The Fall of Adrian Fenty

JESSICA BADER: Somewhat lost amidst all of the Tea Party drama on the Republican side of last week’s primaries was one prominent Democratic incumbent being ousted. Adrian Fenty’s bid for a second term as mayor of Washington, D.C. was snuffed out by Vincent Gray, the head of the city council. In the week since then, there have been a couple of different explanations for Fenty’s defeat, each with some merit.

My initial reaction upon finding out that Gray had defeated Fenty in the primary (which, in a city as blue as DC, is the de facto general election) was that the election had essentially been a referendum on schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, a highly polarizing figure who was not expected to stay on the job unless Fenty were re-elected. It’s safe to say that Fenty and Rhee were not exactly known for advancing the cause of education reform with a conciliatory approach. The teachers’ union, unhappy with Rhee’s decision to fire many of its members, spent heavily to unseat Fenty, while fans of Rhee’s method of school reform saw the election results as potentially fatal to their cause.

Looking at a map of the results, a significant demographic split emerges. Fenty won handily in the whiter and wealthier portion of the city, while Gray dominated in the poor, predominantly black neighborhoods in the eastern portion of the city. It’s interesting to see such a stark split along racial lines in the voting, considering that both candidates were black and not all that far apart ideologically (at least as far as I can tell). The idea that Fenty came to be seen as a symbol of gentrification among both his supporters in the richer areas and his detractors in the poorer ones would go a long way towards explaining this split.

There’s also quite a strong case to be made that, putting policy aside, Fenty was a pretty lousy politician – I don’t think I’d ever heard of a candidate forgoing polls for reasons of stubbornness rather than insufficient funds. Granted, plenty of politicians who aren’t all that good at politics get re-elected, but it’s a lot harder to fend off a strong primary challenge when you’re not particularly interested in understanding and responding to the mood of the electorate.

One comparison that keeps popping into my mind, even though there are quite a few differences, is Mike Bloomberg’s re-election here in New York City last year, in which the mayor squeaked out a narrow win despite dramatically outspending his opponent. Tensions over gentrification and school reform have played a role in New York City’s political landscape, but personality matters as well (especially in an urban mayoral race where there isn’t a strong contrast in most policy areas). Exit polls in 2009 suggested a significant chunk of the electorate approved of the job Bloomberg had done as mayor but voted for his opponent anyway. In this particular case, Bloomberg’s push to have the City Council overturn a referendum on term limits so that he could run again left a bad taste in many voters’ mouths and played into perceptions of the mayor as a bit of a bully, even among those who broadly supported his agenda.

While the challenges of being the mayor of a big city during an economic downturn created an environment not particularly favorable to the cause of Adrian Fenty’s re-election, Fenty also brought some of his problems on himself through poor political strategy and an unwillingness or inability to take a less strident tone on issues such as education. As much as the American public tends to disdain politicians, they also have their problems with the elected official who doesn’t act like one.

JEFF MORROW: The jettisoning of Mayor Adrian Fenty by D.C. voters last week has provided a moment of existential reckoning for the city and of tactical introspection for advocates of urban reform.

Residents are left wondering if there is a D.C.—a single entity whose policies are not a zero-sum tug-of-war between a predominantly white wealthy population and a predominantly black poor population. Reformers question if there’s a way to undertake aggressive, structural reform without alienating vast swaths of its intended beneficiaries.

As Jessica notes, the most vexing observation from the election is that the city’s political divide tracked its demographic divide. The voting split was stark, with Wards 2 & 3 (the city’s whitest and wealthiest wards) voting about 80 percent for Fenty and Wards 7 & 8 (the city’s poorest and blackest wards) giving him less than 20 percent.

The comparison to Bloomberg is interesting and, in many ways, the two are kindred spirits. They brought an ambitious, technocratic, reform-minded spirit to cities with moribund institutions in desperate need of it. They have both, at times, been the focal point of intense municipal optimism.

What separates D.C. and exacerbates the divide underlying the election returns is the particular history underlying the city’s identity politics. Throughout the Twentieth Century, D.C. became home to a large, stable African American population. Much of this was helped along by the availability of integrated employment by the federal and city government (itself under the control of the federal government).

By the 1960s, Washington was already a majority black city with a solid middle class. It was nonetheless directly governed as a fiefdom by a white Congress, all amidst the Civil Rights struggle. Since the victory of home rule in the 1970s, Washington has always had a black mayor, and the city’s civic institutions have been largely African American.

New York is a city too big and too diverse—in population, geography, and history—for any group to claim it as “their city.” D.C.’s history, by contrast, is tied to the history of African Americans in a way it is tied to no other ethnic group.

Mayor Fenty came into office as those demographics were shifting: The black populations is about to fall out of the majority as the Latino population has grown and white residents have, en masse, returned to the city.

To his critics, Fenty became a figure of, by, and for gentrification. Some have gone so far as to suggest the primary was, in so many words, a welcome populist revolt by black D.C. against Fenty’s self-centered, carpetbagging, white yuppie constituency. Whether such a statement is more inflammatory than true is irrelevant. It’s emblematic of the resurgent tension in D.C. over who owns the city, and who is merely visiting it at the other group’s sufferance. (Latinos are largely left out of this conversation, for mysterious reasons. If Julia’s Empanadas ran for mayor, it might win handily.)

School reform was yet another vehicle for that conflict.

Fenty wanted to clean house, an understandable impulse given the abyssmal state of D.C. schools. Michelle Rhee was very much an outsider. He put her in charge, and gave her autonomy. The way things had been done in previous administrations hadn’t produced results, and so they were going to have precious little bearing on how the Fenty administration moved forward.

In closing down and consolidating schools, shrinking the staff of the central office, and dismissing hundreds of teachers, Rhee—and by extension Fenty—heard applause from one camp and withering criticism from another. On the one side it was relief at actual change, and on the other, it was anger at a disregard for community and institutions.

And so it was another proxy war for the identity of a city in flux, with one group trying to complete the transformation and the other seeking to preserve something it had fought hard to build.

That’s the battle that felled Adrian Fenty.

The most optimistic outcome for the city would be if Fenty were simply the wrong messenger. Fenty had the will, but not the credibility.  The presumptive Mayor-Elect Vince Gray—the man fortunate enough to not be Adrian Fenty last week—has the credibility. Whether that’s compatible with real reform in a divided, changing D.C. will be the test of his term.

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