Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and the politics of race and class in D.C.

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By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 29, 2010

The overarching question in the District's mayoral race is how on Earth incumbent Adrian Fenty could be at risk of losing, when a majority of voters believe that conditions in the city are getting better. There are two answers -- one of style and one of substance.

On style, Fenty is in trouble because he is widely seen as a self-absorbed autocrat who is unresponsive to citizens. The substantive explanation is equally important, however, and it clarifies the stakes in this election as well as why, according to polls, blacks and whites see the choice so differently. Notwithstanding the progress Fenty has made in improving the District's schools and lowering its murder rate, his biggest shortcoming in the minds of many black voters is that he has mishandled the most important long-term issue facing the city: gentrification, and the racial politics that go with it.

His principal challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, is exploiting that weakness by campaigning as someone who would oversee the city's economic and demographic transformation more fairly -- and thus do a better job of bridging the city's racial gap. Despite worries that he might allow some of the reforms achieved under Fenty to lose momentum, Gray's approach is working. A new Washington Post poll shows Gray ahead by more than a 10-point margin leading up to the Sept. 14 Democratic primary. Gray's huge advantage among black voters overcomes Fenty's sizable but somewhat narrower edge among whites in the contest, in which victory is tantamount to winning the office outright in the heavily Democratic District.

Gentrification, in which decayed urban neighborhoods are renovated and then draw in more affluent (often white) residents to replace poorer (often black) ones, has been the key force shaping the city since the 1990s. The process arouses powerful feelings for many African Americans, in part because it threatens the District's identity as a predominantly black town. Sometime in the next few years, the black share of the D.C. population will probably slip below 50 percent for the first time since the late 1950s.

Gray and Fenty offer fundamentally different approaches to the issue. That contrast is clear from their records and personal histories, as well as interviews with both of them and with other political, business and civic leaders.

Fenty would continue to push forcefully to improve education and nuts-and-bolts city services, without going out of his way to address racial or economic divisions. Although he's had a recent campaign conversion, saying the right things about becoming humble and inclusive in a second term, it doesn't seem realistic that he'd suddenly start paying much attention to what anybody else thinks. A restless loner with what one business supporter called "the attention span of a strobe light," Fenty doesn't dig into the substance of the issues but leaves lieutenants such as Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and Attorney General Peter Nickles to do the heavy lifting of governance.

At 39, Fenty is a post-civil-rights leader who prides himself on being color-blind. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white, rich or poor; the key is that your trash is picked up, your potholes are filled and your kid's teacher is qualified.

That kind of neutral, results-oriented approach is great in theory, and it appeals especially to affluent voters and the younger generation. But it hasn't gone down well with less wealthy, older, mostly black voters in the eastern half of the city. Nearly six in 10 African Americans see Fenty as caring more about upper-income people, according to the Post poll.

Today, Fenty is visibly frustrated that he doesn't get credit from blacks overall for the progress he's made -- especially for the schools and rec centers he's built and the new supermarkets and other businesses he's attracted.

"When I got elected, my thought is, okay, let's amass as many results as humanly possible over the next four years. One, because that's what you're elected to do, and two, because if you're able to do so, I assumed people . . . will reelect you," Fenty told me. "I realize now at the end of the four years that was flawed thinking. Yes, you absolutely have to deliver results, but there's more to it. You have to include people . . . you have to include everybody."

Fenty is struggling partly because many black voters feel that he hoodwinked them when he ran for mayor four years ago. Based on his remarkable face-to-face campaign effort in 2006, when he knocked on almost every door in the city, voters expected him to be a more humane, accessible version of the previous mayor, the wonky and equally results-oriented Tony Williams. Fenty swept every precinct by convincing people that he'd continue the improvements in city services and finances ushered in by Williams, while being more receptive to precisely the concerns about gentrification, poverty and inclusiveness that are tripping him up now.

In Fenty's mind, his push to improve public schools is the key to overcoming the city's economic divisions. "The vision is really around education," he said. "That's what I believe the chancellor's reforms are all about, stopping the cycle of lack of education, people dropping out . . . and how that contributes to the cycle of poverty."

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