D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray used school reform to kick off his run for mayor Saturday in downtown Washington, where an estimated 350 people intermittently chanted, "Send Fenty home!"
Several current and former council members were in attendance, including at-large members Michael A. Brown and Phil Mendelson. Virginia Williams, mother of former Mayor Anthony A. Williams, sat in the front row. In 2006, she supported Mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
Several other candidates have announced that they, too, intend to challenge Mr. Fenty in the September Democratic primary, including well-known former TV reporter Leo Alexander. But Mr. Gray's speech targeted Mr. Fenty on schools, which the mayor has said since day one of his administration are his No. 1 priority.
In a lengthy autobiographical speech that touched on crime, jobs and his hard-scrabble beginnings, Mr. Gray told supporters at the headquarters of the Historical Society of Washington that his mayoral administration would provide ethical leadership, "bring people together" and restore real transparency to the decision-making process.
"[W]e need a mayor who understands that the best way to achieve real and lasting school reform is to involve the community -- not impose his will," Mr. Gray said.
With scores of teachers, public safety employees and other city workers cheering him on, Mr. Gray promised to "double our efforts to empower, recruit, reward and retain good teachers -- and, frankly, fire not only bad teachers, but unproductive government employees in any position."
Mr. Gray, a 67-year-old Roman Catholic, is a native Washingtonian who worked in social services before being tapped in 1991 to run the D.C. Department of Human Services. He returned to the private sector to found and run the faith-based Covenant House Washington. Former president of the Ward 7 Democratic Party, Mr. Gray ran his first race in 2004, capturing the Ward 7 council seat. In 2006, he ran and won the citywide chairman's seat, beating his opponent 57 percent to 43 percent in the Democratic primary. He ran unopposed in the general election.
The theme of the Gray campaign, "One City," reflects his promise to govern differently than Mr. Fenty has by building bridges and seeking consensus. His supporters sported T-shirts that said "Character." "Integrity." "Leadership."
As council chair, Mr. Gray, who is forgoing a re-election bid to run for mayor, marshaled his colleagues in 2007 to put education matters under the Committee of the Whole, which he chairs, and into the hands of the mayor instead of a council committee.
Recently, lawmakers and Fenty administration officials have been sparring over every aspect of public schooling as they deliberate the mayor's fiscal 2011 spending plan and a pending five-year deal to give teachers raises retroactive to 2007. The pact includes a merit-pay plan that has national implications, and Mr. Gray questions whether the school system has the money for the merit program and the other raises.
The initial budget battle began last fall, when D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 266 teachers and other school workers, citing budget pressures and cuts made by the council. Then, during school-budget discussions earlier this month, Miss Rhee said the school system actually has a $34 million surplus. But the city's chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi, said that surplus does not "exist."
Mr. Gray highlighted the confusion in his speech on Saturday, citing it as an example of the Fenty administration's management style.
"We read about a school system that can't even figure out if it needs to fire teachers because it has a deficit or give them raises because it has a surplus," Mr. Gray said.