Is the Age of Post-Racial Politics Already Over?

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Mayor-elect Gray and Fenty share a rare soul shake

In booting incumbent Adrian Fenty from his mayoral perch this past week, Washington, D.C. Democrats made a loud, clear statement about the kind of leadership they will not tolerate. Aloof? Arrogant? Determined to make change? Results-at-all-costs oriented? If so, then don’t bother applying for the mayor’s job. That role is still strictly reserved for applicants who can, first and foremost, make folks feel good. In actuality it’s a job requirement befitting a city that is ostensibly owned and operated by the federal government anyway. Let’s be honest here. If at any given moment Congress can terminate the city’s home rule charter which would in turn nullify the authority of the mayor and city council, what power does the  mayor have other than that which is ceremonial anyway?

Okay, fine, I’m exaggerating the situation. And I’m sure the new Mayor-elect,  Vincent Gray, will do a fine job. He’s certainly proven his commitment to D.C. through his long public service career. Still, it seems appropriate to step back a moment and actually look at what Adrian Fenty accomplished in the last four years:

  • Streets are cleaner and safer
  • Crime rates are lower
  • Schools have improved, in some cases dramatically.
  • The business community is thriving
  • D.C. night life is vibrant

Under normal circumstances, an incumbent with this record would almost certainly stride back into office for a second term. There’s just one problem. D.C. isn’t normal. A whopping 75% of registered D.C. voters are Democrats and only 7% of are registered Republicans. Moreover, many of the city’s Independents (16% of the voting population) have Democratic leanings but elect to remain unregistered with the party because of their political ties and careers. Now consider these figures in relation to a recent Pew poll of American voters. Forty-seven percent of those polled identified with or leaned toward Democrats. Forty-three percent identified or leaned toward Republican. In short, D.C. voters are not reflective of the United States.

What does this election mean, though? More importantly, what does Fenty’s loss have to do with the post-racial movement that seemed so inevitably destined to eclipse the Civil Rights generation a mere two years ago?

Washington, D.C. in 2010

There are approximately 334,000 registered Democrats in Washington, D.C. Of those, 121,000 voted in last week’s primary. Which means, only a third of the eligible voters even bothered to show. Which means almost two-thirds of the eligible voters (214,000) either didn’t care, felt it didn’t matter or saw no meaningful difference between the candidates on the issues. Why such widespread indifference? Well, we can probably start with 38% unemployment in Southeast D.C. , make a pit stop with the transient population the heart of the city and finish off with the economic mobility enjoyed in upper Northwest D.C. In a nutshell, at one end of the spectrum you have those who don’t believe local government will ever work in their favor, in the middle you have those who have no investment in local politics because they’re just passing through and at the other end you have those who can afford to be indifferent to local government because their children don’t go to public schools, they don’t depend on city services and their neighborhoods are safe.

So what about those who did vote? Good for them. They got out and got involved, but in all likelihood they did so because they felt a personal connection to the issues, which in this election appeared to be education.  Many city residents have express anger at Fenty’s dictatorial style. However, a D.C. City Paper pre-election poll found that 62% of those with children in school actually supported Fenty.

To recap, the incumbent made positive changes in the city and on the key issue that supposedly steamed voters most — education — carried majority support of those who are impacted most—parents of public school children. And yet he lost.

The only plausible explanation is that voters had a personal gripe with the Mayor. But this raises another question for me: Should the vote be used as a vengeance tool?  Moreover, should vengeance be a legitimate reason to hold the rest of the city hostage? Put differently, did the  66,524 voters who cast ballots for Gray have an ethical obligation to the 103,000 residents (some 30,000 Republicans and 74,000 Independents) to choose the best candidate for the job? Maybe not, but consider this: In the weeks leading up to the 2008 election black folks worried that white Americans would walk into the ballot booth and, at the last moment, choose the white candidate instead of the right candidate. Black folks also disparaged Sarah Palin supporters for liking her rather than her political readiness. What I’m saying is this: If folks had an expectation that white Americans would put aside their personal prejudices, hold themselves to a higher standard and vote for the best man, then that expectation cuts both ways?

An easy solution to this problem is open primaries. We know that the Democratic candidate who wins the primaries is always going to win the November election anyway, so why not allow the rest of the voting public — which in D.C. accounts for less than a third of registered voters —  enjoy some meaningful participation in the city’s most important election? Louisiana and Washington currently use the open system. Starting in 2011 California will as well.

An unfortunate outcome of last week’s election is that it reinforces the perception that what  black D.C. voters truly desire is a return to what Princeton professor, Eddie Glaude called “the kind of cronyism and patronage that defined the Marion Barry years.” This is the same city that quickly re-elected Marion Barry after a prison stint following his on-camera crack bust. Even if it’s not deference per se that they want, a legitimate argument can be made that Gray’s long time connection to Barry and Barry’s prominence in the campaign did suggest a kind of nostalgic longing for a return to old D.C. Which is understandable. The city is changing. New faces are moving  in. Familiar faces are moving out. In 1980 70% of the population was black. In 1990 65% was black. In 2000 60%. Now roughly 55% is black and 36% is white. In this light, voting for Vincent Gray begins to look more and more like grasping at straws.

Lest I come off like a Fenty fan, I do think another reading of the results is in order. Most things being equal between the candidates, voters chose the candidate who they think will be nicer to them. Is this problematic? I don’t necessarily think so. If anything it tells us that black voters are savvy and sophisticated. Think of it this way. If you had to choose between two of the same car  except one was the color you really liked what would you do? I’d choose the color that suited my tastes and most of you would, too. Now, if  I only had a choice between the car with the bad color and a car you’d never heard of, I would deal with the bad color. The same would’ve happened in D.C. If Fenty had been facing someone with divergent views, he would have been the hands down winner.

The state of post-racial politics in 2010

I don’t know if this election can be regarded as a trendsetter or a bellweather. They are so many unique features to D.C.’s political history and contemporary demography that simply aren’t applicable to any other place in the country. Nevertheless, the question has to be posed–does Fenty’s defeat tell us anything about the state of post-racial politics in 2010?

1. Race (still) matters.

2. Newark Mayor Cory Booker should be taking notes.

3. Delivering on campaign promises may not be the  standard by which post-racial politicians will be judged by voters. People matter, too. You can’t just point to your record. The two go hand in hand.

4. Change is a great slogan. In theory we want it; we just want someone else to feel it.

5. Two years ago Adrian Fenty was the toast of the new black political class. Then the economy tanked. Now he’s unemployed. The lesson: post-racial reformers are built for booming economic times.

6. President Obama’s accomplishments ( i.e. health care care reform, Supreme Court nominations, education reform, tax relief, stimulating the economy by rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure) will ultimately benefit people of color, but that still won’t guarantee voter turnout in ’12.

7. Civil Right-era politicians aren’t ready to be nailed in the coffin yet.  When Obama won two years ago we thought they were.  When Fenty won the mayoral election four years ago at 35 we thought they were. Vincent Gray, who will be 68 in November, is of that era. But he hasn’t let the civil rights mentality define his politics. Case in point, his stance on gay marriage. Despite being a Roman Catholic and living in a neighborhood that opposed the city’s Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Equality Amendment Act, Gray showed strong support for the law and as result received strong support from the gay and lesbian community.

What’s next for Fenty?

I cringed a little when my mother called Fenty’s defeat a disgrace the other day. Then she explained. People had such hope for him. He let so many people down. It didn’t have to be this way. He did this to himself. I thought of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s inglorious fall from grace a few years back. I’ve always felt Spitzer set up his own fall. He made dangerously reckless choices. He was too smart to think he couldn’t be caught. Fenty may not have been cheating on his wife with call girls, but his choices were still dangerously reckless. He alienated people. He ran roughshod over people. How could he not think his actions wouldn’t come back to haunt him?

The good news is he couldn’t have chosen a better city to fall flat on his face.  He’s still young. If he really wants his job back he can always remake his image,  rebuild frayed relationships, replenish his base of support and run again four or eight years from now. What’ll be interesting is whether he chooses to swap parties. Last week Fenty won the GOP nomination with 822 write-in nominations, but elected to refuse the nomination. It was a particularly graceful act for a man who has been characterized as anything but up to now.  Still, a future run is not a far-fetched idea. After all, this is a city that re-elected Marion Barry.