Every election campaign is a process, an ongoing ebb-and-flow epic, punctuated by candidate forums, straw votes, polls and news. Campaigns also heat up at various times, beginning with candidacy announcement, going through polls, attacks and counter-attacks, policy debates and the waning days running toward the climax and voting.
In the case of the District of Columbia primary — the Democratic Party primary, which in this city is tantamount to the election in November — that would be September 14. A lot has happened already.
Four years ago, a young, ambitious Ward 4 councilman named Adrian Fenty was taking on veteran and heavily favored city council chair Linda Cropp, criss-crossing the city hellbent on knocking on every door of every house. Cropp and her managers weren’t paying close enough attention and the result was a devastating victory for Fenty, winning every precinct and ward in the city. He brought with him a new chairman — Ward 7’s Vincent Gray — and other new faces, including Harry Thomas Jr. in Ward 5, Mary Cheh in Ward 3, At-large Councilman Kwame Brown and Tommy Wells in Ward 6.
This time around, things seem a little resonant of the previous run: Fenty is once again facing a city council chairman in self-dubbed candidate Vince Gray, who finally entered the race in the spring, prodded by supporters and a polled dissatisfaction with Fenty’s style and way of operating.
But it’s also different: where the 2006 election seemed almost dreamily sleepy and below the radar in the summer months, this race has a daily, electric and strange feel to it, covered almost 24-7 by a blogosphere that never lets up. Gray has polled well, but there have been no recent polls. He’s won big citywide straw votes, although straw votes, because of their size, are rarely true indicators of results. The campaign has turned surprisingly negative, with periodic outbursts of anger and hostility flaring up. With Gray’s mayoral candidacy, the new chair will be either Kwame Brown or former D.C. Councilmember and mayoral candidate Vincent Orange, after Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans chose not to run. The Brown vs. Orange choice now seems like slim pickings to some observers, especially after news that Brown carries an unpaid $50,000 credit debt and owns a boat called Bulletproof.
And all that is before last week’s firings of 241 teachers for “poor performance” under a new and still controversial evaluation program called IMPACT launched by Michelle Rhee.
Over the last few days, we peeked in the candidates at a Hotel PAC forum, at the Penn Quarter Association forum for non-mayoral candidates and a Ward 2 Democratic straw poll.
Under the prodding of moderator and WRC reporter Tom Sherwood, Fenty and Gray engaged in some heated exchanges notable for what appeared to be genuine anger on Gray’s part. When the mayor in a boilerplate statement thanked the Hotel PAC “for this opportunity to debate the issues,” Gray responded in turn by saying angrily, “You’ve had lots of opportunities to debate the issues. You just haven’t shown up.” He called the mayor’s failure to show up at a recent education forum “shocking … That’s his issue, for heaven’s sake.”
When the mayor again criticized Gray for his human services gig in the 1990s, Gray said “what in the world could you possibly know about the 1990s?”
At the Penn Quarter forum, Brown and Orange both touted themselves in different ways: Brown talking endorsements, including several organizations around the city and “all of my fellow councilmen,” Orange touting his experience on the council and his rise from a poor family. In the at-large council race, Clark Ray came across as experience-hungry and energetic, Phil Mendelson as experienced. Tommy Wells touted his experience and progress in educational reform, which he’s supported. Challenger Kelvin Robinson promised to push for more choices in education. The former chief of staff to Mayor Anthony Williams proved articulate, vocal and knowledgeable, though without highlighting failures, it’s always tough to topple an incumbent at the ward level, and Wells seems anything but complacent.
At the Ward 2 Democratic straw poll in Thomas Circle, it was politics and campaigns as theater. While supporters showed their signs outside with a sea of bobbing blues and grays held high for drivers to see (with much honking ensuing), Gray and Fenty appeared one after the other to give their stump speeches and engage with supporters. Fenty, it turned out, won the vote by about a 30-point margin, enough to breathe a sigh of relief, but not big enough to free himself of worry.