Michelle Fenty's battle cry in D.C. mayoral campaign that brought her to tears

In the mayoral showdown between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, Michelle Fenty has emerged as a humanizing force for a husband perceived by some as ice cold.

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

Michelle Cross Fenty doesn't look at the Internet much anymore.

She's had enough. She'll only find more of the same about her husband, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, she says: "He's arrogant, disconnected or, even worse, that he doesn't care."

In her ideal cyberworld, "if you Google something, it shouldn't pick up blogs," the District's first lady reasons from the corner booth at Oya, the stylishy mod Penn Quarter restaurant that has become her lunchtime favorite. Even in this quiet refuge, she's working it for her husband, emoting as fast as she can -- reluctant one moment, voluble the next.

Her manifesto includes her provocative thoughts concerning online meddling -- and muddling of truths. She thinks the Internet is leading us all "down a dangerous spiral," a spiel that even her friends sometimes consider a bit overwrought when she rolls it out at parties. "Everybody stares at me. 'My God. It's the doom of the world,' " she says they're always telling her.

"I'm sooo dramatic," she says at one point in the two-hour meal. "I know."

That Michelle Fenty is saying anything at all is something of a revelation. She kept the lowest of profiles until last week, when she teared up during an emotional defense of her husband after his debate with challenger Vincent C. Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council. Michelle Fenty quietly headed an advisory board for a breast cancer screening organization and attended charity functions, but mostly she stayed away from the glare, focusing on her law career and her three children.

The debate aftermath changed all that. It only took 48 words -- a mere two sentences that occupied only 19 seconds amid the white noise of 24-7 political combat -- to draw her out. Suddenly, with videos of her remarks going viral in political circles, the reticent first lady transformed into a kind of local celebrity, humanizing a husband perceived by some as ice-cold. In the showdown between Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray, her husband's campaign is acting like there's now a Michelle factor juicing the sprint to Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Her tearful appearance evoked comparisons to Hillary Rodham Clinton choking up inside a New Hampshire coffee shop as her presidential campaign struggled to find its footing. Fenty's husband finds himself in a similar position -- down in the polls and looking for way out of a quagmire. Fenty's political standing has suffered from widespread criticism over a series of controversies, both large and small, from withholding free Nationals season tickets from council members to ethical questions about contracts awarded to his fraternity brothers. His wife might have thrown him a rope, through her poignant moment that went, to some degree, viral.

As with almost everything surrounding the Fentys these days, conspiracy theories abound. Some have even speculated that the tearful wife was faking. But, to hear her tell it, she was caught up in the moment and made a split decision.

"For a quick second, I thought, I have two choices: I can say what I really feel or I can do what I usually do, which is not really answer and give the question back to my husband," she says softly, looking back to the moments after the debate. "For the first time in my husband's career, I just said what I felt."

The emotions had been building for weeks. Fenty says she and her husband were "shocked" by polling that showed voters doubted his willingness to listen and his ability to understand their problems. Before seeing poll results, she says, they had an inkling of his perception problems, but "we didn't know the scale of it."

"We're in this box. We're surrounded by people in the box," she says, pausing with chopsticks in hand over a salmon roll. "The perceptions are hard to understand because we don't know the people who have the perceptions."


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