Other black mayors grapple with forces that led to Fenty's downfall

The latest wave of African-American mayors has faced a different set of challenges than the earlier generation who arose from the activism of the 1960s.
By Karen Tumulty and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 4:30 PM

Once welcomed as a reformist mayor, he developed a leadership style that was criticized as aloof and autocratic. Budget cuts produced clashes with public employees and alienated some of the most important constituencies in the city.

Ultimately, the hope he once inspired gave way to suspicion of his "post-racial" brand of politics.

That, of course, was the narrative of Adrian Fenty's rise and fall as mayor of Washington. But the circumstances he faced are not unique. Most of those statements could also describe the political arc of Mayor Cory Booker in Newark, Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, and Mayor David Bing in Detroit.

Booker has received glowing reviews nationally for his leadership. On Friday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who met Booker at a conference in July, is expected to announce a gift of $100 million to improve the city's troubled schools. But skepticism of Booker has grown within the city. He had to campaign aggressively and spend $5.5 million more than his opponents to win reelection earlier this year with 58 percent of the vote. It was a sizeable victory, but a 13 percentage point drop from his landslide in 2006.

Nutter - whose approval among African-Americans has polled a third lower than among whites - could face a difficult battle next year for a second term, even though his most likely opponents are white and the city, with a black plurality, has a history of voting along racial lines.

Bing, a former National Basketball Association star and business executive, was accused of "ethnic cleansing" when he ordered the bulldozing of more than 10,000 houses in blighted neighborhoods that he hopes to convert to parks and urban farms.

The Detroit mayor, who was raised in Washington and still has friends in the city, said he had followed Fenty's plight and saw some parallels. At the same time, Bing played down any personal electoral concerns, noting the cities are different politically and that he will not stand for reelection until 2013.

"When you are in a city as distressed as Detroit and maybe D.C. to some extent, there are some difficult decisions that have to be made," Bing said. "There are some things that should have been done years ago, and now you are confronted with making these decisions in your term and you get a lot of pushback."

Some experts see a paradox in the fact that these African-American mayors are facing such difficulties in the years after a black man has become president. But Barack Obama's election may have implanted an overly simplified view of racial politics, particularly in big cities. Fenty's race, for instance, was entangled in racial politics despite the fact that his opponent, Vincent Gray, was also an African-American.

To white ears, the word "post-racial" sounds like progress. But to African-Americans - particularly those who struggle daily with the lingering effects of generations of discrimination -i t can feel like abandonment.

"I think Fenty's overwhelming initial win blurred the continued racial bifurcation in the city, and fed into the post-racial narrative that many of us wanted to feel, even if we really didn't believe it deep down inside," said Cornell Belcher, a black pollster who advised President Obama's campaign in 2008.

"Ethnic politics is still very much alive and well in big-city politics," Belcher added. "Can you bridge the ethnic politics, or at least not trigger them in a negative way? Yes. But you have to be strategically cognitive of it. You can't pretend that race doesn't matter, because we are somehow post-racial."

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