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D.C. mayoral campaign has echoes of 1994

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 7, 2010; A13

To find a D.C. mayoral campaign as emotion-filled as the one underway, you have to go all the way back to 1994, when incumbent mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly flamed out in the Democratic primary, winning only 13 percent of the vote. Adding insult to injury, Kelly lost to former mayor and ex-prison inmate Marion Barry, from whom she inherited a $331 million deficit when she took office in 1991. In one of the bitterest primaries since the inception of home rule, Barry captured a 47 percent plurality over Kelly and longtime Democratic D.C. Council member John Ray.

There are features, to be sure, that distinguish then from now.

The '94 primary pitted the mayor of a financially failing city against two wily politicians who relentlessly attacked from both sides.

This year's mayoral contest is between first-term Mayor Adrian Fenty and first-term D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, who jointly preside over a city that, while not in the best of fiscal health, also isn't teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

What's more, today's District of Columbia has a decidedly different look.

In 1994, Kelly and Ray garnered the majority of the white vote in a city where the black vote predominated. Barry pulled in 87 of 88 predominantly black precincts, and nine of the 23 racially mixed precincts, according to The Post. Many black residents were first-time east-of-the-river voters, drawn to the polls by a candidate who claimed "redemption" for himself.

Today's nation's capital is whiter and browner and has more affluent voters in neighborhoods where many of Barry's 1994 supporters lived.

Still, this year's election has echoes of the angry Kelly, Ray and Barry battle.

Emotions are riding high over much the same issue that animated many of the black voters who flocked to the polls in 1994: a determination to show who has the power to pick the District's Democratic mayoral nominee.

On that score, Fenty is where Kelly was as she entered her final year in office.

The gregarious Fenty who took office four years ago, sweeping every precinct in the city, is now seeking reelection pretty much as a loner. His circle of advisers seems as small as Kelly's was, and it's almost as hard to identify.

Fenty's restructuring of city government -- particularly his school system reforms -- and his go-it-alone governance style have sparked resentment similar to the reaction to Kelly's alleged aloofness and her attempts to shrink the workforce. Both were fulfilling campaign promises.

Now, as was Kelly, Fenty is estranged from the bureaucracy over which he sits. Many city workers view him as they did Kelly: as a mayor who chooses to fly solo, listening only to himself; as a loner who shut out experienced Washingtonians who could have helped him.

And as a result, Fenty -- like Kelly -- is seeking reelection without the support of those who have traditionally played important roles in the city's political life: government workers and their unions, families, friends and churches. He's struggling to regain the support of longtime middle-class and working-class residents who feel they have been relegated to second place by an administration that caters to, and is under the influence of, that old race and class bugaboo: "others."

That sentiment has been reflected in the polls. It was also on display this week at the Lamond-Riggs Citizens Association's mayoral and council chairman forums, which I moderated on Tuesday, and at the chaotic Ward 4 Democrats forum and straw poll Wednesday night.

In questions submitted by the audience, and in barbs hurled at the mayor by lesser-known mayoral candidates, three expressions of derision directed toward Fenty were used almost interchangeably: "The Washington Post" (which endorsed him), "dog parks" and "bike lanes" (both of which he champions). These are three thinly disguised code words for white influence. They also reflect a mind-set that holds that the city's dwindling black majority is being kicked to the curb.

Which gets us back to what makes this year so much like 1994.

The rap on Fenty is the same as the one on Kelly: The mayor is marching to the beat of a different drummer, certainly not the beat of residents who put him in office. The Barry vote in '94, in one respect, was a thumbing of the nose at downtown and the better-off west of Rock Creek Park. The same "we'll show them" strain can also be heard in the support for Gray.

This is not something to cheer but to regret. Not out of sympathy for Fenty. But out of concern for a city so trapped in its past that it can't see the problems before its face -- problems that are neither black nor white.

kingc@washpost.com

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