Mayor Adrian Fenty, late in tough reelection campaign, tries to make amends

By Nikita Stewart
Sunday, August 22, 2010; A01

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty has been checking off a long list.

An Advisory Neighborhood Commission member in Brightwood. A deacon at a Takoma church. A community activist in Chevy Chase.

They were identified by his reelection campaign as used-to-be, could-be supporters who have walked away from the 39-year-old mayor, turned off by the persistent perception that he is arrogant, that he is incapable of listening to opposing views and, worse, that he doesn't care.

Acknowledging that he is in a tougher reelection campaign than he ever foresaw, Fenty is admitting failings in his bid for a second term and is modifying his pitch to D.C. residents at candidate forums, in interviews and in a TV ad released last week. Discreetly, he is also contacting voters to apologize for dismissing their views and promising to be more inclusive if reelected. Over the past few weeks, he has called at least 100 of these activists and other voters.

Rattled by the strong showing of challenger Vincent C. Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, in the Democratic primary race, Fenty has turned the campaign trail into a tour of contrition -- a path supporters and advisers privately say he was not initially willing to travel.

"We were so focused on getting results, we . . . didn't take into account people's feelings and their desire to be heard and listened to," Fenty said in an interview. "There's a lot of people who right now may be on the fence or thinking about voting against me who we've probably done a lot [for] in their community. But because we've just been focused on doing it rather than doing it with them, they don't feel as good about it as I would have thought just by delivering the results."

The softening of his tenor is a sharp turn from just four months ago, when he opened a reelection campaign headquarters with a markedly unapologetic speech. Yes, he had "ruffled some feathers," he said then. Yes, he had made some "unpopular decisions." But, he said again and again, "we did it because it was the right thing to do."

Fenty, who sources say wrote his latest TV ad, now says he was wrong.

Samantha Nolan, the community activist on the list, got a knock on the door of her Chevy Chase home one late afternoon. She couldn't recall the day, but it was hot, so she invited Fenty to come inside.

"I don't feel comfortable talking about what I discussed with him," she said, adding that his humility, however, won her over. "It's good when you have a one-on-one with a candidate. . . . I like the fact that he's still out there and he can listen to his shortcomings."

"There's no such thing as a perfect candidate," she said. "There are nice guys out there, and there are people out there with great experience who are not people people. To find everything in one package is asking a lot.

"After four years with Fenty, we're definitely in a better place."

Fenty's new approach is an effort by the campaign to smooth his image -- one the mayor acknowledged is of his own making. Whether the strategy works won't be known until the Sept. 14 primary, because the new tactics have been rolled out so close to the election, said Montague Kern, an associate professor of political communications at Rutgers.

"Early advertising is most powerful," said Kern, a D.C. resident. "The mayor already has an image, so it's going to be less effective in changing his image."

But Kern noted that Fenty's campaign literature, already mailed to voters, shows a concrete record of accomplishments, so contrition could sway some voters.

"I think a backfire could occur if people think he's not sincere," she said. "The kiss of death in a campaign is, 'Is he just a politician?' "

Image trouble

When Fenty won election in the Democratic primary almost four years ago, he not only bested his opponents in every precinct but also became the city's youngest mayor, ushering in widespread optimism about the District's future. But in the past year, his public profile has been battered by missteps and miscalculations: his secrecy surrounding trips to Dubai and Beijing at the expense of foreign governments, his refusal to give D.C. Council members tickets to Washington Nationals games, his absence at funerals and memorial services of several victims of last year's Metro crash, and his failure to meet with poet Maya Angelou and late civil rights icon Dorothy Height.

To improve his image, the Fenty campaign has employed different lines of attack in the past few months. Initially, the mayor embraced his perceived arrogance, saying publicly he deserved credit for improvement schools and lowering crime rates in the District. Later, TV ads featured supporters playing down his persona and praising his "results" -- new recreation centers, businesses, schools and affordable housing.

Then Fenty stepped up his attacks on Gray, linking him to the city's financial crisis in the 1990s by reminding voters that he headed the beleaguered Department of Human Services.

The attacks expanded this month to two TV ads that began airing the day after Fenty lost a straw poll among Democrats in his home base of Ward 4. The spots used grainy photos of Gray, portraying him as a failed bureaucrat.

The Gray campaign says Fenty's recent epiphany does not represent "a change of heart."

"This is a change of strategy," said Mo Elleithee, Gray's senior campaign strategist. "This is a calculated political move."

Elleithee said Fenty has not apologized for awarding at least $82 million in city contracts to friends and fraternity brothers without D.C. Council approval, a matter under investigation by a council-appointed lawyer.

"He still refuses to apologize for his long record of cronyism," Elleithee said. "Those aren't the actions of someone who feels real remorse."

Gray still faces a disadvantage because Fenty has raised more money -- nearly $4.7 million to Gray's $1.3 million -- letting the mayor finance his latest strategy.

"He's got the money to be up on the television," Elleithee said. "We're just going to keep going out there and making our case."

Making amends

Fenty's new effort, which he says is part self-realization and part campaign strategy, was born out of concern by a handful of campaign advisers and supporters that he was not connecting with former loyalists who had turned their backs on him or remain undecided.

A list of voters to contact was quietly assembled by supporters, including City Administrator Neil O. Albert and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).

Fenty said the conversations with voters on that list had an impact on the TV ad the campaign released last week. In the ad, Fenty is on the steps of his childhood home, looking straight into the camera and admitting to "mistakes" and promising to be "more inclusive."

Fenty said he had not appreciated how many residents he had excluded until Gray entered the race, and he began a more intense canvassing operation.

"That's when I really started to get the feedback from people, and then, at that point, you learn it, and then you talk about it and tell people what you're going to do," Fenty said. "The commercial . . . we've been putting together for some time in recognizing that, while we delivered results, that there's definitely some things I did wrong, made mistakes . . . I have to improve upon for next time."

Blondine Hughes, a former aide to then-council member Fenty, said she felt compelled to call him this month after the straw poll in Ward 4, which he represented as council member for six years before taking office as mayor in 2007.

"I left a message. I talked so long the tape ran out. . . . You have to listen to people. If you have hurt people, I was taught you say you're sorry," she said, adding that she shared her concerns with campaign staffers. "They said, 'Oh, you can't get him to say that.' "

But days after her long message -- in which she also told him that he has a good record -- Hughes, 75, said she watched him humble himself in a televised debate with Gray. It wasn't an apology, but it was close.

"I sat here and I cried. I couldn't hold back the tears," Hughes said. In that moment, she added, she was proud of the mayor.

A former Fenty supporter who did not want to be identified, for fear of retaliation, warns friends who are getting calls to be wary. "Vote for him because you like his record, not because you think he's going to be different."

Beyond owning up to errors of judgment and strategy, Fenty said he understands that he must convince voters that he's genuine, that he truly cares and that he's up to the job.

"I think voters will judge for themselves whether or not they believe that I will make adjustments," he said. "You can't change until you learn it.

"Learn the mistake, admit the mistake, make an adjustment. You know what I mean?"

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