Fenty pledges to 'change some things' in TV debate
"We know that we've got to change some things in the next term," Mayor Adrian Fenty told a regional television audience Wednesday morning -- his most forthright admission to date that his personal style has seriously alienated the voters he's counting on to give him that next term.
The comments came in an hourlong televised debate with challenger Vincent Gray on cable network TBD (formerly NewsChannel 8). The debate, in part, signals a transition in the mayoral campaign -- from rowdy, all-comers mayoral forums to a series of more intimate, more civil one-on-one debates between Gray and Fenty.
This tilt was indeed more respectful, more wide-ranging and more substantive that virtually any of the prior matchups. But little either candidate said was especially novel or surprising for those who have closely watched the campaign. The candidates sparred while seated around a coffee table with host Bruce DePuyt; Fenty, wearing a blue-suit/red-tie power ensemble, often took notes on a scratch pad while Gray, in a gray striped suit and lavender tie, assumed a more relaxed posture. Neither man pointed or much looked at the other during the course of the debate.
Fenty did have one advantage: Four of his
30-second 15-second ads played during the commercial breaks.
DePuyt launched the debate with a discussion of jobs and economic development -- especially in communities east of the Anacostia River where unemployment approaches 30 percent. Fenty touted a series of new development projects and recreation centers in Wards 7 and 8 and talked up his education reform initiatives as a long-term solution to joblessness.
Gray said Fenty was taking credit for projects launched before his term in office and said he wasn't doing enough to create jobs for D.C. residents. "The real barometer for people is being out of work," Gray said, calling high unemployment rates evidence of a "failed economic development effort."
Turning to education, Fenty seized on Gray's refusal to say whether or not he'd keep controversial schools chief Michelle Rhee as a "major difference" in the campaign -- calling his position "very telling in how much educational reform he would be willing to stomach."
DePuyt asked Gray if he agreed with Fenty that Rhee has been "transformational."
The transformation, Gray said, started with the council's approval of a mayoral takeover of the school system. Rhee, he added, "has led progress in our schools" but he said the challenge is "how we institutionalize education reform in our city so people recognize this is a sea change. ... Inevtiably, everybody's gone. Adrian Fenty's gone, Vince Gray is gone, Michelle Rhee is gone, everybody is gone."
Fenty and Gray moved on to spar over the city's budget -- in particular the fact that Fenty-proposed and Gray-approved spending plans have drawn hundreds of millions of dollars out of the city's "fund balance," or accumulated savings.
The spending, Fenty said, represented hard choices made during hard times.
"To talk about this budget without talking about the economic reality is not to understand how management works," he told DePuyt. "When I ran for mayor in 2006, I told people we weren't going to raise taxes. I told people we were going to live within our means. I had no idea that we would have these tough times that we are having economically." Fenty said he'd managed the budget "as responsibly as any place in the country."
Gray said his options for changing the Fenty budget proposal were limited, given the two-month period the council has to modify it. And he crucified Fenty for overspending his budgets in several agencies.
Fenty admitted the overspending but turned the question back on Gray, putting focus on his time as director of the city's human services department from 1991 through 1994. "Unlike the 1990s, when agencies overspent their budget and no one then came back and found solutions," Fenty said, "we find solutions."
That segued into a discussion of the Summer Youth Employment Program, which was overspent this summer for the third consecutive year. The D.C. Council voted last week against extending the program for a seventh week.
Gray called the summer jobs debate "emblematic" of an interbranch relationship gone battery-acid sour. He noted that he has not had a one-on-one meeting with Fenty in more than seven months. "You cannot run a city that way. There's always going to be tension between the executive and the legislature ... but there has to be communication."
The summer jobs question turned into an examination of Fenty's governing style, which many observers fault for Fenty electoral troubles. And the mayor admitted he needs to do some work, not that it would have helped save the summer-jobs program: "Anybody who criticizes me and says the mayor could do a better job including people, the mayor can listen better, I think all of those are valid criticisms. It's absolutely something I've got to work harder on in my next term." But, Fenty said, no "nicety" would have convinced the council to extend the program.
After a commercial break, Fenty was even more forthright: "We know that we've got to change some things in the next term. I talked about making sure that we're communicating better, that we're listening better. One of the things that's just obvious about me is, I focus so hard on just going 100 miles an hour getting things done. As councilmember, I think it was OK. ... As mayor, you've got to make an adjustment. I did not make that adjustment like I should have."
DePuyt put the personality question to Gray: "Why should we risk all of this progress just because some people have soured on Mayor Fenty's personal style?" he asked.
Said Gray: "People feel closed out, they want inclusion. ... I don't think there's a risk to the progress. I think in me they have someone who will include them in their government and people who will continue progress, make progress." He touted his role in passing mandatory early-childhood education and establishing a community college for the city.
Only at the end did the nasty bickering common to previous battles re-emerge -- after DePuyt asked Gray about the irregular award of tens of millions in parks dollars to contractors with close personal ties to Fenty.
"Cronyism at its worst," Gray called it.
Fenty, after delivering his standard defense of the deal, trained his sights on Gray. "The chairman's been critical of me, I'll return the favor," he said before explicitly casting doubts on Gray's executive stint at DHS.
And, he said just before DePuyt said goodbye to the TV audience, "If you really want to see cronyism, look at the lottery contract" -- a reference to the well-politicked procurement that the council long refused to approve.
"Which I recused myself from, Mr. Mayor," Gray retorted, and the back-and-forth continued as the cameras faded.
WAMU-FM has scheduled a live broadcast debate with hosts Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood for Aug. 18. The Washington Post, in conjunction with WAMU and WRC-TV, will also be hosting a one-on-one debate in the coming weeks.
August 11, 2010; 1:17 PM ET
Categories: Adrian Fenty , DCision 2010 , The District , Vincent Gray
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