Pointing at the teachers unions works for Fenty

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 7:12 PM

"It is not the worst thing in the world to be a one-term officeholder," globalist pundit Fareed Zakaria told Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and a national TV audience on Friday.

Music to his ears.

Much as former president George W. Bush is now plying the talk-show circuit to plug his memoirs and try to recalibrate public impressions of his presidency, the outgoing District mayor is engaged in a campaign to color how his mayoralty will be remembered.

Thus far, his message - that Fenty (D) made the tough decisions to reform a poorly performing urban school district and was subsequently decapitated by teachers unions out for revenge - has found a sympathetic audience.

In an interview last month with a station based in New York, Fenty said he paid the price for being on "the leading edge of a movement" for urban education reform.

"If it's a war," he said, "someone's got to be at the front of the line, and they've got to get killed first. That's how you win a war, is by going forward."

He went on to criticize the teachers unions, which clashed almost continuously with former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and worked to elect Vincent Gray mayor, calling them a "guaranteed obstacle" to progress.

"The teachers unions aren't bad per se," he said, "but the teachers unions are going to have to explain why when every tough decision is made to reform the school system, they are at the lead in opposing it."

Fenty returned to the same themes on "Real Time With Bill Maher," the HBO show hosted by the politically exuberant comic who fawned, along with Zakaria, over Fenty's undeniable accomplishments in the educational arena.

"Maybe people weren't ready for change that fast," Maher said, singling out the teachers unions as a reason for Fenty's demise.

But the road to martyrdom that Fenty has embarked upon paves over matters that might better explain his loss: His alienation of natural supporters - including some of those who lauded his educational focus. His inability to sell many parents on the reforms he undertook. His refusal to adapt his reelection campaign to political reality.

But the death-by-teachers-unions narrative persists. Perhaps no single fact about Fenty's campaign has been so often repeated by the national commentariat as the fact that the American Federation of Teachers had spent nearly $1 million to defeat Fenty - a figure first reported by Politico the day after Gray's primary victory, citing an anonymous Democratic operative.

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