Fenty-Gray mayoral race centers on style and likeability as much as issues

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 2:04 PM

Mississippi Avenue SE feels like it's having a block party. Horns beep, music blares. Some people wave signs at passing cars while others pull up beach chairs and soak it all in. Chants crisscross the street all day: "Need some change around here! Gray for a change!" "Test scores up! Crime rate down! Four more years!"

The signs and volunteers for Vincent C. Gray for mayor greatly outnumber those for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty on this sunny day in Southeast, but Fenty, undaunted by his deflated position in the polls, has waded into hostile territory.

( Michelle Fenty's battle cry )

The mayor who just four years ago won the most sweeping victory in the District's history, prevailing in every single election precinct, now walks a gantlet of shouts, insults and overt acts of disdain. A retired man refuses the mayor's handshake. The head of the city's Minority Contractors and Business Association, Robert Green, shouts at him: "How long you going to keep apologizing? Minority contractors can't get no work." A woman tells Green not to waste his breath: "Don't you know he won't listen because you're not white?" A very loud white man wearing a Gray T-shirt keeps screaming, "Sinclair Skinner, Sinclair Skinner," right in the mayor's face, invoking the name of Fenty's controversial fraternity brother and friend, who has gone from failed businessman to flourishing contractor over the past four years.

Fenty started this visit with a big smile, calling out greetings, but now he steps silently through the barrage, the veins in his head bulging, eyes wide, lips tightened. Finally, a man crosses the street, hand extended.

"My heart was all out for you four years ago," says Yusef Muhammad, still pumping the mayor's arm. "But then you put your back to us."

Fenty doesn't flinch. But his voice is dead serious as he responds: "Maybe if I tell you what we've done, it will open up your mind. The mayor recites his accomplishments right here in Ward 8 -- four new recreation centers, libraries, school improvements, new teachers, fewer homicides. "Doesn't that make you feel a little more open-minded?"

"No," Muhammad says, it does not.

Consensus vs. results

As D.C. voters prepare to go to the polls Tuesday to render a verdict on Fenty, they face two fairly similar visions for the city but two very different styles of leadership. Fenty emphasizes executive power. In 2006, as he constantly reminds voters, he promised energy and action; now, he says, voters should focus on the results, not so much on how he got there. Gray, the D.C. Council chairman, puts more credence in consensus. He believes progress lies in the process, that successful decisions are those that have been methodically vetted with all concerned.

Elections are as much about likeability as ideology or even laundry lists of accomplishments, and Fenty in four years has morphed from the young dynamo with enough confidence to poke fun at himself -- remember the 2006 TV ad in which he puckishly displayed the hole he'd worn in his shoe sole from walking nearly every block of the city? -- to the stern adult who feels compelled to lecture his flock about why he's had to discipline them.

I've had to fire teachers, close schools, bring in top managers from out of town, all for your own good, the mayor tells anyone who will listen. You may not like me now, but surely you'll agree that we're better off. A parent would add, "One day, you'll thank me."

But in politics, unlike in parenting, there is no "one day." In politics, it's all about right now.

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