Ward 4 straw poll gives D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty underdog status in primary

By Mike Debonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; B02

"Don't make hay out of a straw poll."

That's what a top campaign staffer for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) had to say Wednesday night, sitting in the ballroom of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church as the hour approached midnight. The sages of the Ward 4 Democrats were slowly processing about 1,000 ballots cast by the residents of what's considered the city's most politically minded area.

As the three-hour tally ran on, it became quite clear that the ward which Fenty represented for six years and which voted overwhelmingly to put him in the mayor's office four years ago is no longer so enamored with him.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) outpolled Fenty 581 to 401 -- a stunning win for the Ward 7 resident.

There are good reasons not to make hay out of a straw poll. These things tend to attract party regulars, the motivated, the true believers, the kind of folks Fenty has long held in light regard, going back to his 2000 knock-off of longtime Ward 4 incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis.

He told a Washington Post reporter about that race several years ago: "Anybody who had anything to do with Ward 4 politics were all with Jarvis. . . . But there are a lot of regular people. And they don't go to Ward 4 Democrats' meetings. And they don't go to citizens association meetings."

The flip side is that Fenty is amid a high-profile campaign where observers have only a limited number of things to make hay out of: opinion polls, yard signs, endorsements, campaign finance reports -- and straw polls. By all these measures, save for fundraising, Fenty is not meeting the high expectations he helped set.

The resulting perception is that much of the city has soured on Fenty, that the wunderkind who won every city precinct in 2006 is in danger of completing the most devastating reversal of fortune that city politics has ever seen. And, unfortunately for Fenty, perception has a way of becoming reality.

In spinning Wednesday's Waterloo-esque result, the Fenty camp makes some valid points -- variations on the not-regular-people theme: Who, after all, would stand in line for nearly an hour on a weekday evening in close to 100-degree heat to cast a vote as an essentially meaningless exercise? Certainly not those with young families. Certainly not the ward's more affluent residents, who might well be on vacation. Those, indeed, are expected to be sizable blocs of Fenty voters.

Still, Team Fenty pulled out more stops than seen before. After being outbused in a Ward 6 tilt last week, they sent several buses of seniors. Numerous city officials residing in Ward 4 -- including City Administrator Neil O. Albert and the heads of the departments of public works, insurance, and parks and recreation -- cast ballots. Those in Fenty green outnumbered Gray blue in the audience of the accompanying debate. Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser (D), a stalwart Fenty ally, was deeply involved in the straw poll, making turnout calls beforehand and policing the voter line as polling took place. At least three Fenty staffers stood at the door of the venue, checking names off Fenty's vaunted voter list.

That list, of more than 30,000 names citywide, is the Fenty camp's ace in the hole, the key cog in the "Big Green Machine" -- the voter-turnout operation widely credited with electing Fenty mayor in 2006 and Bowser shortly thereafter. In 2006, about 100,000 Democratic voters turned out, and the Fenty camp is expecting a similar number this year.

But the straw poll made clear that Fenty suffers from an enthusiasm gap, one that's only widening as Fenty plods forward with a results-based campaign when so many voters refuse to give him credit for those results.

"Mr. Mayor, what happened to you?" asked WTOP Radio political analyst Mark Plotkin during a forum that accompanied the straw poll. "Have you had a personality transformation?"

That sparked a round of catcalls. "He's bipolar!" shouted one armchair psychiatrist in the packed audience.

That woman is going to vote. "Gray has a rabid corps of volunteers that wants to kill us just to watch us die," says one Fenty campaign staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media. And it's the rabid, no doubt, who pushed Gray over the top.

The tougher project will be getting the 30,000-plus names on the Fenty list to the polls and cast votes. It will be aided by a two-week early-voting period new to the city this year.

But to fail a key test in a ward where he needs to rack up a 10-point margin or better is a poor omen for Fenty. And his organization advantage is shrinking: The Gray campaign won in part by dispatching an all-volunteer canvassing force 200 strong, which fanned out across the ward Saturday, collecting names and making calls.

A list is nice. Votes are better.

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