Contradictions in style helping to shape D.C. mayoral race

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, July 8, 2010

As Mayor Adrian Fenty struggles to win back voters' affection, one of his biggest problems is his refusal in office to honor some of the old rules of D.C. politics.

By contrast, D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray has built a lead in his bid to unseat Fenty partly because he embraces those traditions of consultation and outreach. Now Fenty is trying to counter Gray's advantage by charging that he'd take the city backward.

These contradictions are shaping the campaign as it intensifies, with just under 10 weeks until the critical Democratic primary Sept. 14.

Ideally, Fenty should show he can shed the aloof, dismissive style that's surprised and alienated voters. Because there's not enough time to overcome a reputation that's three years in the making, he needs at least to convince people that they shouldn't care about his attitude as long as the schools improve and the wait isn't too long to renew a driver's license.

For his part, the ever-collegial Gray needs to fend off charges that he would bring back the fiscal mismanagement, poor city services and other blights that characterized the administration of former mayor Sharon Pratt in which he served in the early 1990s.

Gray is ahead for now, according to analysts in both camps. He's set to win by large margins in predominantly black wards and to attract more than enough votes in mostly white precincts to oust Fenty.

The mayor's plight surprises many residents, especially white ones who don't closely follow D.C. politics. The city is improving, they tell me, so why is he in trouble?

Much is explained by Fenty's disdain for long-standing rituals about how a mayor interacts with the public. In particular, he hates face-to-face meetings with groups of constituents pushing one agenda or another. Although he loves going door-to-door to talk to voters, a refrain heard everywhere is, "He won't sit down with us."

The city's top union leadership, grouped in the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, hasn't met with Fenty since early 2007. The group includes 40,000 District voters.

On the business side, Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, hasn't talked to the mayor since a 10-minute meeting soon after he took office. Religious leaders complain that he won't come to church anniversary celebrations or the funerals of prominent pastors.

Fenty is the first mayor in memory to decline such routine courtesies. Even if he rejects the advice, can't he at least hear what people have to say?

"One thing that Adrian hasn't really learned, in the District there's a lot of ceremony. People expect you to go through certain protocols, a certain dance, and then make a decision," said a prominent D.C. politician who has endorsed Fenty and spoke on condition of anonymity to be free to criticize him.

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