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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; A01

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.

"The influx of new white residents has people nervous about what that means, and they feel Adrian is a vessel for that," said former Ward 7 council member Kevin P. Chavous, a Fenty supporter. "Adrian could be a great unifier and use that not as a wedge, but as a bridge."

Bernard Demczuk, a former mayoral aide to Barry and African American history teacher at School Without Walls Senior High School, said that because of the city's changing demographics, "any mayor would be experiencing this stress, turmoil and divide." But, he added, it is critical for the mayor, no matter who is in office, to show appreciation for Washington's history as a black cultural mecca and to talk about issues important to the community, such as affordable housing, health care and unemployment, which the city's figures show is nearly 29 percent in Ward 8 and about 20 percent in Ward 7. The citywide rate for November was just under 12 percent.

Like Fenty, former mayor Williams struggled to overcome the perception that he was indifferent to residents east of the Anacostia even as he initiated development in Ward 8, such as a $27 million arts and recreation center and thousands of apartments, many for low-income families. There were different expectations for Williams, though, a fiscal manager who never came across as a grass-roots populist.

Fenty made it clear in a brief interview that he did not want to discuss racial politics or the implications of the city's changing population. He rarely talks about race and has repeatedly refused to be drawn into the discussion with local and national reporters.

The mayor's philosophy has been to concentrate on government performance and the enhancement of services in all parts of the city. "What I heard four years ago was that people want a mayor who will work just as hard in one side of the city as the other. I've tried to do that as hard as humanly possible," he said.

Fenty pointed to the city's nearly $80 million investment to shore up United Medical Center in Ward 8 and a $5.9 million grant for the hospital to serve uninsured residents. His office provided a 95-page compilation of news releases and charts, highlighting the administration's support for projects in wards 7 and 8. Among them: the funding and preservation of more than 3,175 units of affordable housing since he took office; $187 million to overhaul 57 schools; plans to open four more libraries; and the rebuilding of three recreation centers.

When asked about the opportunity to unite a seemingly divided city, the mayor said he was elected to "provide high-level service to every District resident, no matter where you live" and suggested that he should be judged on that.

Black residents' views of the mayor's performance are also related to where they live. In Northwest, for instance, white and black residents give the mayor about equally positive marks for his handling of city services. But in other parts of the city combined, 70 percent of whites give Fenty good marks, compared with 41 percent of African Americans.

Even in Northwest, Fenty's overall approval among blacks dropped from 72 percent two years ago to 36 percent. In Northeast, it dropped from 68 percent to 27 percent, and in Southeast from 67 percent to 23 percent.

Turnout in Ward 4, the communities the mayor represented as a member of the D.C. Council, will be critical for Fenty's reelection contest, for which he has raised nearly $3.6 million. The mayor's turf, which straddles 16th Street NW, has traditionally had the highest Democratic primary participation. Ward 8 had the lowest in 2006. But Ward 7 includes the politically influential Hillcrest neighborhood, the third-largest precinct in the city, and is home to two potential Democratic primary challengers, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray and council member Kwame Brown.

Squandered 'goodwill'

It is not one episode but a series of actions by the Fenty administration that has alienated many African Americans. Lawrence Guyot, a civil rights activist and LeDroit Park resident, pointed to the replacement of the popular principal at Hardy Middle School, who had aggressively recruited citywide for its arts and music program and built a primarily African American student body at the Georgetown school.

He cited the firing of hundreds of public school teachers in September, and separately of workers at public child-care centers.

Fenty has squandered a "tremendous deal of goodwill," Guyot said, in part by taking what he called a "position of rigid racial neutrality." Groups, such as labor unions, he said, "have been targeted for destruction in a very systematic way that cuts into the whole history of how blacks have advanced."

Nikki Peele, a 33-year-old blogger who moved to Ward 8 three years ago from Prince George's County, said she cares more about whether her mayor is capable than charismatic. She praised the quick police response to carjackings on her street and said she understands that tackling big problems can sometimes require Fenty to take unpopular positions.

But Peele said Fenty could enhance his standing with residents by trying to appear more approachable. She suggested a trip to her neighborhood's only coffee shop, Big Chair Coffee n' Grill, which opened in January on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

"How great would it be," she said, "to have the mayor drive over the bridge, have coffee and talk with people."

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