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.

Jack Evans Report

The primary election is over! Congratulations to Vince Gray, who will be the Democratic nominee for Mayor, and to Kwame Brown who will be the nominee to Council Chair. As someone who has been down this road before, I greatly appreciate the hard work and dedication to our city that went into those successful campaigns, and I look forward to working with them on what is best for our entire city. I have had good working relationships with both men. I am especially encouraged by Vince Gray’s early outreach, within days after the primary election, to plan town hall meetings in each Ward of the city, in recognition that he did not win every Ward. I think this is a very good gesture in the right direction in fostering a much needed dialogue which will help our city move forward together, and allow all of us to get to know one another better. We have tremendous challenges facing us in both the near and long term – not least of which is the potential continued weakness in the economy, which will have implications for the District’s revenue and budget, as well as an impact on unemployment and demands for social services. It is quite possible the Chief Financial Officer, Dr. Natwar Gandhi, will come to us with more bad news on the revenue side of the balance sheet this month – and it could be one of the first challenges as we return from Council summer recess to redo the FY 2011 before it starts October 1st. Other efforts will continue as well, such as school reform, how to continue to create an investment climate for our economy to keep “growing the pie,” and how to make our public safety agencies work for everyone across the city. I look forward to approaching these issues and more with new vigor as we move forward to make Ward 2 – and the entire city – the best place that it can possibly be.

The Georgetowner’s Jeff Malet Up Close with the New Tea Party

In an effort to wash its hands of racism allegations and repolish its public image, the Tea Party Express invited more than a dozen black conservative speakers to Washington's National Press Club on Wednesday. The conservative-cum-populist group, a former member of the National Tea Party Federation, called the summit to help distance itself in the public eye from former chairman Mark Williams, whose "satirical" — and frankly, ill-spirited — blog post aimed at the NAACP inspired a blistering send-up by the black advocacy organization and a nationwide imbroglio that saw many commentators crying racism. Williams resigned after the NTPF expelled the group from its ranks. Wednesday's panelists, which included noted black conservatives Alan Keyes and William Owens, made no bones about their distaste for Williams' remarks, but said the gaffe of one individual didn't tarnish the overall platform espoused by the party. "How many times do they have to pluck that bad apple out of the barrel before people quit focusing on it?" asked panelist Herman Cain, who hosts the conservative radio show "THE New Voice." Georgetowner photographer Jeff Malet was on hand to photograph the event. View his photos here.

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Maryland Blue Crabs: A Delmarva Summer Send-Off

As the mid-August heat grows muggy and yellow, the long days sputtering the unassuming masses to a heat-induced, midday standstill, a familiar shudder runs through the collective spine of the District. In the throes of the year’s most relentless barrage of heat and humidity, Washingtonians have learned to intuit the swansong of a long, scorching summer. In avoiding the grueling heat and saving our business attire from embarrassing sweat stains, it becomes easy to dismiss the last weeks of summer, to forget the bursting anticipation that comes upon us in mid-April at the end of a gray winter. It is high time to focus our energy and relish in the closing month of engrossing sunlight, of beaches and sunscreen and barbecues and swimming pools, like the encore of a Stones concert. And perhaps no feast quite so exemplifies a Delmarva summer like a bucket of steamed Maryland blue crabs. Corn, hushpuppies, coleslaw, a wooden mallet, a pair of nutcrackers, and a large roll of butcher paper is everything that friends or families need to experience this summer treat at its finest. However, popular opinion has led many to believe that in order to get the best pickin’s, one must drive all the way out to the Chesapeake Bay or Annapolis. And while there is no doubt about the deeply-rooted seafood culture and history in those areas, there is plenty of top-quality crab to be gotten inside the beltway. This past year, despite limits on crab fishing and concerns among the shrinking population of these creatures, this has been an astoundingly fruitful year for crab fishing. So, whether eating out or going down to the Wharf to pick up your catch alive and fresh, here are the best places in town to get some quintessential Maryland blue crab and enjoy the end of summer the way everyone should. --- Bethesda Crab House, Bethesda Imagine your favorite dive bar. Now add picnic tables and mountains of steamed crabs, and you’ve got Bethesda Crab House. A long-established institution in the area, the menu is short and sweet. They do crabs, crab cakes and crab legs. But they do them well. Their crab cakes are what will really get you coming back time and time again. As they’ll tell you at the cash register, it is nothing but heaps of crabmeat with a little mayonnaise to bind it together. These guys know how to make a real Maryland crab cake. There are no french-fries at Bethesda Crab House, as the space is small and the fryer would take up too much room in the back. Plus the establishment believes they just fill you up anyway so you can’t eat as much crab. This is the perfect antidote for your crab cravings. And don’t forget to get an order of corn on the cob. (301-652-3382, 4958 Bethesda Ave.) --- Quarterdeck Restaurant, Arlington Hidden among the high rise apartment buildings, not a mile from the Key Bridge, the Quarterdeck is easy to miss. Built into an old house, the interior atmosphere, with its wood plank siding and worn, beachy furniture and décor, would lead you to believe you were somewhere on Chesapeake Bay, or down in some low-key seafood shack in Virginia Beach. The patio is double the size of the inside, and the buckets of crabs tumble out of the kitchen until the restaurant runs out. As delivery status of the crabs are day-to-day, the restaurant encourages patrons to call at the beginning of the day to check for availability and make crab reservations for that evening — if you wait to walk in for dinner, there often won’t be any left by the time you show up. Quarterdeck Restaurant has a policy to serve steamed crabs only when local crabs are in season, so you know you’re getting the freshest catch every time you go. (703-528-2722, 1200 Fort Myer Dr.) --- The Wharf, Southwest Washington If you’re brave enough to cook crabs on your own, the Wharf, on the southwest waterfront off Maine Avenue, is a wealth of fresh daily catch. You can get most fish that you’re looking for there, though in the summer months, their specialties are shrimp and crab. The Maryland blue crabs this season are piled in monstrous, twitching towers on beds of ice, fat and blue and beautiful. There’s no big secret to cooking them. Throw them in a big steamer with plenty of Old Bay, make sure there is vinegar in the water, and steam until they turn red. (1100 Maine Ave. S.W.)