Gray captures Ward 6 straw poll in contentious vote
With 218 of the votes—or 56 percent of the ballots cast by registered Ward 6 Democrats at the forum and straw poll—Gray won the straw poll but not the Ward's endorsement, which needed 60 percent of the vote. One hundred and fifty-eight ballots were cast for Fenty, giving him 40 percent of the votes; 31 ballots were challenged, four were cast for mayoral hopeful Leo Alexander, and one went for candidate Sulaimon Brown.
The final tally became official around 11 p.m., nearly two hours later the Ward 6 Democrats expected to have a final count to announce. At about 9:30 p.m., the ballot counting process stalled abruptly when the Fenty campaign challenged a stack of 10 ballots that volunteers for Gray had collected from seniors who could not walk into the polling station.
Gray campaign manager Adam Rubinson argued vocally and angrily that to collect the ballots in question, Gray volunteers had followed a process that was formulated by the Ward 6 Democrats. First, Candace Nelson, a Ward 4 co-coordinator for Gray, and other Gray volunteers brought index cards that seniors had filled out with their names and addresses to the voter registration table in order to confirm the seniors' registration status. The volunteers were then issued ballots, Nelson said, to bring back to the seniors, who were sitting on two buses that the Gray campaign had chartered to bring them to the event. Finally, Gray volunteers brought the checked ballots to the ballot box inside Eastern Market.
Because the 10 seniors who voted were all members of a group of 32 seniors who the Gray campaign had bused to Eastern Market on two separate charter buses, their ballots prompted accusations from Fenty's campaign that Gray volunteers were too involved in the collection of the ballots for the votes to be legitimate. Ultimately, Ward 6 Democrat Chair Charles Allen ruled that the counters would hold the ballots in provision in case the vote became close. Allen would not disclose who the 10 seniors had voted for.
But Allen did not reach his decision without hearing intense protest from Gray's side. When it was still unclear whether the seniors on the buses would need to stay for a chance to recast their votes, Rubinson became so heated that when he asked Allen whether his campaign should hold the buses, he effectively backed Allen into a room behind the ballot table.
Calling the event, "the most disorganized straw poll ever," Rubinson bitterly told reporters, "I've never seen a straw poll ever that changed the rules in the middle [of the vote]." To Allen, he said that depending on how he chose to handle the contested ballots, his actions could be considered "fraud."
Allen responded to the night's events in an email. He wrote, "While I understand Mr. Rubinson got caught up in the heat of the moment, it was unfortunate that his campaign put in jeopardy the integrity of these 10 ballots. Contrary to his claims, the process to assist seniors in balloting was not followed. At the same time he was protesting, one of his campaign workers inappropriately had 10 ballots in their possession. The Ward 6 Democrats moved quickly to remove these ballots from the process and maintain the integrity of the evening’s election.”
Meanwhile, Gray volunteers became agitated with Fenty campaigners who were filming and photographing the exchange between Allen and Rubinson. Fenty volunteers also heckled Rubinson. "It's not September 14," one said. "What are you worried about?" Gray volunteers also charged that members of the Fenty campaign had photographed the seniors on the buses and have used photos of voters in the past for "voter intimidation" tactics.
The altercations concluded a mayoral candidate forum that had already become heated several times that night. During the forum itself, Eastern Market overflowed with easily agitated Gray and Fenty supporters. With three times as many people standing around the walls of the auditorium-like building as seated (the fire marshal informed the organizers that they were at-capacity well before the event began), candidates were forced to shout over the echoing din of 500 voters—and that only riled up their supporters in the audience. By the end of the forum, both Fenty and Gray were yelling at all times, and they were often drowned out by cheers or boos. Uncomfortable bickering between the two camps broke out frequently among the audience.
The forum included mayoral candidates Leo Alexander, Fenty, Michael Green, Gray, Sulaimon Brown, and Ernest Johnson.
Fenty touted his ability to develop the city and complete projects, and closed by roundly panning Gray and his campaign. Gray did not discuss job creation and education reform as much as he has had at previous forums. Instead, he criticized Fenty and his record.
Gray said that Fenty had helped close the budget gap "with every fee and fine in sight." Citing parking, a perennial frustration in D.C., he said, "You better have nine rolls of quarters in your pockets if you want to park on the street," to overwhelming cheers.
Fenty, meanwhile, accused Gray of "unilaterally cutting street cars." When he said, "Listen, everyone, this is a forum about facts and results," he was drowned out by booing. His closing statement was addressed entirely to Gray. "How in the world can you blame me when you have voted for every one of my budgets?" he asked. "How can you pretend to criticize what my government does when you come to every ground breaking I'm at?" In a reference to Gray's refusal to say whether he would work with D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee he said, "How can you refuse to take a stand on the most important issue in our city today, education?"
On Wednesday, Allen said he was pleased with the debate.
"We were thrilled with the candidate forum last night," he wrote in an email. "It was one of the most robust and lively forums this season with nearly 500 people attending and 400 votes cast. The turnout and energy demonstrates Ward 6 Democrats are paying close attention to the choices on the September 14th ballot."