Fenty's Big Green Machine never got into gear during his time as mayor

Supporters at Vincent Gray's election-night party were overjoyed that that their candidate took the primary, though there seemed to be just as much emphasis on incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty losing as there was on Gray winning.
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty went down on Tuesday, so did the myth of the Big Green Machine.

This reporter speaks as one of those most responsible for spreading this particular bit of fiction. It went something like this: Fenty in 2006 accomplished an unprecedented feat in city politics by assembling a grass-roots coalition that soundly rejected establishment candidate Linda W. Cropp.

He won every precinct in the city by building an organization capable of raising the money he needed and using it to target voters and get them to the polls.

It was personified in the efforts of Tom Lindenfeld, Fenty's trusted political strategist, and John Falcicchio, his young, prodigious fundraiser.

The Green Machine, scaling up to citywide proportions in 2006, came right back and elected Fenty protege Muriel Bowser to the Ward 4 seat soon after. So why in its big test -- reelecting Fenty -- did it fail so miserably Tuesday?

Partly because Fenty never actually built a political machine that would consolidate his power and help him wield it for years to come.

The "big city mayors" that Fenty so idolized -- such as Richard M. Daley of Chicago -- govern from a pedestal, but one that's secured by a political base.

The foundation of Fenty's pedestal eroded fast.

"He didn't have an organization, he didn't cultivate one, and the effect of that is severe," said Lindenfeld, who was eased out of Fenty's inner circle this summer and speaks now out of frustration.

There are plenty of residents, newcomers mostly, who look at Marion Barry, how he is adored in parts of the city to this day, and wonder why -- in spite of all his failures -- that could be. His charisma is part of it, but it's also because he kept his ear to the ground and put boots on the ground.

For years, Barry aide Anita Bonds maintained those ties to the community groups, the business organizations, and, yes, the special interests that compose the body politic. "It's really the kind of role that's critical to government," says Bonds, who went on to do community relations work for Mayor Anthony A. Williams and now chairs the city Democratic organization. "Elected officials are just that: They are elected by people that put their faith in you and believe in what you say."

It's not just fixing streetlights and filling potholes and making bulk trash pickups, Bonds says. It's taking meetings. It's showing up at funerals. It's sending thank-you notes, distributing free tickets and invitations, and engaging in small-bore patronage that keeps a coalition intact, a base grounded.

And it's that sort of thing that Fenty had no patience for.

After ascending to the mayoralty, he didn't have the time to call and thank key members of his campaign team. He held a birthday party and an inauguration ball in rooms too massive to make anyone feel "personally involved or personally appreciated at all," said Lindenfeld. And although he had his devoted corps of "MOCRS" -- the young, hardworking staff of the Mayor's Office of Community Relations and Services -- few, if any, had deep roots in the communities they served.

Fenty might have won thanks to the grass roots, but to judge from the people whom he chose to work for him, he must have considered those roots withered.

Max Brown, who was Anthony Williams's chief political aide, remembers his boss asking for a meeting with the city's more than 250 advisory neighborhood commissioners -- a restive group if ever there was one. "I said, 'You're kidding, right?' " Brown said. "For an hour and a half, they went crazy for about every topic under the sun, but we brought them together and let them blow off steam." After that, says Brown, the commissioners let Williams be.

What Williams understood that Fenty did not, Brown said, is that reaching out, communicating is the path to lasting results. "People don't just want their mayor to deliver a school," Brown said. "People want to be delivered a person."

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