The Blue and Gray: ‘Vince’ Optimistic About Campaign

July 26, 2011

Vincent Gray isn’t a natural politician.Maybe that’s why it took him so long to decide to challenge Mayor Adrian Fenty, taking on a man who’s much younger, who can tout progress and numerous achievements, who has a Midas-like war chest and who got into the mayor’s chair by winning every precinct in the District of Columbia.

“I like to think things over, carefully,” Gray recently told The Georgetowner. “It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. It’s a big risk. A lot of people were urging me, asking me to run. I’m still getting used to the idea that no matter what happens I won’t be on the council anymore in any capacity.”

Not to mention that if he should lose — and lots of so-called political experts say that’s likely — his political career is pretty much over. Gray, in short, made a decision not to run for re-election as city council chairman (for which he was a shoo-in), a position he had filled admirably by almost any measure.

I met Gray last week at Busboys and Poets (at Fourth and K Streets), which is near his campaign headquarters.

Asked how things were going, the mayoral candidate sounded enthusiastic. “Great,” he said. “It’s going great, really great.” When I suggested that things seemed to be getting testy, as evidenced in some of the exchanges at the Washington Hotel PAC candidate forum the previous week, he nodded. “Yes, they are,” he said, “It’s getting a little tense sometimes.”

In recent days, we’ve watched Gray several times, at the forum, on television, at the Ward 2 straw poll, and in person. If an election campaign is a drawn-out process, something like a boxing match of punches, counterpunches and dancing back and forth, Gray seems invigorated by the process, or at least he’s enjoying himself. For sure, candidates often repeat the same things over and over again, but Gray repeats some of his best stuff with relish.

As in: “When it comes to yard signs, the city’s turning blue, and the other side is green with envy.” It’s a hokey line, but it gets cheers from supporters every time, and a few laughs too. Gray laughs right along.

This an election campaign that seems to have been sparked not so much by a clash of ideas — although there are significant differences between the two — or even a conflict of wills, although that started becoming evident over the past year.

Rather, it’s a contest sparked by a growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the mayor’s way of operating, his style, his approach to dealing with the city council and constituents. Increasingly, Mayor Adrian Fenty, the executive leader as action figure, came to be seen as brusque, disconnected from voters (especially east of the Anacostia River), arrogant and unwilling to work with individuals or groups. Polls in January showed that while people appeared to like what he’d done in terms of school reform, public safety and development, they had serious reservations about his way of operating. Which doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Gray, a man who remains something of an enigma in large parts of the city. “I’ll say this,” Gray says. “I didn’t start out like some other people dreaming about becoming mayor or some such thing from the get-go,” he said. “I wanted to be a baseball player, and I was good at it, too.”

The self-described “through-and-through homey” grew up in a one-bedroom apartment at Sixth & L Streets N.E. He went to Logan Elementary, Langley Junior High School and graduated early at 16 from Dunbar High School, where he played first base, “hit over .500” and was scouted by professional baseball teams.

“It wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “But you know, I still think about it sometimes.” Gray still plays in a city softball league, apparently as reliable a hitter as ever.

In his younger days, politics wasn’t on his mind — he went to George Washington University, studying psychology and getting undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. From the beginning, he was passionately engaged in issues involving people with developmental disabilities. He worked at the Association of Retarded Citizens (now known as the ARC).

“Here’s a moment that affected me powerfully,” he said. “I was given a tour once of Forest Haven, a mental institution run by the District, a horrible place. I saw female residents and patients there, being herded outside, with no clothes, being hosed down. I’ll never forget that.”

Gray led the effort to finally close down Forest Haven, an achievement he still speaks about with pride. In 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly made him Director of the Department of Human Services, in an era when the District government was heading for its lowest points. Fenty and his spokesmen repeatedly criticized Gray for being a part of that administration, whose failures eventually led to the imposing of a Control Board on the city, which oversaw its operations and finances.

Gray chafes at the criticism, especially from Fenty. “What in the world do you know about the 1990s?” he said angrily at the hotel forum. “You have no idea, you need people to tell you what happened.”

To Gray, that period was about public service, which later would include his becoming director of Covenant House, a faith-based organization that serves homeless people and at-risk youth.

“You take pride in things like that,” he said. “I do. Because you can help people.”
He took a keen interest in education, almost naturally, given that his wife Loretta, who passed away from cancer in 1998, was a teacher in the D.C. Public Schools system all her professional life.

Gray, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, still lives in the family’s Hillcrest neighborhood home, pretty much by himself. “I’ve got a cat,” he said.

Hillcrest is in Ward 7, from which, in 2004, Gray launched his first political race for the council seat occupied by Kevin Chavous, who had run unsuccessfully for mayor. Less than midway through his term, he was encouraged to run for council chair by his supporters. “I said at first that maybe they were having a mental health problem,” he said. But run he did, winning a very tough and tense race against Kathy Patterson, the highly regarded Ward 3 incumbent.

He rolled into office with a triumphant Adrian Fenty, and several other new members, including Kwame Brown, Harry Thomas, Jr. from Ward 5, Tommy Wells from Ward 6 and Mary Cheh from Ward 3. It seemed, four years ago, like a fresh slate, a new beginning.

It was Gray who presided even-handedly — and forcefully — over the hearings for the legislation that would allow Fenty to take control of the District schools and initiate the school reforms that would culminate with the selection of Michelle Rhee as chancellor.

“This mayor voted against mayoral control when Mayor Williams tried to get that,” Gray pointed out.

Fenty announced the appointment of Rhee without consulting Gray or the council first; The Washington Post had the news before they did.

Gray dismisses the suggestion that this was an early catalyst for his decision to run. “A lot of things had already happened, and were continuing to happen.” he said. “It was an accumulation of things.”

But the school reform process, which included a delayed, drawn-out contract negotiation and the abrupt and controversial firing of nearly 300 teachers last fall over mysterious budget shortfalls, took its toll on Gray, and increasingly appeared to leave him at odds with both Fenty and Rhee.

“It’s not something I set out to do when I was elected chairman,” Gray said. “At first, a lot of people were urging me to run. And then, well, you feel compelled to do so.”
Gray sees it as another way to serve. He is known as the kind of chairman who will work hard to reach out to others and arrive at a consensus. And there is a way of doing that, as far as he’s concerned. “You respect people,” he said. “You work with them. You bring people together. You give and take. But especially, it’s about dignity and respect.”

He accused Fenty of cronyism during the parks and recreation fiasco last year, saying the mayor bypassed the council while giving contracts to his friends, a matter still under investigation. He’s clashed with District Attorney General Peter Nickles frequently over the issue, and has gone so far as to suggest that Nickles be fired.

Ray, who likes to listen to jazz and Motown oldies, is clearly energized on the campaign trail. He still slams Fenty for a recent no-show. “Here we are,” he said. “We’re going to hold a public forum on education, which is the mayor’s number one issue. He holds the cards, and what happens? He’s a no-show. He doesn’t show up. I was shocked, let me tell you.”

Clearly, there are style issues here. But it goes deeper than that — it’s generational. Fenty will be 40 this December, Gray is 66. If Ray has a political idol, it’s Walter Washington, the city’s first mayor under home rule. “He had such a difficult task, but he stood tall, he behaved with great authority and dignity, and he tried to do what’s best for the whole city. That’s what I intend to do.”

“The question isn’t about firing people, or what I would do with Michelle Rhee. It isn’t about one person. It’s about the whole city. Education isn’t just about test scores, it’s about expanding vocational education and jobs, it’s about early education and special education and charter schools and community schools and equal resources.”

In fact, his education proposals aren’t so much different from Fenty or Rhee as they are more expansive and more inclusive.

“We’ve got to reach out to everybody, we can’t govern from some lofty hill and just do things without talking to people,” he said. “When I’m mayor, I’ll be mayor for the whole city, not just parts of it.”

A Barking Good Time

The Washington Animal Rescue League has a number of dog-related events on deck. Looking to adopt? Check out their dog adoption event at D.C. United’s Aug. 22 game against the Philadelphia Union at 11:30 a.m. League representatives are also on hand Aug. 25 at the Spy Museum’s Community Day, mingling with locals and showing off their prized pooches beginning at 4 p.m. Those eager for a night on the town with their four-pawed pals should head to Paws at the Park on Sept. 1, a cocktail mixer and benefit at the Park Hyatt, 1201 24th St. 6 p.m., $12 at the door for two drink tickets.

Bring your best friend out to J. McLaughlin’s (3278 M St.) dog photo shoot party beginning Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. The party will kick off a five-day photo competition inviting the public to submit photos of their canine companions to win in five categories, including “Best in Show” and “Most Irresistible” (who could resist that?). A $5 entry fee is required, all proceeds going to the Washington Animal Rescue League. From Sept. 27 to Oct. 10 the public will cast their ballots to select the winners, who will take home a J. McLaughlin brand leash, collar and belt (for the owner, of course). Talk about celebrating the dog days in style.

Dog-Friendly Happy Hours

Life, especially in August, is better spent with a cold drink and a good friend. Why not your best friend? Despite a restaurant scene where our furry compadres are often treated as pooches non grata, a generous handful of bars in the District have no problem serving up a dish of water with a dirty martini. Just don’t forget the treats.

Come Friday in Adams Morgan, you’ll find pups aplenty tramping around the vast patio at Adams Mill Bar & Grill (1813 Adams Mill Road). Humans get a few bucks off their suds or tipplers, but the dogs really cash in — the nearby Doggie Style Bakery comes through each week with a healthy supply of cookies, cupcakes and ice cream, all made for canines (and surprisingly nutritious, too).

Wag away, pizza lovers. Red Rocks Pizzeria in Columbia Heights (1036 Park Road) opens its corner patio on weekdays to people and their pooches from 4 to 7 p.m. Drafts are $1, your pal gets a complimentary dish of water, and the pizza is out of sight (sharing crusts, of course, is optional).

Union Pub (201 Massachusetts Ave. N.E.) hosts its weekly Pooches on the Patio on Saturdays from noon until sundown. $5 meal specials — fittingly, the mini corn dogs are a must — are available until 4, and $2.50 rail drinks are on tap all night.

Finally, if you feel like venturing across the river, head to Old Town for the official Doggie Happy Hour at, of all places, the Hotel Monaco (480 King St., Alexandria) from 5 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. With the resident bichon frise Charlie holding court, canine attendees can expect their share of treats and fresh water, along with the chance for a little socializing. The hotel also hosts an annual Halloween event for the more extroverted (or is it thick-skinned?) pups to strut their stuff. Visit for more information.

Listening to the Paintings

Plato advised his students about the dangers of forming strong opinions when they were still very young and inexperienced. One such young Washingtonian learned this life lesson and went on to be a great promoter of what he originally disparaged. The New York Armory show of 1913 was the first time the French Impressionists had a big showing on this side of the Atlantic, and young Duncan Phillips, then an art critic at Yale, attended the show and wrote about what he saw. Phillips, who had never before seen art like this, wrote that it was “stupefying in its vulgarity”. He said Cezanne was “an unbalanced fanatic”, Gauguin was “half savage,” the Cubists were ridiculous and Matisse was “poisonous”. He would live to take back his words a thousand times over by founding what is considered by many to be the first modern art museum in America, Washington’s own Phillips Collection.

Phillip’s passion for art was shared by his brother James, and the two siblings were very close. When James Philips died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, Duncan decided to make a monument in his memory. Phillip’s wife, the painter Marjorie Acker, further inspired him and with the money he inherited from his family’s Pittsburgh steel fortune, the couple traveled the world acquiring the art works that would be the basis for their collection. They displayed their acquisitions in the family home at the corner of 21st and Q Streets, and eventually turned the whole building into a museum and moved to Foxhall Road. The great coup of their collecting adventures was Renoir’s “The Luncheon of the Boating Party”, which Phillips bought for $125,000. This sounds ridiculously cheap today but it was a fortune in 1923. When his rival collector, Philadelphia multi-millionaire Dr Alfred Barnes, who bought paintings by the carload, heard about the purchase, he asked Phillips, “That’s the only Renoir you’ve got, isn’t it?” and Phillips answered, “It’s the only one I need.” He was right. The painting instantly became a big draw and attraction for the museum.

Phillips went on to sponsor and encourage a raft of artists who were ”cutting edge” at that time, including Georgia O’Keefe, Milton Avery, Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Arthur Dove. A special small room in the gallery is dedicated to Mark Rothko and the artist himself participated in planning the space, so it would reflect his paintings as “distillations of human experience”. The small room flooded with Rothko colors creates a emotional context for the viewer, or as Phillips himself said, Rothko’s paintings have the power to expose “old emotions disturbed or resolved.”

Phillips liked to move paintings around so the artists could “talk to each other.” And when you walk through the rooms, the varying visions of artists clash and coincide in a provocative way that fosters what Phillips wanted to teach, “the power to see beautifully”. We’re lucky that this man who grew to see so beautifully himself had the money to build a great collection and we’re also lucky that the young man to attended the 1913 Armory show changed his mind about “modern art”. Now we Washingtonians can enjoy the very personal experience of visiting his collections and communing with the artists as their paintings “talk to each other.” [gallery ids="99185,103269,103275,103273" nav="thumbs"]

Council Candidates Ruffle Tenant Feathers

In a 2010 election campaign where the focus and news coverage seems to be almost exclusively on the combative struggle between incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and council Chairman Vincent Gray and, less so, the two-man race between At-large Councilman Kwame Brown and former Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange, the numerous races for other city council seats sometimes get lost in the shuffle.

The recent D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition city council candidates forum at the venerable Sumner School tried to pack in all the council candidates, including Brown and Orange, into one forum, a process that proved to be both unwieldy and illuminating, a kind of fasten-your-seatbelts night with lots of placards outside while a picture of political diversity emerged inside.

As is often the case with any forums sponsored by particular groups, the focus often tends to be on the interests and concerns of that group. TENAC is a coalition of groups focusing on the concerns of renters, which make up a majority of D.C. residents. That includes protection from landlords, the preservation and extensions of rent control laws, legal representation against landlords, tenant rights issues, development, condo conversions, the need for affordable housing units and so on.

The issues of affordable housing and the rights of tenants is a kind of arena where we-the-people populism clashes with age-old economic interests, usually big and small business developers, construction companies, lobbyists, and property owners with deeper pockets and what are often seen as heartless tactics (hence the mention of the plight of people evicted from their domiciles, their property and belongings strewn all over the sidewalk).

The issues vary throughout the city, and they’re very much a part of today’s economic climate of failed mortgages, a housing market that’s stalled, condos that aren’t selling, buildings that are either being converted to condo status, or re-converted to rental units with higher price tags. TENAC confronts these issues as an advocate for tenants, and that often includes battling developers, promoting mixed use projects and, above all, preserving rent control.

“There is no substitute for rent control,” said Jim McGrath, the dynamic, eloquent TENAC president with a bit of an Irish lilt and bent in his voice. “All of you who came here tonight have a stake in this, and we want to hear from the folks who are running all over the District and their stands on this and other issues.”

You see all sorts of people at forums — the homeowners worried about more taxes, students, bankers, landlords and developers, hotel managers, tourist workers, restaurant owners, teachers and educators, city workers and advocates for the homeless. The rich, the poor, people with a lot, people struggling, people with visions for the city’s future, and people who see things others don’t, people who want to keep what they have, and people afraid they’ll lose just that.

Renters make up a large body of potential voters, but they’re also some of the most economically vulnerable people in the city. They have to deal with regulations and regulators, officialdom and bureaucracies in maintaining some semblance of day-to-day living security. So you’ll find elderly people on fixed incomes living in endangered rent control apartments, or families living in complexes or units where owners have decided to convert to either much higher rents or condominiums. Some of those situations conspire to erupt into all-out legal warfare and tactics in which landlords have been known to reduce basic services in order to drive current renters out.

Lots of people showed up to tell their stories, and even more candidates showed up, some of whom many people around the city are probably not aware. The forum was also hurt by the fact that it competed with a D.C. Night Out event. “National Night Out is Fine,” McGrath said. “Tenants’ night in is better.” Both Brown and Orange were absent at the start of the forum.

Still, here was Ward One incumbent Jim Graham pointing all of his legislative and one-man endeavors to keep rent control and its extensions and efforts to make it permanent, and explaining how elected officials, advocates for tenant rights and realtors work in an arena that is full of “Faustian deals.”

This is a world in which there is—in spite of the claims of officialdom—a decreasing affordable housing lot, and as Ward 3 Councilperson Mary Cheh and others pointed out, the very definition of affordable housing “might surprise you.”

“We are not talking about people at or near poverty-level earnings, were talking high five-figure salaries that qualify.”

It’s a slippery world where the rules change all the time. These forums where the tumult of the Gray and Fenty campaigns have receded open up still another world — where Graham, for instance, has two very viable challengers in Bryan Weaver and Jeff Smith, easily the two best dressed men in the room. It’s a world where Phil Mendelson, facing a tough challenge from Clark Ray for an at-large council seat, doggedly presented himself as a defender of rent control, of renters and vox populis, and where Ward 6 contender Tommy Wells faced his challenger, the eloquent Kelvin Robinson, once again.

It is a different world, this kind of forum—a world of struggling people trying to sort out the words of candidates who seem closer to them than the more large-scale politicians battling for the top spots.

Even so, things happen. An alarm went off. Literally. The building had to be evacuated. As we walked down behind a woman slowed by ailing joints, you could hear a man say “Somebody did this. I just know it. They didn’t want things to go right here.” Firemen walked through the building checking alarms. There was no fire, although there was a lot of fiery oratory.

News From the Campaign

Earlier in the campaign, after a mayoral campaign, TENAC ended up endorsing challenger Vincent Gray over Fenty because “he will look out after tenants’ rights better than the incumbents,” among many reasons offered up by McGrath.

TENAC wasn’t alone in supporting Gray. Both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO offered up their endorsement of Gray, as did the Latino community and other groups recently.

Fenty, on the other hand, received an early and glowing endorsement from the Washington Post which has supported almost uncritically his stand on school reform and his unstinting support in that direction of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who most recently and controversially fired over 200 teachers based on untried and locally developed evaluation systems, a development that so far has been met with almost total silence on the campaign trail.

Lacking regular polls, straw polls, themselves not necessarily reliable, have been used by observers on the campaign trail to try and make some sense of the ebb and flow of the campaigns. Fenty wins Ward 8, surprisingly, has a too-close win in Ward 2, drops Wards 3 and 6, and most recently suffered a startling loss in Ward 4, Fenty’s home district, where long-time residents appeared to rise up in revolt against him.

That straw poll event included by all account a loud, raucous forum, accompanied by imported supporters, some rough back-and-forths between the candidates and their supporters. It’s uncertain whoever’s ahead, but it’s also certain that the level of civility has fallen among the main contenders and their followers and the level of hostility has risen.

Straw polls are notoriously unreliable as indicators, but the Ward 4 results seem to have sent ripples through the media, votes, and the camps of all the candidates. Stay tuned for storms and loud political noises.

Candidates Charge Through Ward 2

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.

The King of the Kastles

Mark Ein, owner and founder of the Washington Kastles, the District’s World Team Tennis franchise, has brought his love of tennis to the nation’s capital, and in doing so has created a home base for the city’s widespread tennis scene and a center for community development.

When I met Ein at Kastles Stadium during the team’s practice, the metronomic clop of tennis balls washed through the empty arena like a summer shower. The players, preparing for an evening match, lent a pensive aura of determination to the otherwise languid silence of the blistering July morning. The familiar sounds were a comfort, recalling countless hours spent courtside working on my elbowy forehand, being reminded to bend my knees, get my racquet back, and adjust my grip.

Ein can relate to these fundamental tennis foibles, but his game has progressed considerably more than mine ever has — or perhaps ever will. Hitting with the Williams sisters in his inner-city tennis stadium might have helped. “If I wasn’t doing this interview with you,” he says, “I would be out right now doing drills with these guys.”

A successful venture capitalist who grew up around the area and a lifelong tennis player, Ein founded the Washington Kastles as part of World Team Tennis only three years ago. World Team Tennis, started by Billy Jean King, matriarch of professional tennis and advocate for gender equality, is tennis most have never experienced. It is played in a co-ed team format whereby each set is a different combination of opponents. A five-set match covers every combination of players: women’s and men’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles.

Nor is the etiquette quite in the vein of typical Wimbledonian cordiality. “It’s tennis in a basketball or hockey environment,” Ein says. “We have cheerleaders, mascots. We play music in between the points. And while 3,000 people [the capacity of Kastles Stadium] is actually a pretty good tennis crowd, it feels like three times that number because everyone’s rooting for your team. It’s a very different kind of crowd.”

It’s an environment unique to tennis that allows fans an opportunity to see their favorite players in a more congenial setting. The audience is encouraged to become part of the game, to interact with the players — root for them, even heckle them — and the players can let their own personalities come through. The Williams sisters, John McEnroe, Anna Kournikova, and Andy Roddick are among the national members that bring their game and their voice to the WTT stage.

For the Kastles, Ein has recruited Serena and Venus Williams as the marquee players, and assembled a veritable “who’s who” of all-star teammates, led by coach Murphy Jensen, renowned tennis personality and veteran champ who knows how to balance athletic discipline with the high-profile exposure of this tournament.

However, what makes WTT a unique institution is that, more than just showcasing competitive tennis, the cornerstone of the organization is bringing tennis into the local community, with a history of working with non-profits and charity organizations. “That’s honestly the core of this franchise,” says Ein. “When I started this, I had a mission statement … To expose tennis to a wider audience, create a center of fun activities in the middle of the city during the summer, help local charitable partners, and bring the city together … I never said win a championship. I never said win a match. It really was using this as the catalyst to create this sort of magnet where we could do all kinds of other great things. And that’s really what drives us.”

Ein has partnered with 35 leading charity organizations through the Washington Kastles. Every evening when the Kastles play a home game, between 100 and 300 children are brought to the match for free. Any fans under the age of 16 get a chance to rush the court after the match for autographs from all the members of both teams. Ein and the Kastles give out a thousand tennis racquets over the course of the season at free youth tennis clinics to children who want to learn the game but lack the means or equipment.

The Kastles host nine of these tennis clinics a season, the majority on the stadium courts in the heart of downtown, where the old convention center once stood. However, they sometimes go into the community to host them in rec centers and racquet clubs. The clinics are led by the players themselves — by the Williams sisters, Anna Kournikova or Murphy Jensen. It allows the star athletes to give back to the community and seems as meaningful to them as it is for the children.

“If you talk to Venus and Serena,” says Ein, “one of the reasons they love World Team Tennis is because when they were eight years old they went to a World Team Tennis clinic that Billy Jean King was throwing. They said it changed their lives forever to see Billy and get to meet her and be inspired by her. And so when they come to town, they do the same for inner city kids in Washington. They’ve done that every year they come. They did it again this year.”

Introducing tennis to youth culture is a critical mission of Ein’s, as well as the WTT league. He believes the fundamentals one learns in the game are resounding life lessons. “It’s the sport of a lifetime, not just because you can play your whole life, but because the lessons you learn stick with you in life,” he says. “Tennis is unique because of its individual nature. It teaches you discipline, self-reliance, problem solving — because it’s you against one person within four lines trying to figure it out. It teaches you strategy. It teaches you to think on your feet. It teaches you to be fit. And these are all fantastic lessons that you can apply to anything you do in life, whether it’s business as I’ve done, or anything you decide to do.”

Ein met Billy Jean King just over three years ago at the US Open tournament. After being introduced, the conversation moved quickly in the direction of organizing a World Team Tennis franchise in Washington. King had long desired a WTT team in the nation’s capital, but had never found the right owner. Until Ein came along.

King upholds a few major tenets within the league that inspired Ein in his efforts to spearhead the project: to promote gender equality — WTT is the only professional sports organization where men and women play together on the same team — make tennis accessible in a community atmosphere, expose new players to the sport in an engaging environment, and introduce tennis as a team sport, creating an entirely new dynamic within a well-established, traditional game. Or, as Ein simply states it, “Make it more fun.”

And while the causa causans of World Team Tennis holds steady, make no mistake that this is still among the highest quality professional tennis one will see outside of the majors. The companionship of teammates and a sense of home turf offense, almost unheard of to the solitary tennis champion, motivates players in fresh and unfamiliar ways.

Unlike most tennis tournaments, where players represent only themselves and fans cheer for good points more frequently than an individual, a WTT match really does function more as a baseball game. The home team will have the fans on their side. “Here, people are rooting for your team,” Ein says. “And that really gets people playing.” No one wants to see the visitors win, whether the Colts are trampling the Redskins, or the Washington Kastles are being defeated by the New York Sportimes.

And then there is the added pressure. In a typical tennis match, the pressure is largely internal. But on a WTT team, team pressure can keep a beaten player from giving up. Letting your team down can be far worse than letting yourself down, and this sharpens the players’ focus. It was this very sense of camaraderie that carried the Kastles to the championship last year.

“We were down three championship points,” Ein explains, crouching in, reliving the memory. “Olga [Puchkova] — who won it for us — she hadn’t had the greatest year. And she was playing … one of the best girls in the league, [Vania King]. And every point Murphy [Jensen] was coming out in between and saying, ‘You’re good. We love you. You’re gonna do this, you’re gonna do this.’ And he, like, literally carried her through. I mean, she was unbelievable, but the team really carried her through.”

Only three years after their founding, the Washington Kastles have a championship under their belt. Most matches in the 3,000-seat Kastle Stadium sell out. Ticket sales and sponsorships are by far the highest in the league — three times the league average and 40 percent higher than the second highest team. “It’s truly succeeded my expectations in every respect,” admits a humbled Ein, who attributes the ultimate and holistic success of the Kastles with the thriving state of the Washington tennis community

“I think D.C. is one of the best tennis communities in the United States,” he says. “I was a ball kid at what’s now the Legg Mason … There’s a long history of people supporting tennis.” With 60,000 adults in the Washington region registered with adult team tennis leagues, the District’s tennis scene would appear to be in its golden age.

To an outsider, tennis can seem beside the point, sluggish, even static. On television, the cameras don’t move, and it’s unnervingly quiet save for a few choice grunts and hollow popping sounds. But to those familiar with the game, that small green court with its clean white lines is the projection of interpersonal triumphs, of unresolved grievances. Surely I cannot be the only one to have stood gracelessly at the baseline, lamenting my hopeless serve and envisioning the superhuman potential unlocked by Sampras, Borg or Graf.

But a tennis player also understands that if you take away the stadium seating and the camera crew, those legendary showdowns between Nadal and Federer that seem to have happened in another world entirely, could have happened down the street at the local swim and racquet club.

Mark Ein and the Washington Kastles balance this experience exactly, bringing the Herculean battles of professional tennis stars down to the community level for all to enjoy. It is overwhelming and encouraging, inspiring and daunting all in the same breath. The season may have just ended, but the local Legg Mason tournament and the U.S. Open are just around the corner, and there are plenty of fair-weather months ahead. Now is a great time to pick up a racquet — and maybe start eyeing some season tickets to the Kastles.

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Maryland Blue Crabs: A Delmarva Summer Send-Off

Whether you’re eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are the best places in town to get some quintessential crab.

A Last Political Parade at Adams Morgan Day

People say the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington is a place where you can find just about everybody – young, old, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, straight, gay, and maybe even Mars people.

Usually they all gather for the annual Adams Morgan Day Festival in September to celebrate the neighborhood’s diversity. This year it was election year, and Sunday’s festival became a staging ground for political theater on all levels.

Sunday, Mayor Adrian Fenty and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, facing a down-to-the-wire battle for the mayoral ticket, both showed up around the same time and in roughly the same place, although they didn’t actually come close enough to bump fists. Their appearances, nearly two hours each, overlapped, and in just less than two days before the election showed off the contrasts in style and approach of the two protagonists of what has become an intense political drama throughout the city.

These weren’t the normally huge crowds you can expect on Adams Morgan Day — it rained throughout the night and sporadic showers had been occurring. Yet there were plenty of voting targets on the move still. At mid-afternoon, there was Mayor Fenty near the gateway to the festival, shaking hands, grabbing photo ops, getting his picture taken with locals, giving “thumbs-up” victory signs, talking policy, answering questions, speaking with residents and media types alike. He was fit, tanned, ready-for-business, repeating his most recent campaign mantra about all the things Gray wouldn’t talk about, about having to make tough decisions, about moving the city forward.

Fenty appeared tireless, and you would never have guessed that he’d just competed in a triathlon that morning. In the home stretch, with early voting and same day registration, nobody was making a real prediction about the outcome, although the most recent poll of two weeks ago showing Gray with a double-digit lead was still echoing loudly.

“There are still people around who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of schools not working,” he told one reporter. “That’s not this administration. We moved forward, and you’re going to get some folks angry, you’re going to get opposition.”

Given the perception that the city is deeply divided along racial and economic lines, he was asked if he might consider resurrecting former Mayor Anthony Williams’ Citizen Summits, which brought all parts of the city together to participate in planning. “Well, I don’t know if we’ll go precisely in that direction,” he said. “But we’re looking at listening tours, at things that will get people involved that will make them feel as if we’re listening, that they’re more engaged with the process.

He declined to offer details. “We’re totally focused on these last days now,” he said. Then he waded into the crowd, toward the mini-donut vendor, but apparently resisted the temptation.

Fenty’s green signs and Gray’s blue signs bobbed along the aromatic festival route from Columbia Road to Florida Avenue. While there had been reports of angry verbal clashes elsewhere, none occurred here. At Madam’s Organ, the popular 18th Street blues and rock club, Gray supporters had parked themselves on a second story balcony, shouting slogans en masse. On that afternoon, the place really was a house of blues.

Further down the route, with Fenty still in the house, Gray made his appearance in the festival, surging forward toward Columbia Road in what looked like a New Orleans-style march, without the actual music. It was slow going. While Fenty’s approach is to somehow touch as many people as possible in a kind of political speed dating, Gray can go through a crowd, catch up with old friends, build new lifetime friendships, and explain in detail his approach to schools or economic development.

It made for vivid, immediate contrast that spoke to the personalities of the two men and their style of doing things, which has become as much a campaign issue as buying votes (accusations on both sides), Gray’s record at DHS, Michelle Rhee, cronyism charges and so on.

Other candidates were here in Ward One, including Bryan Weaver, setting up a basketball booth, and Jeff Smith, challengers to Jim Graham, who was running for re-election here and well ahead in the polls. There was at Large Candidate David Catania, and a local ANC Commissioner, and somebody to sing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” near a karaoke bar.

And there was the dog shooting, which occurred in the early afternoon, and was the subject of a lot of talk along the route. There were a lot of different versions of this incident to be had — most people described the dog as a pit bull, for instance, and the police was attacking people in the crowd. But many people were shocked that the dog was shot in the middle of a large crowd. The dog’s owner, a Dupont Circle resident who had been fostering the dog while it awaited adoption, said he would file a complaint.

School Without Walls Awarded 2010 National Blue Ribbon

Last Thursday, School Without Walls, the D.C. magnet high school, was named a 2010 National Blue Ribbon School. This year only around 300 public and private schools nationwide were granted this distinction by the U.S. Department of Education.

Mayor Adrian Fenty, controversial Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan were among those present for the announcement of the award. With the award comes the recognition that Schools Without Walls has made great strides in enabling its students to achieve, especially disadvantaged students and those belonging to minorities.

Other schools that have earned the award within the last three years are Noyes and Murch, though Schools Without Walls is unique in its partnership with George Washington University. The relationship has enabled juniors and seniors in high school to take college-level courses and get acclimated to a university class environment. 20 such students are enrolled at George Washington currently, with DC Public Schools covering the costs.

Schools Without Walls also boasts a 100 percent acceptance rate of students into four-year universities. This is incredible when you consider that the school only reopened last fall, following renovations that provided the students with advanced I.T. resources and followed green standards. The school now ranks 112 among Newsweek’s top high schools in the country.

DC Water Continues Commitment to Chesapeake Bay

Recently, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) and United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) agreed to a new operating permit that will reduce the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant’s nitrogen emissions to an all-time low. The move is part of an effort to improve the state of the Potomac River and subsequently the Chesapeake Bay.

DC Water was the first company to comply with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s aim of reducing 1985 emission levels by 40 percent and continues to underscore its dedication to healthier waterways.

By reducing nitrogen emissions, local water plants limit the growth of algae, which is responsible for reducing oxygen levels in the water. The new limit, 4.7 million pounds of nitrogen, is almost half last year’s limit and will require the $950 million nitrogen removal facility DC Water has constructed if it is to be met.

Additionally, the updated operating permit sets new phosphorous, bacteria, and trash controls.

Last week, the Washington Post hailed the Potomac River as being “cleaner now than it has been in decades.” Clearly, DC Water believes there’s still room for improvement.