D.C. mayor-elect must unite the city

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Robert McCartney
Wednesday, September 15, 2010

No matter which candidate D.C. voters supported, they seemed to have agreed on two things in Tuesday's Democratic mayoral primary: Incumbent Adrian Fenty has done at least a few good things for the city, but he has serious personality defects.

Beyond that, the city was sharply divided in multiple ways over the election, especially on whether Fenty's accomplishments benefited the city as a whole or just its well-off residents.

That was the clear and consistent message I got from interviews with voters at polling places in strategic wards 5 and 6.

I can't talk here about whoever emerged victorious, because final results weren't available before this column's deadline. But it was clear to me that the winner -- whether Fenty or his principal challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray -- will have much work to do to unify the city.

If Gray won, and he was leading early Wednesday, then he'll have to prove to Fenty supporters that he can carry through on his promise to continue aggressive education reform, with or without Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. (He can't just ignore his vow, given that his campaign theme was "One City.")

One such voter was Louis Bayard, 46, a novelist who lives on Capitol Hill near Eastern Market in Southeast. The mixed-race neighborhood of rowhouses in hotly contested Ward 6 has been attracting more families with children, and several Fenty supporters there said the key issue for them was progress in the schools.

Fenty "has given Michelle Rhee authority to press ahead with reforms that are long needed," Bayard said after voting at Hine Jr. High School. "I'm not convinced reform will happen as easily in a Gray administration."

If Fenty is reelected, however, he'll have to live up to promises he made late in the campaign to be more inclusive and responsive in a second term. He'll need to show the city's black community, in particular, that he cares about issues of importance to them, including housing and jobs.

That was the steady refrain I heard from voters in the predominantly black, middle-class neighborhood of single-family homes near Langdon Park in Northeast in vote-rich Ward 5.

"The real problem is longtime residents in this city cannot afford to stay here," said Norman Mayfield, 76, a retired beer company distributor, after voting at Langdon Park Recreation Center. "There's a perception of him [Fenty] being for the wealthy."

Pre-election polls showed Gray was the front-runner heading into the election, primarily because of his large advantage among black voters.

My conversations showed that most voters viewed the election as an up-or-down referendum on Fenty. Although Gray supporters said they admired their man, they also told me their primary motivation was "anybody but Fenty."

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