Gray off to good start in winning over skeptics

By Robert McCartney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 8:57 PM

Maybe it won't be so hard to unite the city after all.

Not long after his victory in a primary that split the District along racial lines, presumptive mayor-elect Vincent Gray appeared to have no trouble winning over an overflow crowd at a town hall meeting Thursday in the predominantly white ward that voted most strongly against him.

Gray comfortably fielded questions on topics ranging from schools and the budget to parking meters and bike lanes. His command of the issues even impressed people who'd voted for Mayor Adrian Fenty. His passionate calls for statehood for the District drew a standing ovation.

Gray's performance was a positive omen and confirms something that I and others have suspected: Once Fenty's supporters get over their hurt and give more attention to the man who beat them, they won't be so anxious about having come up on the losing side.

"I'm feeling pretty good about it," Molly Frost, a George Washington University professor who voted for Fenty, said after the Ward 3 forum at St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Tenleytown. She praised Gray's "very appropriate answers," especially his strong statements in favor of continued education reform.

Valerie Wheeler, a retired federal worker and Fenty voter, was also favorable. "I thought he explained very well what he'd like to do," she said of Gray. "I got to know him today."

There'll be tension and clashes, for sure. Schools, taxes and city patronage, in particular, are issues over which Gray risks permanently alienating the mostly white, mostly affluent neighborhoods that rejected him in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. If the District's performance deteriorates too much in those areas, it could lead some residents to depart, shrinking the tax base.

Some Fenty supporters are complaining that Gray is taking too long to tell the public whether he plans to keep Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Police Chief Cathy Lanier. They said Thursday's crowd Thursday at St. Columba's wasn't truly reflective of Ward 3, which voted 4-to-1 for Fenty. Many Fenty backers stayed away, they said, and numerous Gray supporters from other wards were in the crowd. The audience was mostly white, but by a small margin.

Nevertheless, I think Gray has an opportunity to build substantial support in the opposing camp, because he's still somewhat little known. A lot of people voted for Fenty because they liked what was happening in the city, and they didn't give Gray much of a look, according to Democratic activists in the ward in the District's northwestern corner.

Ann Hume Loikow, a Gray voter and member of the Ward 3 Democratic committee, said people there who knew the most about city government were more likely to have supported Gray than Fenty. Exhibit A, of course, was Ward 3 Council Member Mary Cheh (D), who endorsed Gray even while expecting that her district would vote overwhelmingly against him.

Loikow said the kinds of people who join citizens associations and parent-teacher associations were impressed by Gray's leadership as chairman of the D.C. Council. They were also unhappy with what they saw as the low quality of many mid-level Fenty appointments, such as to city boards, commissions and agencies.

"I think people, if they didn't know Gray already, will be very happy with how qualified the people are that he picks for these jobs," Loikow said.

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