises facing the city, he added later that "everything is on the table" when it comes to taxes and cuts in light of the city's budget deficit.
"It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be painless," he told the crowd.
Gray also told the audience that he welcomed criticism. "I invited you to the party. As my parents would say, come on in, the water's fine," he said.
The biggest crowd response of the night came after a 13-year-old Hardy Middle School student lamented the removal of principal Patrick Pope. She rattled off several problems at the school, centered mostly around class scheduling.
Although Gray said he did not understand why Pope was removed, he said he would not micromanage the school system. "I do think people are owed answers on why changes are made," he said.
Gray appeared to take a couple of digs at the Fenty administration. At one point, he said it helps to have a "human touch," seemingly a reference to concerns that Fenty lacked empathy.
Gray, 67, will continue his tour Thursday at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in the less-friendly Ward 3, where Fenty won 80 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary. The write-in effort, which can tap into Republican and independent voters who could not participate in the primary, could have a strong showing in Ward 3.
With leaflets, social networking and word of mouth, the grassroots group led by Fenty loyalist and Ward 4 resident Ellie Anderson could lead to a symbolic vote of no confidence in Gray from a significant percentage of the electorate. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city where the primary leads to a presumptive winner and there is no Republican on the ballot, Gray's campaign is concerned that his supporters might not show up at the polls in November.
Gray was asked what he would do to combat the write-in campaign. He said with laughter that his strategy was to hold town hall meetings so people could get to know him.
The results of the Sept. 14 primary mirrored polls that showed a city starkly divided by race, with predominantly black wards 4, 5, 7 and 8 going for Gray and predominantly white or gentrifying wards 1, 2, 3 and 6 going for Fenty. The council chairman and former Ward 7 council member must walk a delicate line of pursuing the support of his critics while not alienating his supporters.
A Washington Post poll showed in August that a majority of both black and white residents thought Fenty had brought needed change to the city. But African Americans were more concerned with the economy and jobs and thought the mayor did not understand their problems, was not trustworthy and was unwilling to listen to different points of view.
Gray drew on that disenchantment in Ward 5, a majority-black community known for its working-class neighborhoods and home to Catholic and Gallaudet universities. The community carried the brunt of the Fenty administration's efforts to close and consolidate schools and has the third-highest rate of unemployment among the wards in the city.
Gray said the city currently has a "strange" problem: more jobs yet higher unemployment. Throughout the evening, he touched on his plans to address the issue, ranging from looking into creating police and fire academies at high schools to enforcing the city's First Source law, which requires firms doing business with the city to hire residents.
Gray's biggest test of his tour is likely to come in Ward 3 on Thursday. Despite overall concerns from all voters about Fenty's brusque management style and secrecy, the wealthy, predominantly white area became focused on the single issue of public education and the potential loss of schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee if Gray won.
During the primary campaign, Rhee stumped for Fenty and repeatedly said she did not think she could work under Gray.
Mo Elleithee, a Gray campaign adviser, said the Democratic nominee simply wants Ward 3 to "hear him out."
"I expect it to be just as engaged, but a crowd that is going to size him up," he said.