April 1, 2010 at 6:45 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Fenty vs. Gray presents tough choice for LGBT voters

D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray announced this week he will challenge Mayor Adrian Fenty this fall. A third candidate, millionaire developer R. Donahue Peebles, is expected to join the race. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

D.C. City Council Chairman Vincent Gray’s announcement this week that he will challenge Mayor Adrian Fenty in the mayoral race will force many LGBT activists to choose between two strong allies, local activists said.

But as of this week, many of the city’s top gay Democratic activists said they were not ready to take sides in the race, a development that some viewed as a sign that activists have concerns about Fenty.

Gray’s entry in the mayoral contest also opens the way for at least three gay-supportive Council members, whose names have surfaced as possible candidates for Council chair, to enter that race, creating another difficult choice for LGBT voters.

“One way to look at this is it’s a good thing,” said Rick Rosendall, vice president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance. “It’s a luxury to be able to choose among friends.”

Rosendall and other activists have noted that in many parts of the country, the LGBT community still faces elections where most candidates capable of winning are hostile to their interests.

Some City Hall observers are predicting that Gray’s entry into the mayoral race will also prove to be a major benefit to gay Council candidate Clark Ray, who is challenging Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) in the September Democratic primary.

Mendelson reportedly is seriously considering running for the Council chairman post now that Gray is vacating the seat. Should Mendelson run for that position rather than for re-election to his current at-large seat, Ray would be in a far stronger position to win that contest.

Ray has been campaigning for the seat for nearly a year and has lined up support among many LGBT activists. But Mendelson’s strong record on LGBT rights and his leading role in pushing the city’s same-sex marriage bill to a successful 11-2 vote in December prompted large numbers of LGBT activists and rank and file gay voters to remain loyal to him, according to Mendelson supporters.

Ray told DC Agenda earlier this week that he’s heard rumors that Mendelson might be considering running for the Council chairman position now being vacated by Gray.

“I am focused on my race and running my campaign on the issues that I talked about all along — like education reform and reducing crime,” he said. “So that’s where my focus is.”

Ray said he doesn’t plan to make an immediate endorsement in the mayor’s race.

“I think it’s great for the residents of the District of Columbia to have choices,” he said. “It makes for a better process. So I will be just like the rest of the Washingtonians. I will sit back and watch whomever is in the mayor’s race and I will make my decision on whom I think is the best to lead the city in the next four years.”

A Ray-Mendelson race was expected to divide the gay vote, with many political pundits predicting that Mendelson would win the election due to his strong, citywide support.

Mendelson spokesperson Jason Shedlock said Tuesday that Mendelson would have no immediate comment on speculation that he was considering running for Council chairman.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), another longtime supporter of LGBT rights, is also strongly considering entering the Council chairman race, according to Ward 2 political insiders. Others have said that Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large), an LGBT rights supporter who, like Evans and Mendelson, voted for the same-sex marriage bill, is yet another possible candidate for the Council chairman seat.

Gay Democratic activist Kurt Vondran, a former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest gay political group, said political insiders are predicting Fenty and Evans would run as a team for mayor and Council chairman. The two have been longtime political allies.

Lining up against them in a rival slate would most likely be Gray and Mendelson, who are not only allies on the Council but longtime Fenty adversaries.

With this as a backdrop, the Stein Club and other LGBT organizations will be forced to walk a fine line to avoid alienating longtime political friends in the city government, who likely would be needed for future LGBT-related initiatives.

Stein Club President Jeffrey Richardson said the club and its officers won’t take sides in the mayoral race until it holds a mayoral candidates forum scheduled for June 14. He said the club will vote on an endorsement at the conclusion of the forum.

Ashley Smith, vice president of the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Men & Women, said his group has no immediate plans to endorse a mayoral candidate and would assess whether to make an endorsement at a later date.

“At this point in time, it’s an open bag,” he said. “People will need to look at the candidates, including other candidates who may enter the race.”

Rosendall noted that his non-partisan group rates candidates rather than endorses them. He said the GLAA will carefully rate all mayoral and Council candidates based on their known records on LGBT issues and their responses to a questionnaire asking their positions on the issues.

But some LGBT activists point to what they perceive to be a strong feeling of dissatisfaction with Fenty — just as public opinion polls have shown is the case among residents in many parts of the city. A Washington Post poll released in late January showed Fenty’s popularity dropping in all parts of the city over the previous two years.

Blacks changed from a 68 percent approval for Fenty in his first year in office to a 65 percent disapproval in the Post’s January 2010 poll. Overall, the Post poll showed 42 percent of D.C. residents approved of the job Fenty was doing compared to 49 percent who expressed disapproval.

The Post poll did not break down its sample to show the sentiment of LGBT voters.

But gay Democratic activist Phil Pannell, a member of the executive committee of the Ward 8 Democratic Committee, said gay and straight residents east of the Anacostia River, which includes wards 7 and 8, appear to be in agreement in their dissatisfaction with Fenty.

“People east of the river are almost 100 percent against Fenty,” he said. “And I don’t see much of a difference between LGBT people and the community as a whole. It’s mostly because of his personality, but also because folks don’t see any real change in their community.”

Pannell said he won’t back a candidate in the race until the Ward 8 Democratic Committee votes on an endorsement later this spring.

Gay Democratic activist Lane Hudson said this week he is supporting Gray for mayor, becoming one of the few LGBT activists so far to take sides in the race.

“My impression is that the LGBT community is very frustrated with Adrian Fenty for never showing up [at community events] except for the high-heel race, never doing anything to really get down to addressing the problems that our community has to deal with,” he said.

Hudson was referring to a concern raised by some LGBT activists that Fenty has declined to attend most LGBT community events, including meetings of LGBT groups. The mayor has attended an annual Halloween high-heel race on 17th Street, N.W., each year since he took office and has also marched in the Capital Pride Parade each year since becoming mayor. The parade, which draws tens of thousands of participants, is part of the city’s annual LGBT Pride events.

While acknowledging that Fenty takes strong pro-LGBT positions on virtually all issues of importance to the community, many activists have complained that he has declined to take a more visible role in speaking out on issues, especially anti-LGBT violence and hate crimes.

The local group Gays & Lesbians Opposing Violence has complained that Fenty has ignored their longstanding calls for him to deliver a speech addressing the high number of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the city or appear in a public service announcement addressing the hate crimes issues.

‘A very tough call’

Gay D.C. Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and David Catania (I-At Large), like many activists, haven’t taken sides yet on the mayoral race. Both are running for re-election this year, with political observers saying each appears to have a good shot at winning.

Brian DeBose, Graham’s press spokesperson, said Graham is “going to make a formal announcement about [the mayor’s race] in the near future but he’s not prepared right now to make a statement.”

Graham has been a long-time political ally of Fenty, and some City Hall insiders believe he’s leaning toward Fenty.

Catania this week had praise for both Fenty and Gray in their respective roles in advancing the same-sex marriage bill that Catania wrote and introduced last year.

Asked how he feels about having to choose between Fenty and Gray, Catania said, “That’s a predicament I’m facing as a person and as a voter myself because I happen to like both of them as individuals and as public officials.”

“So it’s going to be a very tough call,” he said. “Both have excellent scores as far as I’m concerned on LGBT issues. Both were very early and strong supporters of marriage equality. Both support me in the work we’re trying to do to overhaul the HIV/AIDS Administration.”

While praising Fenty’s actions, both on LGBT and other issues, such as overhauling the city’s public school system, Catania acknowledged that the mayor has “injured himself” on how people perceive him in connection with his personality.

“He’s picked some fights that people don’t understand and they’re hard to explain at times,” Catania told DC Agenda. “I think that’s hurt him in the eyes of some voters, who want in a chief executive, who want in a mayor a different demeanor at times than what we’ve seen demonstrated by Adrian.”

Gay activist and attorney Edward Grandis, executive director of the local business association Dupont Circle Merchants & Professionals, said he does not perceive strong dissatisfaction toward Fenty from Dupont Circle area residents and businesses, where large numbers of gays live.

“In my business circles, I don’t see a large anti-Fenty sentiment,” he said. “And in Ward 2 in general, I don’t feel people are down on Fenty.”

Grandis said he agrees with activists who feel Fenty should have been more outspoken on LGBT issues such as hate crimes, “but I don’t feel most rank and file gays are dissatisfied with Fenty.”

In a related development, the Washington Post reported that millionaire developer R. Donahue Peebles said Monday that he is “planning to run” for mayor, adding a third candidate with the resources to compete with Fenty and Gray.

A Peebles spokesperson told DC Agenda two weeks ago that Peebles supports the city’s same-sex marriage law. But the spokesperson could not confirm whether Peebles supports or opposes a voter initiative, which, if approved, would repeal the gay marriage law. Peebles’ business office did not respond to a DC Agenda request for an interview.

Catania, however, said Peebles expressed to him a commitment to LGBT equality when the two spoke earlier this year.

“We didn’t talk about a referendum or an initiative. That subject didn’t come up,” Catania said. “But unprompted, he did tell me how delighted he was about marriage equality and how much he supported it, how he finds that all of our rights are interconnected. And he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate to deny one group of rights because that same strategy was used against the community that he belongs to.”

Peebles, who is black, has sometimes referred to his admiration of the black civil rights movement.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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