Will Fenty's war on the old guard backfire?

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 13, 2010

You don't have to see Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's new campaign ads to know the script.

Headlines describing a government mismanaged into near-bankruptcy dance on screen as a female narrator addresses Vincent C. Gray's four-year stint as director of the Department of Human Services: "Your daily mismanagement and your department's incompetence pushed the city to the brink of bankruptcy," she says, intoning: "We can't afford to go back to those bad old days."

A Fenty campaign spokesman said Wednesday that the ads are "trying to highlight the contrast between the two candidates." But what Fenty partisans are attempting to foment isn't a matchup between an affable-but-plodding chairman and an arrogant-but-hard-charging mayor so much as a battle for the future of the city, a choice between becoming a "world-class" city or going back to those "bad old days."

At last week's Ward 4 straw poll, Fenty campaign aides sought to take the focus off their candidate's poor showing by focusing on who showed up: The old-timers -- folks like Rock Newman, the onetime boxing promoter and Marion Barry confidant; Cora Masters Barry, his estranged wife and architect of Barry's 1994 comeback; and, of course, Barry himself, who ambled outside the straw poll with a Gray sticker on his jacket.

The choice between old and new is the foundation of the Fenty message, but it's been presented in a manner that further stretches a divide that he's already torn open with zest. And it might not do him many favors.

Consider his predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, who for all the criticism he took in his two terms as mayor for his political aloofness, maintained respectful relations with the old guard -- with Newman and Cora Barry, to name two. Williams, like Fenty, fired his share of city employees, but he managed to evade a mass insurgency. This was a guy, after all, who couldn't even get on his reelection ballot but still cruised to an easy victory as a write-in.

But where Williams parachuted into the city's political culture and handled it with care, Fenty was raised in it and came to loathe it -- his stump speech these days attacks the empty speeches, the fake smiles, the hollow promises he says he heard growing up. In ex-Cabinet official Gray, he sees the embodiment of those old ways, ripe to be vanquished for good.

The irony, of course, is that Gray was no Barry acolyte -- he was plucked from the nonprofit world by Mayor Sharon Pratt, who was herself elected as reformer, someone who would "clean house -- with a shovel, not a broom."

She failed, of course, and Congress took over the city less than two years after she left office. Gray, as Fenty's ads will tell you, did not have an easy time running Pratt's largest agency.

But by attacking Gray's public service -- and by, in essence, lumping him in with Barry's personal and governmental excesses -- Fenty further alienates the civic-minded, mostly black middle-class Washingtonians who have long formed the city's political foundation.

"It's insulting, because there were too many people who worked their level best to do the right things," says a former Barry official who still interacts with the District government and wished to remain anonymous. "That's not to say the government was perfect by any stretch; clearly, huge mistakes were made. . . . But it is insulting to people of that age group that Vince and I happen to fall into."

Gray, make no mistake, is trying to take advantage of the flip side of Fenty's feint in his own delicate way. A radio ad he released to respond to Fenty's spots ran on traditionally black stations and claimed that "Fenty doesn't have a plan to help the rest of us."

And there's the matter of Barry, who knows the game of how to deliver his political punch -- still potent in his home ward and other eastern pockets of the city -- without alienating the rest of town. That's what he did for Fenty in 2006, endorsing him a week before Primary Day.

Outside the Ward 4 straw poll, Barry hemmed and hawed on his endorsement plans. By way of explanation, he favored this reporter with impromptu lines from Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler": "Got to kno-o-ow when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em," he crooned. "Know when to walk away, know when to run."

The patrons of Georgena's, the Ward 8 bar formerly known as the Players Lounge, felt they knew plenty about Barry's hand Monday night, after Fenty and Gray debated in a forum held across the street. "He's endorsed Gray," said a Barry-admiring retired city employee enjoying a Budweiser -- never mind that no such public nod has been tendered.

No negative ad will shift his vote, but that's not who Fenty's trying to reach. The Fenty campaign is betting that this year's electorate is different from the ones that elected Barry, Pratt and Williams -- whiter, younger and scared of what this city once was. That's quite a gamble.

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