D.C. first lady or first dude? Washington may have to wait til next election

Unless the polls are craaazy wrong, Washington, D.C. isn’t getting a bona-fide, no-asterisk First Lady (or First Dude) after today’s election.

Neither of the front-runners — incumbent Vincent Gray and Councilwoman Muriel Bowser — is married. Gray is a widower. (His office once awesomely referred to his daughter, Jonice Tucker Gray, as the “First Lady-Daughter.”  Love that! But come on.) Bowser is single.

So, while we wait for election results, let’s take a moment to remember those unforgettable final days of our last full-on D.C. first lady, Michelle Fenty, back in 2010 when things were better in Fenty-land and she was working hard to get her husband re-elected.

There were the post-debate tears — that gave a real human, emotional feel to the campaign of her husband, Adrian Fenty, who was often mocked as cold and aloof.

And there was the interview at Oya, her lunchtime favorite, in which she expressed some compelling thoughts about cyberspace.

In her ideal cyberworld, “if you Google something, it shouldn’t pick up blogs,” the District’s first lady reasons from the corner booth at Oya, the stylishy mod Penn Quarter restaurant that has become her lunchtime favorite. Even in this quiet refuge, she’s working it for her husband, emoting as fast as she can — reluctant one moment, voluble the next.

Her manifesto includes her provocative thoughts concerning online meddling — and muddling of truths. She thinks the Internet is leading us all “down a dangerous spiral,” a spiel that even her friends sometimes consider a bit overwrought when she rolls it out at parties. “Everybody stares at me. ‘My God. It’s the doom of the world,’” she says they’re always telling her.

“I’m sooo dramatic,” she says at one point in the two-hour meal. “I know.”

That Michelle Fenty is saying anything at all is something of a revelation. She kept the lowest of profiles until last week, when she teared up during an emotional defense of her husband after his debate with challenger Vincent C. Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council. Michelle Fenty quietly headed an advisory board for a breast cancer screening organization and attended charity functions, but mostly she stayed away from the glare, focusing on her law career and her three children.

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The debate aftermath changed all that. It only took 48 words — a mere two sentences that occupied only 19 seconds amid the white noise of 24-7 political combat — to draw her out. Suddenly, with videos of her remarks going viral in political circles, the reticent first lady transformed into a kind of local celebrity, humanizing a husband perceived by some as ice-cold. In the showdown between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, her husband’s campaign is acting like there’s now a Michelle factor juicing the sprint to Tuesday’s Democratic primary.

Her tearful appearance evoked comparisons to Hillary Rodham Clinton choking up inside a New Hampshire coffee shop as her presidential campaign struggled to find its footing. Fenty’s husband finds himself in a similar position — down in the polls and looking for way out of a quagmire.

Adrian Fenty’s political standing has suffered from widespread criticism over a series of controversies, both large and small, from withholding free Nationals season tickets from council members to ethical questions about contracts awarded to his fraternity brothers. His wife might have thrown him a rope, through her poignant moment that went, to some degree, viral.

As with almost everything surrounding the Fentys these days, conspiracy theories abound. Some have even speculated that the tearful wife was faking. But, to hear her tell it, she was caught up in the moment and made a split decision.

“For a quick second, I thought, I have two choices: I can say what I really feel or I can do what I usually do, which is not really answer and give the question back to my husband,” she says softly, looking back to the moments after the debate. “For the first time in my husband’s career, I just said what I felt.”

Now the Fentys have moved on: the former first lady to the Caribbean and the former mayor to the West Coast and a new romance.

But how could we ever forget them?

 

 

 

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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