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

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 29, 2010; B01

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."

But critics charge that Fenty's policies have served mainly to attract newcomers to the city, or to protect the interests of recent arrivals in gentrifying neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill. That explains the frequent criticism that the mayor has spent too much money on bike lanes and dog parks, and too little on affordable housing and jobs. With his own enthusiasm for triathlons and Smart Cars, Fenty's persona is also identified more with newcomers than with longtime residents. It doesn't help that he appointed few African Americans to top cabinet positions.

Nobody objects to the District becoming more prosperous, but there's much anxiety over how it's happening. Many working-class citizens, mostly blacks, are concerned that rising rents will drive them from the city. And the growing affluence has not translated into help for the tens of thousands of chronically unemployed people living east of the Anacostia River.

"There are a lot of people who have lower incomes, many of whom are of color, who are facing pressures to move out of their homes because they're no longer affordable," said David Bowers, a vice president of Enterprise Community Partners, a low-cost housing finance company. "If we don't take some steps to correct it, then we may reach a tipping point where it's too late to go back."

Fenty's experience has created an opening for Gray, who comes at the issue from a completely different background. At age 67, based in Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River, Gray is decidedly a civil-rights-era leader who spent most of his career in nonprofit work, leading organizations that help mentally disabled people and homeless youth.

Entering electoral politics late in life, Gray won a D.C. Council seat in 2004 in an election highlighted by a backlash against gentrification that put three new members on the council -- Gray, Kwame Brown (D-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Speaking then, in a comment still relevant today, Gray said, "What we would perceive as progress and development is not seen that way by everyone."

Although Gray's political base is in the black community, and his philanthropic work mainly targeted African Americans, he takes pride in his ability to work with the District's white citizens. He makes a point not to exploit the race card, in the Barry style. In fact, Gray took the lead in uniting the council to censure Barry and strip him of his committee chairmanship in March after a scandal involving a city contract granted to a Barry girlfriend.

Gray said gentrification results from market forces that no city can prevent, and in any case he wants to see economic development continue. (He even recently called bike lanes the way of the future.) But he has built much of his platform around policies designed to help those left behind. He proposes to broaden Fenty's education reforms to provide more vocational training and adult education to help the hard-core jobless. He wants to use more city resources to provide cheaper housing and build mixed-income communities.

"We ought to use every tool that's available to the city government to be able to maintain a diverse population. . . . We want to make sure people don't feel pushed out," Gray told me. "If people are being pushed out, hopefully some of our housing policies will stem that."

Community leaders express two main concerns about Gray. One is that, if elected, he'd succumb to pleas from various parts of his coalition to block or slow some of the forward motion accomplished under Fenty. That is the crux of the debate over the future of Rhee, the controversial schools leader. Gray has refused to say whether he would keep her, but he'd disappoint some of his backers if he did. On the other hand, Gray says he wants a chancellor "who is really prepared to continue with aggressive education reform," like Rhee, but who would communicate "without polarizing the city."

The other worry about Gray is that he gets so immersed in the details of governing and building consensus that progress could stall. "Reform is hard, and you make enemies," said a council source who has worked with both candidates and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Vince has a predisposition to want to be liked. That is not a personality profile that is a recipe for change. That's a recipe for, at best, incremental reform."

Ironically, gentrification won't be a pressing issue in the first part of the next mayor's term, because the recession has stalled real estate development in the city. However, as soon as the business cycle turns up again, gentrification and demographic transformation will return to the top of the agenda. The social and economic trends are unstoppable. People increasingly dislike the suburbs because commutes are so long, and many young people coming to the region prefer a lively, urban lifestyle.

The choice in this election, on both style and substance, is how to manage such change.

Robert McCartney is a Washington Post columnist covering metropolitan affairs. He will be online Monday, Aug. 30, at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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