D.C. Mayor's Race A Matter Of Style

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Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty entered office being touted as a rising young Democratic star. Now, he's in a tough race for renomination in Tuesday's primary. Most polls show his challenger, City Council Chairman Vince Gray, in the lead.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Many here in Washington, D.C. say the district is in far better shape since Adrian Fenty became mayor four years ago. But recent polls suggest this Tuesday's Democratic primary is about more than results. Most show Fenty trailing his opponent, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

NPRs Allison Keyes reports.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ADRIAN FENTY (Mayor, Washington, D.C.): All right.

ALLISON KEYES: On a gorgeous morning, a small forest of green and white Fenty signs danced in the sunlight, as the mayor made a triumphant visit to a neighborhood that strongly supports him.

Mr. FENTY: Good morning, everyone.

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning.

Mr. FENTY: Good morning.

KEYES: With a strong national reputation and a record that other mayors would be proud of, many expected Fenty to coast to re-election. But instead hes in a battle, mostly because of what some call an arrogant, aloof and aggressive style of leadership. Lately hes been acknowledging those complaints.

Mr. FENTY: Were promising to continue those results, continue to driving hard. And we know that we could always be more inclusive. All right? And when we in this campaign - just like we did in the last two - commit to doing something, we will make it happen.

KEYES: David Shaw, a supporter and stay-at-home dad, says Fentys positives outweigh his flaws.

Mr. DAVID SHAW: Like him or not and he does have his shortcomings in his style the city has lower crime and the schools are getting better. You may not like how that happened, you may not like how it was done. But for the first time - and I've been here for 22 years as long as I can remember, there seems to be some kind of forward motion.

KEYES: Much of that forward motion, at least for many white voters around the city, involves schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Her brand of reform and her hard-charging style are getting attention from education advocates around the nation. Her platform includes layoffs, the performance-based firing of hundreds of teachers, and shuttering almost 30 schools. Meanwhile, enrollment has stabilized, and test scores are creeping up.

Lisa Harlan, who has an 18-month-old daughter, is among those who say Rhee is why they're voting for Fenty.

Ms. LISA HARLAN: To me, the most important issue is schools. I have a young daughter, and I really like Rhee. And so actually Fenty will get my vote because of Rhee.

KEYES: But a recent Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of black Democrats think Rhee is a reason to vote against Fenty in a city where more than three-quarters of the public school children are African American.

In fact, polls show that Fenty's opponent, D.C. council chair Vince Gray, has a huge lead over Fenty among black voters. One of them, Ernest Suesbury, says the issue isn't Fenty's style or attitude. It's about results.

Mr. ERNEST SUESBURY: Exactly. Look at southeast. I mean, the unemployment rate is 38 percent there. I mean, thats crazy. Thats almost half of the population there.

KEYES: Yesterday, a triumphant-looking Gray strutted into his campaign headquarters grinning.

Mr. VINCE GRAY (Chairman, Council of District of Columbia; Democratic Mayoral Candidate): They need to vote for number one on their ballot, Vince Gray to be the next mayor.

(Soundbite of applause)

KEYES: He greeted a room full of volunteers decked out in blue-and-white T-shirts, bustling around with signs and loudspeakers and working phone banks. Gray shared his optimism with reporters.

Mr. GRAY: Every poll which has been published thus far has indicated that were ahead. The lead is widening.

KEYES: Gray has been telling anyone who will listen that he plans to bring this city, one divided by this acrimonious campaign, back together.

Mr. GRAY: Well, I feel very energized. It's wonderful to get out and talk to people, and it's great to walk down the street, and people honk their horns and, you know, wave. Theres a lot of enthusiasm at this stage, and I'm very delighted to be a part of the enthusiasm being restored to this city.

KEYES: On paper, and on the issues, there's not much difference between the two candidates. It seems to be a matter of style. And yet in this majority-black city, where both candidates are men of color, voters seem to be split according to race or class. But nearly everyone agrees that the great fanfare and good will that swept Fenty into office four years ago is mostly gone.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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