- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

Finally, a horse race that’s worth a wager. The campaign for D.C. Council chairman was about to be an uncontested snoozer until Vincent C. Gray, the low-key Democrat who represents Ward 7 on the council, publicly threw his hat into the ring.

Mr. Gray’s well-timed announcement Friday, during “The Politics Program” with Mark Plotkin on WTOP Radio, substantiated the rampant rumor that the freshman council member would challenge veteran council member Kathy Patterson.

In October, Mrs. Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat, formally filed for the post being vacated by Linda W. Cropp, who is seeking elevation to the chief executive’s suite being vacated by Mayor Anthony A. Williams.

Confused yet? Keeping up with who is running for what in the District these days is like keeping up with who will be displaced by whom by the Washington baseball team that still doesn’t have an owner or a new place to call home.

Although watching the ho-hum candidates’ forums for the mayoral election is about as exciting as watching commuters crawling along the Southeast-Southwest Freeway, the chairmanship race might turn out to be the best or the worst campaign this city has seen.

Will race or class or sex set the stage for the high stakes of winning this important leadership role? Or will this race become a model of what the American electorate hankers for most, a campaign about policies rather than personal attacks?

As one observer said, “This should be a campaign on the issues rather than the fissures.”

At this juncture, the contest pits a white woman from west of Rock Creek Park in the richest, least-diverse ward in the city against a black man from east of the Anacostia River with some of the city’s worst socioeconomic statistics. His ward also is changing and diverse, and is peppered with longstanding middle-class communities and influential political activists.

“Our behavior will set the pace, because I intend to have a presence across the city and campaign on the theme of ‘one city,’” Mr. Gray said yesterday. “That’s how I’ve lived my life in D.C., as a native Washingtonian.”

“I’ve worked for 12 years on behalf of citizens across the city, and my record shows that, and I’ll be running on my record,” Mrs. Patterson said yesterday.

“It’s not geographical,” she said, “to [work to] strengthen schools and public safety all across the city.”

More important, however, D.C. residents can choose from two of the hardest-working and intelligent representatives to sit on the council dais in its history. Each also has a wealth of experience in city governance and politics, even though Mr. Gray has served on the council for just a little more than a year.

I’ll never forget the day we were appearing on WAMU-FM’s “D.C. Politics Hour,” and Mrs. Patterson came prepared with a stack of papers in her arms to publicly challenge the mayor to make a full disclosure of his earnings during his first run for office.

Mr. Gray is another one to earn a reputation for doing his homework, not only as executive director of Covenant House Washington, a place for homeless teens, but also as director of the Department of Human Services under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. He can be credited with bolstering the faltering Democrats in Ward 7, where I once witnessed him orchestrate their meeting like a conductor with the National Symphony.

Unlike Mrs. Patterson, who does not appear to enjoy pressing the flesh, the likeable Mr. Gray is a fixture at all sorts of community meetings across the city.

The novice council member is not telling a tale when he says he was asked to run for the chairman’s seat. Begged is more like it.

“Thank God,” said one city business leader when told of Mr. Gray’s announcement.

His drafters have expressed distaste for Mrs. Patterson’s stoic style of governing, not necessarily the substance. Like Mr. Williams, she can be aloof and abrupt, but she also is astute.

D.C. voters should have long since learned that personality, although it can be an asset, is no barometer to gauge political performance. For those who think either candidate is a shoo-in, don’t lace ‘em up so fast. Contrary to the buzz, this one is too close to call.

And, there is always the possibility that others might join in.

Reading the tea leaves or polling results, council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, has made the sound decision to sit this chairmanship race out. Give him credit for publicly admitting that “I might lose” and staying put in the city’s most eclectic environs.

Still, this predictably hard-charging race will demonstrate just how far the District has come in its transformation from a Tale of Two Towns with 16th Street as the demarcation line between rich and poor, black and white, to the elusive One City.

It would be a travesty if either Mr. Gray or Mrs. Patterson campaigns only to his or her constituencies for this citywide position.

“I can make a commitment to you and to everyone else that that doesn’t happen,” Mrs. Patterson said.

“Everybody’s vote has value,” Mr. Gray said. “I’m committed to the entire city and want us to function as one city.”

Great. D.C. voters have every reason to assume that these formidable candidates will raise the bar. And the voters, in turn, must reach for the higher ground.

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