DC Council chairman has legitimate shot at unseating incumbent Fenty in Washington mayor race

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DC Mayor faces stiff challenge in re-election bid

WASHINGTON — The man who runs Washington is in danger of losing his job in a hotly contested election, but the post that’s up for grabs isn’t president. It’s mayor.

The winner of the election will have to deal with the city’s serious problems: high poverty rates, high unemployment and epidemic numbers of people with HIV or AIDS. And because Congress oversees the city there’s always an extra layer of bureaucracy.

“The mayor of the District of Columbia is a governor, a county executive and a mayor all in one,” said former Mayor Marion Barry, who ran the city from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 1999. “It’s an excruciatingly difficult job … A lot of the solutions to your problems are out of your control.”

This year’s contest has turned unusually nasty, with accusations flying between the two Democratic front-runners: Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is seeking a second four-year term, and Vincent Gray, chairman of the 13-member D.C. Council. Still, the main differences between the men seem to be personality and what they have to say about the city’s schools.

There’s no Republican seeking the post in a city where three-quarters of voters are Democrats, so whoever wins the Sept. 14 Democratic primary has a lock on the general election in November. Early voting began Monday. Three other Democrats are running, and the primary winner will also face a green party candidate.

Fenty, 39, a former councilman with a law degree from Howard University, snagged The Washington Post’s endorsement and points to low crime rates during his time in office. Gray, 67, ran an organization serving homeless youth before being elected to the council six years ago. He touts his experience as council chairman and has benefited from an anti-Fenty sentiment.

An early August poll found the two men within 3 percentage points of each other, within the poll’s margin of error. But a more recent Washington Post poll showed Gray leading Fenty 49 percent to 36 percent among all Democratic voters.

Gray’s formidable challenge comes despite his raising only about $1.3 million for the race, compared to $4.7 million pulled in by Fenty.

Each candidate, meanwhile, accuses the other of cronyism. Gray says Fenty steered a parks contract to a friend; Fenty accuses Gray of improprieties with a contract for the city’s lottery. Gray supporters call Fenty arrogant, and Fenty promised in a recent advertisement to be more inclusive.

Beyond those accusations, however, a key issue in the race is improving the city’s public schools, long regarded as some of the worst in the country.

Fenty, the city’s youngest mayor when elected, hired another young reformer, Michelle Rhee to turn around the schools. A former Teach For America teacher in Baltimore, Rhee founded a New York nonprofit that recruits and trains teachers. But her tenure as superintendent has been controversial. In October, she laid off nearly 400 school employees. In July, she fired more than 200 staff members rated “ineffective” under a new evaluation system. Despite backlash, Fenty has supported her.

“The schools are getting better,” he said at a recent forum. “The schools are headed in the right direction.”

Jack Jennings, the president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, said students have indeed shown gains in reading and math scores from 2006 to 2009.

But Gray’s campaign says the improvements are small and that students are just learning how to take a test.

Gray has refused to say whether he will keep Rhee, saying if he wins he will sit down with her and see “whether we can work together or not.”




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