By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; B09
If there was one vote that D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had locked up before Tuesday's mayoral primary, it was the cabdriver bloc.
The city's roughly 6,000 taxi cabdrivers, a group made up largely of African-born immigrants, have long been upset with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) over his 2007 change from the city's zone fare system to meters. On Tuesday, they waged what one union leader called "the fight for our very lives."
"We supported Fenty, but he turned on us," said Aklile Redie, 52, of Silver Spring, a cabdriver for 15 years. "We know how important this is to our way of life and our families."
Many of these drivers had voted for Fenty in 2006. That year, a few dozen cabbies drove Fenty voters to the polls for $150 a day, said Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association.
This year, hundreds of cabdrivers offered their services to Gray for free.
Taxi drivers, even those who don't live in the District, have passed out anti-Fenty and pro-Gray fliers for months. Gray's database of cabbies willing to drive voters to the polls numbered at least 500, according to campaign officials and cab companies.
Fenty deployed an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign that included the use of private vans to get voters to polling places. The Gray camp and its supporters countered with vans of their own, and in the end, vans seemed to ferry more voters than the cabs.
Yet some people riding cabs to various destinations were surprised with an offer midway through the ride: If they wanted to go to a polling station en route, that portion of the trip would be without charge.
"A free ride is a free ride," Juanita Fairchild of Northeast Washington said as she stepped into a cab she had hailed. She was planning on voting later at Merritt Middle School in her neighborhood, but if the driver wound up offering to take her there for free, that would put her close to home.
"We were, unfortunately, willing to drive Fenty folks to the polls, too. But we didn't pick up many," Price, 67, said with a wink and a nod.
Fenty angered cabbies with the switch from the 1930s-era zone system to meters, which he said would make the city more business- and tourist-friendly.
The time- and distance-based meter system is similar to that used in most other major cities. But, according to the Web site TaxiFareFinder.com, the District has the fourth-cheapest fares among 28 cities for a five-mile ride.
The change also capped fares within the District at $19, sparking concerns from drivers that their income would be cut by as much as 30 percent on long-haul trips. Not long after the 2007 switch, cabdrivers went on strike.
Still, the taxi lobby's relationship with the Gray campaign hasn't been all roses. After an awkward meeting between cab union leaders and Gray's campaign transportation team, which included some members of the Taxicab Commission, drivers were told they wouldn't be needed to chauffeur voters for the primary.
"We were surprised, but we knew we needed to get the cabs out there for leverage, to show we went to bat for Gray," said Ken Williams, a D.C. human rights activist and Gray supporter.
"Gray is the lesser of two evils," Williams said. A letter Gray sent out to the city's taxicab drivers, in which he didn't promise higher fares, did say he had "already tasked my staff with thoroughly reviewing your ideas and possible avenues for collaboration between government and industry on this critical matter."
"That's good enough for us," Williams said, noting that Gray's father worked as a cabdriver.
The city's taxi drivers include many Ethiopian immigrants who are politically savvy, and the rhetoric against Fenty has been fierce.
At an informal meeting of cabdrivers Monday afternoon inside a public library off of Rhode Island Avenue NE, Price called the Fenty administration's toughening of Taxicab Commission rules part of an "economic genocide." Others likened Fenty to political figures from their homelands.
"He's definitely a dictator," said Alazar Waka, 52, a cabdriver originally from southern Ethiopia who has worked in the District since 1998. "We liked him at first. He was nice. But after he took power, he changed. He's like an African with absolute power, like [Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles] Zenawi. We know him well."
It was unclear Tuesday how many people used the free taxi rides or shuttles offered by both campaigns, and how much those free rides might have affected the election.
William Commodore, 52, of Northeast Washington drove a six-passenger van all day Tuesday to give rides to older residents of Kenilworth and Deanwood who might have trouble getting around. "This is a big help for people who want to get out there and vote but don't have a ride," said Commodore, who said he voted for Fenty in 2006 but switched his vote Tuesday.
Commodore picked up two passengers to vote Tuesday afternoon at apartment buildings along Kenilworth Avenue NE -- Bernice T. Whitmyer, 70, and Mary E. Parham, 81.
Both voted for Fenty in 2006. Both said they cast their ballots Tuesday for his opponent. For her ride, Whitmyer called her apartment building's management, which in turn called Commodore at the Gray campaign. "I didn't know who was driving me, but it wouldn't have mattered," Whitmyer said.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.