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

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.

"Ultimately," Fenty said, "the candidate and person in charge has to make the final decision."

But Lindenfeld, who found his advice to the mayor ignored, said Fenty's belief in his own radar was misplaced.

"His campaign's failing resulted from a combination of tenor, hubris, pride and political malpractice," Lindenfeld said Tuesday. "Campaigns that win are ones that are nimble. He's got only one play in his playbook: knocking on doors."

Blind to a rising tide

As the year began and the mayor prepared for his reelection campaign, he knew that he could remind voters that crime was down and students' math and reading scores were up. Despite a double-digit unemployment rate, the District's economy had fared far better than nearly all other cities during a national recession. On top of that, the mayor's campaign war chest had surpassed $4 million at that point, and months passed without a formidable challenger emerging.

Still, within his inner circle, concerns arose that a long string of decisions that threatened to alienate voters, such as the mayor's unannounced vacation in Dubai that was paid for by a foreign government; his refusal to share Washington Nationals baseball tickets with the council; and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's dismissal of hundreds of teachers and dozens of principals for what she said was poor performance. Allegations that the mayor's fraternity brothers had gotten lucrative city contracts prompted the council to sponsor a special investigation and hold months of public hearings.

Advisers, including Lindenfeld and Lightfoot, warned Fenty in the spring that he needed to take notice. They questioned why Fenty was still traveling the campaign trail with Sinclair Skinner, a friend at the center of the contracts scandal. Independent polls showed the mayor's popularity slipping, including a January survey sponsored by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a Fenty ally who took it upon himself to stop by the mayor's office to share the results.

"I thought it was time to take the subject seriously and to start reversing those declining numbers if he was going to mount a serious reelection effort," Catania said.

But the council member said Fenty seemed unfazed. "I didn't see a sense of urgency on his part," Catania said.

In mid-March, Fenty campaigned in Southeast, taking along his stepbrother, B. Seth Bryant, 40, who was surprised by the hostility they encountered.

Bryant wondered why there weren't reporters around to record the moment. For months, the mayor refused to release a campaign schedule to the media or the public, a policy that confused some advisers.

"You need to have some cameras going with you door to door," Bryant recalled telling the mayor, whom he described as unresponsive. "I think a lot of supporters, myself included, have been surprised at how insular his administration has been."

On that afternoon in Southeast, Bryant said, the cameras would have caught the grateful woman who told the mayor that she had once been homeless and that his administration had helped find her an apartment.

On March 30, after weeks of speculation, Gray announced his candidacy, declaring that the city needed inclusive and transparent leadership, a direct appeal to those who thought that Fenty was too secretive, ruled by fiat, and had shut them out.

That night, four people were killed and five wounded in shootings on South Capitol Street, the deadliest spasm of violence in the city in years. The mayor didn't show up to the crime scene until 24 hours later, his arrival prompting boos from the crowd and a renewed wave of complaints that he was disconnected.

Where had Fenty been? Initially, he and his aides were vague about his whereabouts, but then they confirmed that he had been on a family vacation in Jamaica. During an interview Saturday, the mayor amended the story to say that after Jamaica, he had taken his two sons to a tennis tournament in Florida, which is where he was when he learned of the shootings.

Asked where in Florida, Fenty said, "Can't you just say Florida?"

A campaign in peril

Less than two weeks after the shootings, a couple hundred supporters, many of them Fenty appointees and paid staff members, listened to the mayor declare his candidacy for reelection at his Georgia Avenue NW headquarters.

The broad spectrum of former loyalists and donors missing from the crowd also suggested how the mayor's fortunes had changed since 2006. Gone were people such as philanthropist Judith Terra, education advocate Marc Borbely and gay rights activist Peter Rosenstein, all of whom now support Gray. Fenty punctuated his speech with a mantra that seemed aimed at those who had questioned his hard-charging style: "We did it because it was the right thing to do!"

Despite Fenty's defiance, his advisers were concerned about the anger toward the mayor that simmered in black neighborhoods. In May, Lightfoot asked Darryl Wiggins, a business owner who was vice chairman of the mayor's 2006 transition committee, to host a meeting at which a half-dozen prospective black voters, a cross section of professionals and blue-collar workers ages 40 to 60, would be encouraged to speak candidly about Fenty.

For several hours, Wiggins recalled later, the group railed about Fenty's failure to appoint African Americans to top administration posts, his approval of the mass firings of teachers, many of whom are black, and his apparent lack of concern for their struggles during an economic downturn. By the end of the meetings, Wiggins said, he was sure that, in a city that is majority black, the mayor's campaign was deeply troubled.

"Black people are not going to go out quietly," Wiggins said.

Based on the group's attitudes, Lightfoot urged Fenty to pay for additional focus groups, since he would not agree to commission polls. Their campaign was in peril, and they needed to know the way forward. Fenty agreed, if grudgingly.

By May, some of Fenty's advisers thought he needed to counter Gray's unceasing focus on the allegations of cronyism that shadowed the mayor, a strategy that would represent a dramatic departure from his usual style. In three previous campaigns, including the 2006 mayoral race, Fenty's draw as a candidate was at least partially rooted in his positive message and refusal to beat up opponents.

But advisers such as Ronald Moten, Fenty's friend and a community activist, recall telling the mayor that "if the public doesn't find out who Vince Gray is, there's a good chance you could lose."

Fenty's response, Moten said, was cautious: His shots would come at the right time. Moten couldn't wait. By mid-May, the activist launched his own Web site devoted to attacking Gray.

On June 3, Fenty jumped into the fray, using a Democratic candidates forum in Foxhall to criticize his opponent's past record as director of the Department of Human Services, a gambit that surprised members of his campaign team who were in the audience and thought it made the mayor look petty to personally deride the council chairman. They believed surrogates should be enlisted to attack Gray.

Fenty persisted. Over the ensuing weeks, they thought that Fenty had no focus to his attack, meandering from DHS to a fence that Gray had improperly installed at his home to other matters. Some advisers thought the mayor's delivery was unpolished, should have bored in solely on DHS and would have been more effective in campaign literature. At Fenty headquarters, the meetings to map strategy became less frequent, if they were held at all. The mayor, it seemed, was both candidate and campaign manager.

Fenty, in an interview Tuesday, said his reelection strategy was rooted in what had worked for him in the past. He hadn't needed pollsters before, and he did not need them now. "I've never polled. It's a decision I made 12 years ago. It's always worked, so why change?" he said. "I ran this campaign like I ran all my campaigns.

"There's no one thing that wins elections," he said.

By early June, whatever the mayor was telling himself was not producing results he wanted.

On June 17, Gray beat Fenty in a straw poll in Ward 3, an area of Northwest that the mayor counted as his most enthusiastic base. The mayor's allies were beginning to sense a changing landscape. Gray was raising money - nearly $100,000 more, in fact, than the mayor had in the three previous months.

One friend recalled driving along on 13th or 16th Street NW, near the mayor's home, and being surprised by the number of Gray lawn signs. "It was like, 'Wow, What's going on?' " said the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to appear to betray the mayor. "It was like 50-50, and it dawned on me, this thing is a lot closer than I thought."

Contrition, too late

By early July, the mayor remained unwilling to follow his advisers' recommendation that he apologize for offending Washingtonians. But he agreed to deal more head-on with voters' criticism. He approved a commercial in which supporters voiced the common complaints about his apparent arrogance and indifference, and then provided their own answer for what mattered most: the results that his administration delivered.

Yet nothing seemed to turn the electorate toward him. On Aug. 4, Democrats in the mayor's home district, Ward 4, held their straw vote, an event that drew so many people to the ballroom at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church that Lightfoot couldn't get inside. Standing on the sidewalk, Lightfoot eyed the arriving masses of Gray supporters, many of them senior citizens, and knew the mayor was in for a difficult night.

The mayor's performance during the forum - he lashed out at Gray on a range of topics - only further confirmed Lightfoot's fears. "He's supposed to be the king," the campaign chairman said later. "The king doesn't get dragged out to the gutter."

Gray won the straw poll 581 to 401, leaving Fenty's aides scrambling to play down the significance of the mayor losing in the ward that had launched his political career.

Almost immediately, friends began urging the mayor to shift gears: He needed to show contrition. He needed to prove to Washingtonians that he understood their disappointment with him. More than ever, he needed to apologize.

Neil O. Albert, the city administrator, and council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) helped assemble a list of more than 100 activists and former supporters for Fenty to call. On Aug. 11, during a debate with Gray, he inched closer to a mea culpa, saying, "I haven't done a good job of communicating and including people."

On Aug. 29, The Washington Post published the results of a poll that put into numbers what many in the Fenty campaign had feared. The mayor for months had refused to conduct a poll. Now he learned that he trailed Gray by 17 points among likely Democratic voters, a margin that seemed too much to make up with slightly more than two weeks to go. His wife, Michelle, later described herself and the mayor as "shocked" at the poll.

On that Sunday morning, Fenty summoned his staff members to campaign headquarters. He stood in the middle of the large room, pacing as he spoke, then grabbing a chair and sitting down, urging them not to lose hope.

Remember his race against council member Charlene Drew Jarvis in 2000? He had been the underdog and he had won. Or how about Obama after Hillary Rodham Clinton had surprised him in New Hampshire?

You get down, Fenty said, but you bounce back. This is when the work begins.

The staff erupted in cheers, some grabbing the mayor's hands as they chanted, "One, two, three! Fenty!"

Three days later, at the last of the debates, Fenty asked for forgiveness and a second chance and said that "even mayors can make mistakes and that people can learn from their mistakes," words not unlike those his advisers had proposed he tell voters more than two months before, when they urged him to apologize.

By September, though, an electorate once electrified by Adrian Fenty's youth and energy no longer seemed to be listening.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company