A Race to the Bitter End

Four years ago, two years ago, last year at this time, or even in the spring, if you suggested to anybody that Mayor Adrian Fenty might be behind as much as 13 to 17 percent in the polls in his re-election campaign against City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, they might have brought the guys in the white jackets for you.

This was the same Adrian Fenty who had swept into office with an unprecedented victory over Chairman Linda Cropp, winning every precinct and ward in the city, which surely spelled MANDATE in every respect.

Fenty ran on school reform. “Judge me by what we’ve accomplished there,” he said.

During the campaign, he did not say he was going to go for a mayoral takeover of the school system, which, when Mayor Anthony Williams tried it, he voted against as a Ward 4 councilmember.

But that’s exactly what he did on day one after his inauguration — he introduced legislation that gave him control over the schools, which would be run by a chancellor that he would choose once the legislation was approved.

The legislation made its way through a lengthy but thorough hearing process, shepherded effectively by Vincent Gray, who had won the council chairman race, and fully supported the takeover. At that time the mayor invited the council to be partners with him in his efforts to reform the schools.

Once the legislation was in place, Fenty selected a young, little-known educator named Michelle Rhee to be chancellor, without consulting the council or too many other persons in Washington. It was done in the clumsiest way possible — the Washington Post got the news before Chairman Gray did.

Still, Rhee came highly recommended by national figures, such as the chancellor of the New York school system, which was also in the midst of a major school overhaul. Fenty’s major effort — school reform — was about to take off. Meanwhile, the city was still thriving under his rule and developments moved forward. Under the new Chief of Police Cathy Lanier, another controversial choice, the crime rate and homicides in particular declined dramatically.

Fenty looked politically bulletproof, and in retrospect he sometimes acted like it, especially when he met opposition. He was still a young man in a hurry to get things done, but as late as a year ago Fenty’s re-election prospects looked solid, with a big money lead over any prospective candidate.

His successes and achievement stood, and still do. The school reform movement was moving — test scores were rising, although erratically, the infrastructure improved dramatically and enrollment and graduation rates were improving, although not everywhere. Recreation centers were going up. Parks were improved.

Everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. While Gray had proved to be an effective, careful, consensus-seeking council chairman, he was no longer in tune with Fenty. He wasn’t even on his speed dial. The partnership with the council as a whole and with Gray in particular never materialized. Gray was angry about the last fall’s school firings and held hearings on them.

Rhee was often at the center of things. With Fenty backing her solidly, she moved decisively to acquire the power to make wholesale personnel decisions, firing principals, closing schools, and in the end firing teachers. She also became a national figure, a poster person for Obama and his Education Department’s reform policies. Her status culminated in a buzzed-about appearance on the cover of Time Magazine with a broom in her hand.

For Fenty there were other signs of trouble. There was a controversial contract squabble over parks and recreation projects that went to Fenty’s friends, a controversy that is still under independent investigation. There was a petty fight with the council over baseball tickets. There was an increasing perception that he wasn’t listening to regular folks in the black, poorer wards in town.

In January, the Washington Post published a startling and extensive poll it had taken which found that Washingtonians across the city were unhappy with Fenty. It was one of the more politically contradictory polls ever found. A majority liked what he had accomplished but was seriously troubled about his style and the way he got things done. They saw him as arrogant, go-it-alone, unwilling to consult with others, petty.

In short, the poll discovered what appeared to be a serious malaise about Fenty’s character and his way of running the city. Plus, a lot of the resentment was coming from the District’s primarily black wards, — 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4 — whose residents felt that Fenty was favoring white residents amid increased gentrification.

What the poll discovered was not a passion for any alternative candidate, including Gray, but a resentment
of Fenty. It was a big alarm bell. After a big win that appeared to unite the city, there was now a city that was dramatically and sharply divided.

When Gray finally announced his campaign — under the banner of “One City” — Fenty didn’t appear to be worried. He had a big advantage in campaign money, he had a record of achievement to run on, and his education centerpiece was flourishing and approved of by most residents.

But things just didn’t quite work out that way. The campaign turned into a classic paradox. People took pride in the new rec centers, the lowered homicide rate, the improved schools, and higher test scores. But the jobless mark stayed high among black residents. Gray appeared to be gaining traction and momentum. His low-key manner, his directness, his ability to achieve consensus, and his dismay at the two teacher firings gained him endorsement from labor and the chamber of commerce both.

The campaign itself became series of media events, candidate forums, blogger buzz, charges and counter-charges. The campaign overshadowed the two city-wide races for the Democratic council at-large and council chairman seats, the latter for which Gray was now ineligible.

The recent poll was a shocker to everyone. It showed that Fenty was trailing among Democratic voters by as much as 13 to 17 percent (among most likely voters), a double-digit number which looms large but is not impossible to overcome.

Fenty has come out swinging. He’s alternating from attacking Gray on his record as Human Services Director under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, admitting his failures of “not listening, not being inclusive and promising to change,” to pushing his achievements, especially regarding school reform.

It’s hard to count Fenty out. He is, by any measure, a relentless, tireless worker, who loves working the streets and going door to door. It’s how he won his council seat, it’s how he became mayor.

But this is a peculiar campaign. The policy issues are fairly clear: the continuance of school reform with or without Michelle Rhee, who’s inserted herself into the campaign; what to do about the looming budget crisis, which rarely seems to get discussed; how to close the gaps between the haves and have nots in the city; how to create jobs and battle the perennially high jobless rates in the poorer wards; how to forge an inclusive (or not) education reform policy; how to build bridges between the executive and the council; how to maintain and create affordable housing; and where to find additional moneys.

Those are traditional issues about what and what not to do, about money and spending, schools, jobs, crime, and budget matters.

What’s not traditional is the central issue in this campaign, which made Gray a viable candidate. That’s the mayor himself. Nothing seems to excite debate more than the mayor’s style and personality — his governance image, if you will. In a televised debate, he promised to change, to be more inclusive, and to listen more. “If I don’t prevail,” he said, “I’ll have no one to blame but myself.”

A new addition this year, early voting has been going on throughout the city for days now, but the final tale will be told on Sept. 14. That’s when we’ll see what the voters have been hearing, and who they want handling the city’s future.

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