Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 03/31/10

After months of encouraging speculation, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray this week took the plunge in announcing his candidacy for mayor against incumbent Adrian Fenty.

Gray filed his papers with election officials on Tuesday.

He can pick up petitions to get his name on ballot as early as May 14. He has to turn in those petitions by the close of business July 7.

But meanwhile, there’s much more to do than that.

He needs to organize his campaign.

He needs to raise money.

And he has to come up with a campaign focus that’s more than, “I’m not as mean or cold or dismissive as Adrian Fenty.”

Let’s look at each of those a little more closely.

• The Campaign Staff

Gray is a well-liked, accessible city politician. He’s easy to laugh and has a genuine earnestness that some people say must be fake -- but isn’t. Gray will have no problem putting a campaign staff together. We suspect much of that is already done in his head.

• The Money

Mayor Fenty has raised $4 million. That’s a whopping sum. In the last report, Fenty reported having $3.3 million left in the bank with just under six months before the September primary.

Gray will not raise $4 million or anything close to it. Fenty’s campaign has already scooped up a lot of the big money, and major business groups won’t risk giving to Gray unless they see real weaknesses in Fenty’s effort.

Watch for Gray to raise enough money -- maybe focusing on smaller donations -- to run a spirited sprint rather than a slogging marathon. It'll take less in terms of big contributions if he maximizes both volunteer help and modest contributions from a wide range of voters.

• The Campaign

Here’s where we bring out the cliché “where the rubber hits the road.”

How will Gray run against Fenty, and what will his issues be?

In a nutshell, you could imagine the Fenty forces saying something like this: “Crime is down. Education test scores are up. Schools are more than habitable for maybe the first time ever. Neighborhood development projects, even in this tough economy, are on track, bringing residents new recreation centers, libraries and other city services.”

Fenty, if he is in tune and in touch, will also admit that he has made more than a few mistakes -- the pettiness with council members over nominees, for example, or the gimmick of withholding baseball tickets from council members and their constituents.

He might also mention how he has been ignoring, circumventing and/or co-opting the council members on oversight and budget issues.

Fenty might genuinely say that he has made mistakes but that the city’s going in the right direction. He might stop fussing with reporters and TV anchors -- posturing that makes him look cold, evasive and uninformed.

Chairman Gray, whose leadership style involves lots of thinking and reviewing -- and endless hearings -- will have to figure out how to say he can do better without getting bogged down in petty governmental processes about who did what to whom.

Not long ago on WTOP radio, Gray said he wasn’t calling the mayor anymore because the mayor wouldn’t call him. And when Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee left the ugly impression that many fired teachers were guilty of sex or physical abuse against students, Gray, as leader of the council’s education committee, didn’t call her in and demand to know what the hell she was talking about. He wrote her a letter.

It was only weeks later that Gray was geared up to question Rhee about her controversial statements and other issues, like the Hardy Middle School principal shuffle.

On Monday, when the Gray story was breaking, reporters and camera crews surrounded the courtly chairman and began shouting questions at him. He was good-natured but didn’t answer anyone because he didn’t have to at that point.

Running for mayor and being mayor are two far different ball games.

We’re anxious to see how the thoughtful -- some say bureaucratic -– Gray will fare as he steps onto the campaign fast track.

• Replacing Gray as Chairman

Gray was up for re-election as chairman this year. If he stays in the mayor’s race, it means the field is open for council chairman candidates.

The early names are at-large Council members Kwame Brown and Phil Mendelson. Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans would also like to run, but he’s weighing his chances in a multi-candidate field. He still remembers the 1998 campaign, when he and several council colleagues ran for mayor. The winner that year was non-council member Anthony Williams.

Gray himself had struggled with the idea of running for mayor and giving up the chairman’s job. He likes being chairman. Some of his supporters say he decided that it wouldn’t be worth being chairman if it would mean putting up with four more years of Fenty’s disrespect.

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