How D.C. Mayor Fenty lost the black vote - and his job

Adrian Fenty, the youngest mayor in four decades of home rule, lost the Democratic mayoral primary to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
By Paul Schwartzman and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 10:41 PM

On the last weekend before the Democratic primary, D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty competed in a triathlon, cut the ribbon at a dog park in Cleveland Park, shook hands in Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, and attended a premiere of a documentary about his controversial schools chancellor.

His chief rival, Vincent C. Gray, meanwhile, was dropping in at no fewer than three black churches, in the Mount Vernon, Shaw and Fort Lincoln neighborhoods.

The election wasn't lost or won in a weekend, but how the candidates spent that time says something about why Gray defeated a sitting mayor with a long list of accomplishments.

Four years ago, Fenty captured the mayoralty as an Obama-style, post-racial black politician, one whose candidacy was not defined by race but by talk of competence, government efficiency and "best practices." It was an approach that was embraced by a broad coalition of white and black voters alike.

As mayor, Fenty retained his overwhelming popularity among white voters, as a breakdown of last Tuesday's vote demonstrates. But he lost the support of vast numbers of black voters who derided him for ignoring their communities and slashing government jobs. Many of those jobs were held by African Americans, who since the advent of D.C. home rule have used city employment as a stepping stone to the middle class.

As Fenty's mayoralty unfolded, discontent among black voters spread across the city, from affluent enclaves bordering upper 16th Street NW to middle-income areas such as Deanwood, in Northeast, and blue-collar neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Study in black and white

A Washington Post analysis of Tuesday's primary shows the extent of that disaffection. Fenty won 53 of the city's majority-white census tracts but only 10 of those that are predominantly black. Gray, in contrast, captured 108 majority-black census tracts and just five that are majority-white.

Kelvin Carvana, 42, a black resident of Shepherd Park, in Northwest, who works in construction finance, said he was struck by the dearth of black appointees in the mayor's Cabinet. And he walked away from Fenty.

"In this area, you have the most educated, affluent collection of people of color in the entire country," Carvana said. "We're all articulate, we're all perceptive, and he didn't realize that that was his market. He thought he could just run roughshod and cater to whomever he wanted to cater to and leave people disenfranchised. He just thought we were going to sit there and take it."

Although blacks and whites recognize the importance of the public schools as a vehicle for educating their children, blacks also see the school system as a primary employer, providing jobs to thousands of teachers, school bus drivers, administrators and secretaries. When Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee laid off hundreds of teachers, many blacks saw something more than a simple purge of poorly performing educators. They saw an assault on economic opportunity.

"He fired those teachers, that did it for me," said Wilson Givens, a retired, black equipment operator who lives in Anacostia, in Southeast, and voted for Fenty in 2006. "Does he understand that a job is a family's livelihood? I didn't know anybody who was fired personally, but I can relate. I know how it feels, and I felt for those teachers and their families. That was it for me. Would never trust him again."

At its core, the divide between how whites and African Americans viewed the election was rooted not so much in black-white tensions as in the perception among black residents that Fenty had disengaged from their communities. Frustration mounted as the Fenty administration added dog parks and miles of bike lanes while unemployment in Ward 8, home to the city's poorest neighborhoods, reached 30 percent.

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