By George E. Curry, Special to NNPA –
(NNPA) After sweeping every ward four years ago en route to becoming the youngest person ever elected mayor of Washington, D.C., Adrian Fenty was decisively ousted on Tuesday, largely by African-American voters who perceived him as arrogant and unconcerned about issues of greatest concern to them.
It was the second time in three months that black voters turned their backs on a high-profile black candidate thought to be placing the interest of whites over African Americans. In June, Alabama Rep. Arthur Davis lost his bid to become the Democratic nominee for governor by losing seven of the twelve counties that make up his district to a white candidate. He lost every predominantly black county in the state, some by margins as wide as 70 percent, and failed to carry his own polling place.
Fenty’s defeat came in the city’s Democratic primary which, given the city’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, is practically the same as the final result.
In Fenty’s case, he was booted out of office even though polls showed that most residents thought he was moving the city in the right direction. His aloofness and failure to do enough for blacks apparently trumped his efforts to improve public schools, lower the crime rate and create more recreational facilities in the city.
“Mayor Fenty’s inaccessibility, even to those who had helped him gain office, his reported vindictiveness and his callous disrespect for the people of the District, felt most acutely in the African American community, apparently amounted to gross disrespect resulted in his being rejected vehemently,” said Ramona Edelin, a longtime city resident.
Askia Muhammad, a newspaper columnist and local radio host, said African Americans deeply disliked the one-term mayor. “People hated him because he was a figment of his own creation. That is, he believed his own press releases,” Muhammad explained. “He seemed to believe that white people have colder ice than blacks… Nobody liked him but white people.”
In a city sharply divided by race and class, approximately 80 percent of voters in the white, affluent wards in northwest Washington voted for Fenty. For blacks living east of the Anacostia River, it was the opposite pattern, with 80 percent of them giving their vote to District Council President Vincent C. Gray.
Even in the most racially homogeneous parts of the city, there was a racial divide. Fenty carried the white wards by a 4-to-1 margin. Gray, on the other hand, carried the black wards by the same margin.
How did things change so drastically for the 39-year-old mayor, who had raised $4.9 million to his opponent’s $1.15 million?
The skepticism began almost immediately after Fenty took office. After he announced the launch of a national search for key cabinet officials, blacks saw the top administration of Chocolate City become increasingly, vanilla. Fenty’s choices for city administrator, police chief, fire chief, attorney general and school chancellor were all non-black. In fact, the Washington Post observed that among those who arguably hold the 10 most influential positions in city government, only one was black.
The most controversial cabinet member is Michelle Rhee, a hard-charging Korean-American engaged to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star. In order to reform the District’s failing school system, Rhee has insisted on performance-based teacher evaluations, ordered teacher layoffs, and closed nearly 30 schools as test scores and enrollment began inching upward. She has often been praised and condemned in the same breath.
A poll taken shortly before the election found that 54 percent of Democrats thought Rhee was sufficient reason to vote against Fenty. Vincent Gray, 67, has not said whether he plans to keep Rhee, who openly campaigned for Fenty.
Many residents complained that the mayor expended too much energy on things such as creating new bicycle lanes, a move popular in newly-gentrified sections of the city, and placed too little attention on building affordable housing and expanding jobs.
The mayor is under investigation by the City Council for allegedly steering construction contracts to his friends. He was also seen as petty when he withheld free baseball season tickets from council members. And it didn’t help that, in the eyes of many voters, he did not appear at enough community functions.
Even though pre-election polls showed Fenty trailing his challenger by double-digits, the mayor was reluctant to alter his public posture, saying in effect, that he had done a good job as mayor and the public shouldn’t be concerned about how he brought about change.
But the public was concerned, especially African Americans. Though the mayor was still heavily supported by whites, a Clarus poll showed black voters favoring Gray over Fenty by a margin of 62 percent to 17 percent.
Just five days before the election, Fenty became so desperate that he called the White House in hopes of getting an endorsement from President Barak Obama. That endorsement never came.
In a major shift, instead of proclaiming that he had done no wrong, a humbled Fenty unleashed a series of television commercials in which he acknowledged he had made some mistakes as mayor and that he was eager to correct them. His wife, Michelle, who grew up in London as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, rarely appears at political events with her husband. But, in an effort to humanize her spouse, the Howard University-trained lawyer met with reporters to fend off charges that her husband is remote or unconcerned about the plight of the poor. With her British accent, she made a tearful defense of her husband. By then, however, it was too late.
Donna Brazile, a political strategist, asked rhetorically: “On the last Sunday before the election, where was Fenty? Out running a marathon and not in church where most politicians go seeking last-minute converts. The message here is simple: Never lose contact with those who backed you in the first place.”