Now that the filing deadline has passed for candidates to toss their hats into the 2010 mayoral race, an intense campaign is shaping up . The two major contenders – incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and City Council Chairman Vincent Gray – have already locked horns over a variety of issues that have long plagued the city. Chief among them is the state of the District’s public education system and the safety and stability of the Metro bus and rail systems.

Ron Walters, retired University of Maryland political analyst, said it looks like Gray is the frontrunner. “I keep looking for signs that Fenty is picking up popular support but I don’t see it,” Walters said. “Instead, I see that Gray is steadily moving ahead and if we had a good survey,” that’s probably what it would show.”

Also in contention for the mayor’s post is former TV reporter Leo Alexander, a small business owner whose platform focuses on attacking the root causes of generational poverty in the District. Alexander, 46, described as a “very formidable” candidate by a loyal legion of supporters, showed in at least one mayoral forum last month that he can hold his own against Fenty and Gray.

“We need to understand that this race is about three candidates and not just about two,” said Deborah Daniels, a native Washingtonian and staunch supporter of Alexander. “Leo is the only candidate that’s really honestly addressing some of the major issues in this city that the other candidates are not addressing for purely political reasons.” Daniels said those issues include lack of affordable housing and jobs. “Leo has a solid plan for improving the District . . . so that it is not essentially a city for the rich and powerful,” she said.

But while Fenty, 39, is in line for a serious challenge from the 66-year-old Gray and Alexander, the contest for City Council chairman – also a powerful position in the city – is poised to become a contest of methods and tactics. At-large

Councilman Kwame Brown, 39, and former Ward 5 Councilman Vincent Orange, 53, will go head to head in the race for Council chairman.

“It seems like a lot of dirty politics are happening in both races,” said District resident and human rights activist Ron Moten. “I just don’t think some candidates are trying to run off their records.”

Moten added that while residents tend to rely on what they’ve seen or heard of Fenty, the “real question” centers on Gray.
“No one really knows at this point who Vince Gray is,” Moten said. “But with this race they are about to find out, and if they do, he loses.”

As for the Orange and Brown race, Moten said there’s no clear contender at this point. “There are a lot of things going on behind the scenes,” Moten said. “Neither Brown nor Orange are bad guys, but it just so happens that for the moment, Brown has the name recognition,” he said, “and that will end up giving him more pull.”

Meanwhile, the primary takes place Sept. 14 and the general election is Nov. 2.

Because the District is a heavily democratic town with all four candidates themselves, avowed Democrats, whichever candidate wins the primary, is generally the one who coasts into the top spots.

Moton and others acknowledge the excitement generated by Gray’s entry into the race, but see Fenty’s issues being more about Fenty. Support for Fenty fluctuates between staunch uncertainty among Blacks who overwhelmingly voted him into office four years ago and glowing favoritism among the city’s White residents. Many White residents credit Fenty with successfully lowering the crime rate and luring more businesses and residents to the District.

Gray, according to that core group of political watchers, has far less political experience than Fenty. And as such is hopeful of taking advantage of allegations of corruption and cronyism leveled at the mayor earlier this year in the wake of revelations that several Department of Parks and Recreation contracts had been awarded to Fenty’s friends and associates.

But Jeff Smith, executive director of the schools advocacy group, DC Voice, was thinking more in terms of the city’s opportunity to achieve full throttle educational reformation.

He said that with Orange having served a stint on the governing body and Brown having been a formidable force there for the past six years, residents have seen the best of what both have to offer.

“But with regard to public education reform policy, we shouldn’t expect any surprises regardless of the outcome ,” Smith said.

“I think the mayor’s race does present us with a stark contrast as to what to expect next, whereas clearly for Michelle Rhee, Mr. Gray has been her antagonist on the Council. I don’t think it would surprise anyone though, if won and kept her around.”

In other Council races, two of the four At-Large seats are up for grabs. They include the posts held by Phil Mendelson, being challenged by Clark Ray, and Independent David Catania, who holds one of the two seats reserved for the non-majority party on the Council.

Also facing re-election are Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, Harry Thomas, who represents Ward 5 and Tommy Wells from Ward 6.