D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on Wednesday apologized for his aloof management style, vowing to do better by the city’s residents as he tried to use the latest one-on-one debate to cut into the considerable polling lead that D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray is riding into the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.
The two men also took several questions at the start over D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Mr. Gray again deflected questions about whether she would stay or go under his administration, while Mr. Fenty defended his appointee as someone who “took off 100 mph to fix the system.”
Down in the polls and trailing his rival in endorsements and straw polls, the mayor acknowledged that some of the hard choices made by his administration have alienated some voters who supported him four years ago, when he won every precinct.
The mayor said he wished he would have been “more inclusive,” especially on education and matters related to Ms. Rhee, and called the criticism of him “a lesson learned.” But he said that if voters give him another chance, he will listen.
“In moving fast, we gave the perception that we have left people behind,” said Mr. Fenty, who asked voters to look at his record and “believe in me again.”
Mr. Gray scoffed at Mr. Fenty’s claims about his style, made throughout the hour-long debate, calling them “insincere” and saying it’s not “a change of heart; it’s a change of strategy.”
Mr. Fenty has fallen considerably behind Mr. Gray in the latest poll after being nearly even just two weeks earlier. The survey, released Sunday by The Washington Post, showed Mr. Gray leading by 49 percent to 36 percent among the city’s registered Democrats and by 53 percent to 36 percent among likely Democratic primary voters.
Union leaders and city employees, as well as candidates in other races, attended the hourlong faceoff at the Newseum in downtown Washington. The auditorium was at about two-thirds capacity, with pro-Gray buttons, T-shirts and signs appearing to outnumber the Fenty paraphernalia.
Some of the most stinging remarks from Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty came in response to questions about political patronage, but the first three questions were on a topic that has followed the two candidates all election season: the chancellor.
Mr. Gray, who repeatedly has refused to say whether she will stay or go, was asked, “How will you go about finding a replacement for Michelle Rhee, whether she quits or you fire her?”
“First, I’ll talk to the current chancellor,” Mr. Gray replied, adding that “this is an impossible time to have such a conversation.”
Mr. Fenty retorted by saying, “What is needed is leadership. … Saying whether you will keep Chancellor Rhee.”
Often criticized for excluding the public in public education decisions, Mr. Fenty defended himself and Ms. Rhee by saying the chancellor did not waste time to turn around a long-troubled school system. Ms. Rhee achieved many of those goals, the mayor said, citing lower dropout and higher graduation rates as examples.
“The opening of schools was a model of excellence,” Mr. Fenty said.
But he defended his record, saying, “All of the errors that I have made have been errors of commission,” rather than omission.
Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty also traded barbs on statehood and affordable housing and accusations of political patronage.
The two men accused each other of political back-scratching.
Mr. Fenty noted that Mr. Gray had a city contractor build a wrought-iron fence around his home, a story broken in The Washington Times.
Mr. Gray responded by mentioning that Mr. Fenty has been under fire because a fraternity brother has won city contracts. The challenger said he would end such patronage as mayor, vowing as the debate wound down to “bring an end to pay-to-play politics.”
Mr. Gray and Mr. Fenty are scheduled to appear Friday morning in a live debate on TV station WTTG, Channel 5.
Leo Alexander, who is running a distant third in the Democratic race, said he was not invited to Wednesday’s forum or the one sponsored by Channel 5, the city’s Fox affiliate.
“These people are freezing me out,” Mr. Alexander said.