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Adrian Fenty's snubs of black women make a win at the polls unlikely

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; B01

How did D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty lose the love of so many black women -- the most faithful and forgiving constituents a black man in public office can have? The answer: He worked at it, went out of his way to snub and disrespect even the most revered sisters of distinction.

They include Dorothy I. Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women, who died this year; Maya Angelou, the poet; Susan L. Taylor, editor of Essence magazine; Oracene Price, mother of tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams; and former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry, founder of the Southeast Washington Tennis and Learning Center.

The list goes on and on.

A year ago, two meetings were scheduled between Fenty, Height and the others. The women were concerned that he was using a legal ruse to take the tennis center from Barry and turn the operation over to one of his fraternity brothers.

Both meetings were canceled at the last minute, with Fenty claiming that the women called it off and the women saying they were snubbed by him.

Whom are you going to believe?

"Dr. Maya Angelou and I were scheduled to meet with the mayor on the 28th of August and on the 31st of August," Height, who was 98 at the time, told reporters afterward. She didn't mention the other women lest they get caught up in petty D.C. politics. "It didn't happen because the meetings were canceled. Well, we were disappointed."

You hear that word a lot about Fenty. It's as if black women had let down their natural guard against disappointment and allowed themselves to be fooled by a man they thought really cared about them.

"I just don't understand him," said Joan Ellis Tillman, 76, a longtime grass-roots political activist, sounding bewildered. "I worked hard for Fenty, and as soon as he became mayor he starts acting like he doesn't know me."

Complaints about Fenty's abrasive personality must be put in context. For many black women, his dismissiveness is not just a personal affront but a quality reflected throughout much of his government; his arrogance is just the coldness of his policies personified.

With about three weeks before the Democratic primary, Fenty's approval rating among black women is at an all-time low. And you just can't win a citywide race if enough of them are aligned against you -- no matter how big the white turnout may be.

In a trial heat not long ago against his chief rival, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Fenty pulled a paltry 15 percent of the black female vote, according to the Clarus Research Group, which has conducted several polls on the D.C. mayoral race.

"There is some sense of disappointment on the part of many African Americans who had been for him, and that sentiment appears to be particularly strong among black women," said Ronald A. Faucheux, president of Clarus.

Last week, the 39-year-old mayor kicked off a "humility" tour, knocking on doors and making telephone calls, trying to win back the disaffected.

Sorry, but the new breed, post-racial brother just doesn't get it. Fool a black woman once, shame on you. And that's it. No fool me twice. She won't hate you; she just won't vote for you again.

What black women wanted from Fenty in exchange for their support could not have been clearer to anyone who heard them speak at candidate forums, coffee klatches, neighborhood association meetings, church socials and the like.

Fix decrepit school buildings, update equipment and supplies, get disruptive students out of the classrooms and hallways and find some way to educate them, in spite of their self-destructive ways, someplace else.

And if there was any way to help those stressed-out, two-job-holding mothers to get more involved in their children's education, they would appreciate it more than he could ever know.

They didn't ask him to start closing schools or to embark on a campaign of firing seasoned black teachers. And when he started taking credit for academic improvements that were already underway when he took office, they were too through with him.

"I guess his head got too big, but I really don't know what happened to him," said Ethel Delaney Lee, 84, another disaffected Fenty supporter.

Lee has an idea about what ought to happen to Fenty. And if enough black female voters feel the same way about him Sept. 14 as they do right now, it will.

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