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Fenty's toughest hurdle? D.C.'s 2-party system.

By Mike DeBonis
Friday, September 10, 2010; B02

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is poised to become a victim of the District's Democratic monopoly.

He could lose his job because there may be a difference of opinion between the pool of voters who would be eligible to vote in November and those set to pass judgment Tuesday.

As with many U.S. cities, the national two-party straitjacket is an awkward fit for the District. This city's political scene accommodates a wealth of ideological perspectives, from the enviro-focused progressivism of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (Ward 3) and the union-friendly populism of her colleague Harry Thomas Jr. (Ward 5) to the family-values stylings of mayoral candidate Leo Alexander. And they're all Democrats, because to get elected in this town, you have to be -- or, if you're D.C. Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), pretend not to be.

But if the point of democracy is to express the will of the electorate, the District's closed primaries might well be standing in the way of that goal this year. There are indications this year that non-Democratic voters have a strong preference for a Democrat who may not make it onto the general election ballot. That's why Fenty targeted them heavily with mailers and canvassers and encouraged them to switch.

But some forgot to switch, some were hoping to switch on Election Day (elections officials killed that idea last month), and some just weren't going to become Democrats, even under the threat of Vincent C. Gray.

Fenty is left with what-ifs. His respect for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is well known. He imported his office arrangement, his penchant for school reform and his data obsession. Perhaps he should also have emulated his party affiliation -- that is, do as Bloomberg did in 2007 , and renounce his original party affiliation for independent status.

If, in a general election, Fenty could pick up a hefty percentage of the 72,435 undeclared voters and the 29,603 registered Republicans, not to mention the 7,728 voters belonging to the Statehood Green and other parties, this election would be a lot closer than polls indicate it is.

But to run as an independent, Fenty would have had to have changed his registration, picked up ballot petitions on July 2 and turned them in with at least 3,000 signatures affixed by Aug. 25.

Because Fenty appears not to have gotten the wake-up call on his political mortality until The Washington Post published a poll Aug. 28 showing him 17 points behind likely voters, that didn't happen.

If he loses Tuesday, he has options. He could run as an independent write-in candidate on the general-election ballot, but it's a difficult proposition -- as deposed Republican council members Jerry Moore and Carol Schwartz can attest.

A successful write-in push requires a vast organization, which requires lots of money. Fenty's set to tap out his last few hundred thousand dollars in the final week, and squeezing more cash out of well-squeezed supporters for a long-shot, write-in push just isn't going to happen.

A more intriguing possibility: The D.C. Republican Committee has not fielded a mayoral candidate this year, opting to focus its energies on ward council races. Republicans will be faced with a blank ballot, and at least some are going to write in the mayor they've come to know and perhaps like: Fenty.

There has been some talk of the possibility in GOP circles, and "it seems like that's going to happen," says Patrick D. Mara, the 35-year-old Republican who made a game run at the at-large council seat in 2008. "And really that's about Chancellor [Michelle A. Rhee] and Chief [Cathy L. Lanier] more than anything."

It is possible, even likely, that Fenty would win the most Republican write-in votes, leaving him eligible to accept the GOP nomination.

Could he accept? Kenneth McGhie, general counsel for the Board of Elections and Ethics, believes he could, with the caveat that the issue has not been deeply researched. Would he accept? Fenty said on Thursday that he would not. But on Sept. 15 he might have a different perspective.

This much we know: Fenty has had little use for institutional Democratic politics in this town. He proudly ran without the support of party regulars in 2006 and pretty much snubbed them at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, and they're largely with Gray now.

But Republicans have never gained much traction here since Home Rule. Schwartz held office for years as an at large council member, protected by her sui generis citywide name recognition and the provision in the city charter that saves two citywide council seats for non-Democrats.

The closest thing this city's seen to a bona fide toppling of Democratic rule was in 1994, when Schwartz gave a strong challenge to Marion Barry's restoration bid, winning an unprecedented 42 percent of the vote among an electorate that was 7 percent Republican. She still lost, by a lot.

But a Dem-to-GOP turncoat, as Bloomberg started out? In the sea of D.C. politics, those are uncharted waters.

Voters tend to hate the stench of desperation, as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania (R-to-D-to-gone) will tell you. But, as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut (D-to-I-to-still-kicking) will tell you, sometimes they don't.

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