D.C. mayor faces racial divide as he prepares for reelection

By Ann E. Marimow and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 1, 2010

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was racing through the District's Southeast neighborhoods, shoveling sidewalks for seniors in Fairlawn, whacking tennis balls with youngsters in Hillcrest and posing for photos with teenage boxers at a recreation center in Bellevue.

Four years ago, these predominantly African American communities embraced the young, energetic street-level campaigner, giving Fenty strong majorities to help him win in all wards and across the city's demographic groups. But the smiles and handshakes at his public appearances last month belie the mayor's vulnerability, particularly among blacks, as he seeks reelection in the fall.

Interviews with residents and former city officials and a recent Washington Post poll show that Fenty has been traipsing through hostile territory. While the mayor's approval rating has dropped throughout the city, nowhere are his numbers more troubling than in predominantly black wards 7 and 8.

The divide between how whites and blacks view Fenty has much to do with the gap between expectation and experience, and the view among many African Americans that the mayor is insensitive to their needs and more aligned with the wave of gentrifiers who are diluting the District's longstanding black majority.

Many African Americans expected that their political and emotional chemistry with Fenty during his 2006 campaign would carry over to his governing. But the relationship has eroded over a string of events during his tenure, leading many blacks to conclude that Fenty is out of touch, that he does not understand their concerns. They point to the selection of few black Cabinet members, bad relations with city unions, the high rate of unemployment east of the Anacostia River and his public snub of poet Maya Angelou.

The negative sentiment toward Fenty also stems in part from expectations that as a young black man and a native Washingtonian, he understood the city and its people in a way that his bow-tied predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, a child of Los Angeles, did not.

On Burns Street in Southeast, Bertie Bowman, a U.S. Senate committee aide since the 1960s, said Fenty has generally "done a good job." He attributed the mayor's problems to the perception among his neighbors that Fenty "does more for the whites than he does for the blacks" and pointed to the stark contrast between Fenty's style and that of former mayor Marion Barry.

"They just feel Barry was more down with them, on the same level they are," Bowman said. "Some think Fenty looks down at them."

Most white residents give the mayor positive marks, according to the poll, compared with less than one-third of African Americans. The poll was conducted in late January, before last month's severe snowstorms and complaints about the city's response. Although most white respondents said they view Fenty as honest, trustworthy and understanding of their problems, the opposite holds for majorities of African Americans.

Isaac Fulwood Jr., a Ward 7 resident who served as D.C. police chief from 1989 to 1993, backed Fenty's first mayoral bid. He expected that Fenty's election would create a government more responsive to his part of the city, where residents have long felt neglected. He thought that Fenty, the son of a black man and a white woman, would pull together newcomers and longtime residents like him.

"The city is now more divided than ever before. That's the biggest disappointment," Fulwood said. "When you talk to all kinds of folks over here, they all pretty much say the same thing. They feel like they are not a part of the mainstream of Washington."

Demographic changes

Since Fenty's election, the city has continued its revival, with the population on track to surpass 600,000 for the first time since 1991. New residents are changing the landscape, moving into traditionally African American neighborhoods including H Street Northeast and Shaw. Thirty years ago, blacks made up 70 percent of the population, compared with the most recent Census Bureau estimate of 54 percent.

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