Fenty’s Last Stand?: Further Proof that D.C. Just Isn’t New York

by Dax-Devlon Ross

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is desperately seeking to salvage his political future

I just got back from a weekend trip to D.C. It was a quick in and out visit with family and friends but I was there long enough to notice all of the Vincent Gray for Mayor placard posted up in people’s yards. Although one of my good friends is the son of the Mr. Gray, I haven’t been keeping up with the D.C. mayoral race. Which is why the apparent groundswell of support he’s receiving against Adrian Fenty, the incumbent, caught my attention. Just four years ago Fenty was the darling of D.C. politics. At the age of 36 he won in a landslide and became the city’s sixth mayor. His youthful energy, law school pedigree and post-racial identity placed him squarely in the new black political leadership’s inner circle. He appeared to represent the new face of urban politics: a prosaic, results oriented technocrat who approaches city governance like a chief financial officer. Like his mayoral godfather, Mike Bloomberg, he focused on school reform, crime reduction and government efficiency. Among his administration stated accomplishments listed  on his campaign web site are:

  • Increased student test scores by as much as 11%, the largest gain in the nation
  • Preserved or created 11,000 affordable housing units
  • Outpaced the nation with a 7.2% reduction in violent crime from 2008 to 2009, including cutting homicides to the lowest level in 40 years
  • Provided summer jobs to a record 18,000 youth in 2009

These are impressive figures. So why is he fighting for his political life against a candidate that he has raised almost three times the amount as his opponent? Why has Gray won five of the six straw polls? (Straw polls should be taken with a grain of salt, but the fact remains–Fenty is feeling the heat.) Why is the September 14th primary looking more and more like Fenty’s last stand?

According to my mother — a D.C. area resident for 40 plus years and active campaigner for Marion Barry back in the day — Fenty’s arrogance is doing him in. Yesterday’s Washington Post headline confirmed my mother’s sentiments: “Mayor Adrian Fenty, late in tough reelection campaign, tries to make amends.” Over the last three plus years Fenty has alienated all sorts of people in the name of results. Now he is on a citywide contrition tour to win back supporters. What’s interesting to me at least is that his leadership approach mirrors  that of his mayoral godfather, Mike Bloomberg. The difference is that Mayor Bloomberg, whose “prickly” personality was on full display  when he forced a term limits extension down New Yorkers throats prior to his re-election last fall, has managed to remain in office without breaking a sweat. Why? How come? More specifically, what’s the difference? Having lived in D.C. and New York for extensive periods, I think I can shed some light on the matter.

Money: Mayor Bloomberg can buy elections in New York. In a smaller city like D.C. money might not matter as much. D.C. is only 16 square miles. You can get from one end to the other in less than an hour. On a practical level, there just isn’t but so much ground to cover, which means word travels fast. But in a big city — a big, spread out city  full of people  leading lives in distinct boroughs — money makes a huge difference. Money shrinks the city. It allows a candidate to buy into local political community through quid pro quo relationships. It allows a candidate to buy visibility.  Just as importantly, perhaps, money allows a candidate to buy invisibilty.

Sources of Information: New Yorkers read several daily newspapers. The New York Times may be the paper of record, but The Daily News and the The NY Post have their fair share of readers of readers. There are also newspapers for practically every kind of person in the city. It really is mindboggling how many rags are in print in New York. Why does this matter? Because no single news outlet control the narrative  — political or otherwise — that filters out to New Yorkers. Each paper has its own perspective and its own constituent group. In D.C. the far and away dominant paper is The Washington Post. The Post controls the narrative. And while it supports Fenty, it’s also perceived as an elitist paper, therefore even positive coverage of Fenty risks being viewed as preferential.

Culture: This is related to a point above, but still needs to be elucidated for its own sake.  New York may be an international city, but it’s also a collection of insular villages. Many of these villages  are reliant upon ethnic, religious,  cultural or political leaders who can virtually guarantee votes. This provincialism works  in favor of a powerful incumbent like Bloomberg. No matter what he’s done over the previous term, if he can get the support of leaders in communities across the five boroughs, then he’s guaranteed thousands upon thousands of votes.  D.C. just doesn’t have the kind of cultural diversity that lends itself to widespread niche political mobilization. Sure the city has activists and community leaders but by no means are these figures as organized or powerful as, for instance,  rabbis in Williamsburg.

Race and Class: No one wants to talk about this but race (and its first cousin class) is at the heart of Fenty’s demise. Plainly speaking, he is losing with black voters in part because they perceive their city as becoming white. Pockets of gentrification may exist in Brooklyn and Harlem, but the widespread perception in D.C. is that black folks are being pushed out of their own city and the mayor isn’t doing a damn thing to stop it. I have no facts to back this up, but my sense is that Mayor Fenty may be suffering among black  voters because he isn’t, politically speaking, black enough.  In other words, like it or not,  he’s a black man and as such his politics are supposed to evidence some partiality towards black folks. The fact that they don’t indicates that Fenty is disloyal to blacks and therefore unworthy of their vote. By contrast, New Yorkers more or less accept the class distinctions that exist in the city as part of life. What’s also important, though, is that class distinctions in New York, though visible, are often blurred because of the fluid nature of the city itself. In short, everyone rides the train and even people with a little money live in shoe boxes.

Political Experience: I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but it needs to be said. D.C. voters re-elected Marion Barry after he served time for using crack-cocaine. He was eventually stripped of his mayoral powers and pushed out of office, but the man still holds a city council seat and is regarded as a hero by many. This is significant because it says something about D.C. voters. First, they are loyal … to a fault. Second, they have a chip on their shoulder because of the city’s red-headed step child relationship to the federal government. Third, they have a track record of voting for  people who promote themselves as being  “of the people” even though that person may not be fit to hold office. Fourth, because the city was run by the federal government until Home Rule was instituted in 1973, the city lacks a rich political history to draw upon. In essence, the city lacks models of effective and capable leadership. To put this into context, Mayor Bloomberg is New York 113th mayor. Fenty, as I pointed out above, is D.C. 6th.

D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee:

Maybe it’s because she’s a woman. Maybe it’s because she’s Asian-American. Maybe it’s because she looks young. Maybe it’s because she’s never taught in a classroom before. Maybe it’s that she summarily fired 200 teachers in one day last month.  Whatever it is, the results-driven schools chancellor is widely perceived as arrogant,  indifferent and out of touch with residents.  A strong argument can be made that Mayor Fenty, who literally created the job for her,  is paying the price for her abrasive actions.

The Altruistic Impression: Mayor Bloomberg is paid an annual salary of $1. Adrian Fenty makes $200,000 a year. This is significant because even though New Yorkers don’t always agree with Bloomberg’s choices, they tend to believe he isn’t  driven by personal ambition, greed or cronyism. The perception is that since he has money, he can’t be bought. Fenty doesn’t have that luxury. In fact, one of the most damaging charges against him is the nearly $100,000,000 in government contracts he awarded to his friends and frat brothers without D.C. Council approval.

Gay Marriage: I haven’t seen this written anywhere but it should be. Several months ago Adrian Fenty signed legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia. At the time the Washington Post issued a poll indicating city dwellers’ feelings about gay marriage. Take a moment to read the results yourself:

Only 37% of black residents thought same-sex marriage should be legalized and 70% thought it should have been put on a citywide ballot. I hate to think it let alone write it, but I just can’t see how Fenty’s decision to sign the legislation in defiance of D.C.’s black residents  isn’t coming back to haunt him.

I don’t pretend that this list is exhaustive, but I do believe it captures some of the key distinctions between Adrian Fenty’s struggles in D.C. and Mike Bloomberg’s successes in New York. These are two very different cities and from a campaign perspective what works in one may not work in the other. On paper, Fenty has been an effective mayor. The problem is mayors aren’t just managers. They’re also politicians. As a politician, Fenty’s obstinacy has  created a major  hurdle that, with just three weeks until the primary, may require a minor miracle to resolve.