How Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid for D.C. mayor

Adrian Fenty, the youngest mayor in four decades of home rule, lost the Democratic mayoral primary to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 12:10 AM

One afternoon in late June, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's political advisers invited their boss to a downtown conference room to report an unsettling development: Focus groups commissioned by the campaign were saying that Fenty's leadership style was offensive and that he was oblivious to constituents' concerns.

If the mayor had any chance of winning them over, the prospective voters told the campaign, he needed to apologize for his actions.

Tom Lindenfeld, the mayor's chief political strategist, proposed a cure, a one-page letter to be delivered to thousands of voters across the District, a letter in which Fenty would acknowledge mistakes and express remorse. He would promise to change.

"What is this?" the mayor said, reading the letter and tossing it away.

"The things you don't do now will be much harder for voters to ignore later," Lindenfeld told him.

The mayor slammed his hand on the table.

"I'm proud of my record," Fenty shot back, according to Lindenfeld and two others present at the meeting. The mayor stood and walked out.

Across the decade in which he shot to the top of the city's political pyramid, Fenty relied on unrelenting energy and a well-honed internal compass - his gut - to navigate three elections and the often treacherous complexities of running a big city. His instinct told him he could win a D.C. Council seat in 2000, even against a veteran incumbent. He was right. In 2006, he ignored the doubters who said he was too young at 35 and unaccomplished to capture the mayoralty. He was right then, too.

As the 2010 Democratic primary campaign arrived, the mayor's instinct told him that his accomplishments would far outweigh complaints that he seemed aloof and uncaring. Overhauling the school system meant something, he told loyalists. Building swimming pools and soccer fields affected people's lives. His handpicked police chief was popular across the city. When it was time to vote, the mayor was confident, the substance of his administration's work would trump all.

How Fenty came to squander that success and the goodwill that catapulted him to office is the story of a mayor who misread an electorate he was sure he knew better than anyone, who ignored advisers' early warnings that key constituencies were abandoning him, who shut out confidantes who told him what he did not want to hear and who began to listen only when the race was all but lost. The account is based on interviews with more than a dozen of Fenty's advisers and supporters, including some such as Lindenfeld and campaign chairman Bill Lightfoot, and others who talked only on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to appear critical of the mayor. The sources were interviewed Tuesday or earlier with the agreement that the information would not be published until after the election. The mayor was interviewed in the final hours before the campaign ended.

Fenty, an incumbent with a $5 million war chest who lost to council Chairman Vincent C. Gray on Tuesday, used many of the same tactics that had won him the mayoralty in 2006, frustrating advisers who thought he needed a more sophisticated campaign. He refused to pay for pollsters to measure the public mood, for example, or hire researchers to dig up dirt on Gray. Instead, the mayor appeared to run as an insurgent and relied on what had delivered him to the apex four years earlier: door-to-door campaigning and that internal compass that no longer seemed to work.

Fenty, in an interview, said he has lots of advisers but that he himself is a student of political history, citing books he has read about past elections and presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. He said he trusts himself to know the path to victory, when it's time to attack an opponent or acknowledge a mistake.

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