Fenty and Gray Forge Ahead

There’s no question that education is probably the most important issue in this 2010 Democratic Primary election campaign—it resonates not only for the top slots, but all the way down the line.

In the mayoral race, it’s the issue – or should be – because it’s reflective of the apparently second biggest issue of the campaign, which is Mayor Adrian Fenty’s aggressive style of governing. Here’s where the education thing comes in: Fenty’s choice to be school chancellor Michelle Rhee performs her job very much the same way, often with a tin ear, instituting massive, disruptive and sometimes hurtful changes in the name of the children and school reform, knowing that the mayor has her back.

The Fenty-Rhee style has resulted in nearly irreversible changes in the school system, improvement in test scores (although, to paraphrase, school is still out on the long-term validity of the scores), increased graduation and enrollment – not to mention infrastructure. But it has also brought about a lot of bitterness over both leaders’ refusal to play well with others, which is to say in Rhee’s case that she does not consult or work with parents, and in Fenty’s case, his refusal to work with the city council and others.

One forum on education was already held early this summer, a forum at which Fenty proved a no show. Another was held recently at Sumner School, sponsored by DC Voice and CEO (Communities for Education Organizing), a coalition of DC-based organizations that are working towards improving public education.

The forum invited all candidates at all levels to participate, but this time neither Fenty nor Gray came. But City Council Chair candidates Kwame Brown and Vincent Orange made it, as did both Democratic candidates for an at large seat, incumbent Phil Mendelson and his young challenger Clark Ray. So did all sorts of other candidates including second rung mayoral candidates, Statehood and Green Party Candidates and the undaunted Faith, with a horn that might have been fit for an emperor’s arrival. (Faith, an advocate for the arts, in previous mayoral runs, tended to blow a few notes on a trumpet at candidate forums.)

Given the large number of candidates on hand, and a standing-room only audience, it all made for an unwieldy, but lively evening, with organization members throwing questions at candidates who chose to answer them, and broadening to audience members which tended towards parents.
Because several questions were about parent participation in the education process—everyone wanted more and many felt more than a little bitter about actions taken without parent consultation—the evening spent a lot of time on the topic. The general approach seemed to be that most candidates and even more members of the audience thought there weren’t nearly enough parental roles in the decision-making process. In fact, there was a general agreement that a holistic approach—this from David Schwartzman—that makes neighborhood schools a center for community activities, to be used not only by students and teachers, but parents, would work wonders.

One parent was still bitter about the chancellor’s transferring of the very popular Hardy School principal. “We had no input in this,” she said. “Nobody called us, nobody asked us. There was absolutely no reason to do this. She never informed or consulted with us.”

Some candidates—at large council candidate Darryl Moch—suggested that while a mayoral takeover of the school was in general was a good idea, it didn’t work in Fenty’s case. “The form needs to be restructured to eliminate the dictatorial potential of the Mayor’s office.”

It was the non-traditional candidates who don’t usually get too much attention in the media who were not pleased with the council, the Mayor, or Rhee. “I want to see the council have real oversight of the chancellor,” Calvin Gurley, a write-in candidate for council chair said. “The Council has been an inept partner in oversight of the schools.”

Vincent Orange, in referring to the mayoral takeover, said, “I support anybody that delivers results.
Meanwhile, the campaign moved inexorably towards its climax on September 14, with an air of almost complete uncertainty. People were anxiously awaiting news of polls, amid rumors of poll results. A small sampling-poll by something called the Clarus Research Group (501 Registered Democrats were polled) found that Gray held a dead-heat lead of 39% to 36% over Fenty among all voters and an improved 41-36 percent lead over likely-to-vote voters. The media poured over this little-chicken sized poll as if it was a Chicken Little pronouncement, until every possible feather of possibility was plucked.

The big number was likely the 20% undecided—or more—that are still out there. Talk to your neighbor and you’re likely to find that many folks haven’t made up their minds, and the radio debate between Fenty and Gray probably didn’t solidify things much. Gray often gave his talking points and Fenty, having to defend himself again, snapped at Tom Sherwood that he had interrupted him.

At Arena Stage, where Fenty showed up late for a 60th anniversary celebration, Fenty managed to use the occasion to lay claim to credit for the ongoing refurbishment of the Southwest waterfront. Inside, reporters cornered him for a little-reported controversy about the Washington Marathon. An exasperated Fenty said “I can’t answer some of these things. I’m not very good at having to defend myself from stuff I don’t know anything about,” he said.

Apparently, the Fenty camp is now taking people’s problems with the mayor’s governing style seriously enough that Fenty is on a kind of apology tour, saying he’s sorry for his admitted distancing from regular people, about not listening and so on. It’s something of a sackcloth tactic, like a king lashing himself so that he stays out of trouble with the pope.

The atmosphere is unsettled probably because some things haven’t been settled. There’s been very little talk on the campaign trail about the last batch of teacher firings and very real debate about the evaluation system that caused them. Nothing much has been made of the generational gap between Fenty and Gray. Both candidates have tended to be more active when it comes to negativity, especially Fenty.

Something similar is happening on the chairman’s level. According to that one poll, Kwame Brown has a significant lead, but Orange nabbed the Washington Post endorsement, something he can hang his hat on, considering its effusive endorsement of Fenty. Neither candidate appears so far to have engendered much enthusiasm.

But in many ways it’s hard to predict. Maybe, like Becket’s bums, we’re just waiting. Not for Godot, but the Post poll.

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