The candidate I supported won the Republican primary for mayor in the District of Columbia, a victory that doesn't signal a change in my politics -- nor his. Adrian Fenty declined the GOP nod, the product of write-in votes, and will leave office in January after a single term as the youngest and, at least in my memory, the city's most energetic and dynamic mayor.
I backed Fenty and when he lost his bid for reelection, it felt like a member of the family had taken a big hit. He was my councilman in Ward 4, which is racially mixed, and I've been buying running shoes from his parents' running store, Fleet Feet, in Adams Morgan, for 20-odd years. Everyone in the running world knows Phil and Jan Fenty and their son Shawn, who now manages the store. When I had a problem with a sinkhole in my yard and the city government kept giving me the runaround, I finally got action when Fenty was elected mayor and decreed it should get fixed. He had an autocratic style, but he delivered.
The negative outpouring
against him stunned me, as apparently it did him, and when I realized he would probably lose I went to a neighborhood gathering to meet his opponent, Vincent Gray. I found him collegial (in contrast to Fenty), and on issues relevant to the city, a kinder, gentler version of Fenty. I came away thinking that if he won, it would be okay, and maybe even better because he could work with the D.C. Council, and Fenty couldn't. I don't think I've ever experienced an election where I could feel so comfortable with the person I didn't vote for, a revelation that struck me especially in the context of all the sore losers in the Republican primaries, from Lisa Murkowski (who is running a write-in campaign against the Tea Party winner in Alaska) to Mike Castle in Delaware (who won't endorse the Tea Party candidate who beat him).
We don't have a Tea Party in Washington. We barely have enough Republicans to occasionally field a candidate, so the outcome of the Democratic primary decides the election. Fenty and Gray are both progressives, which made the contrast between them more about style than substance. Fenty is a top-down guy who's always in a hurry, whether he's competing in a triathlon or knocking heads to get school reform moving. Before Gray got into politics, he worked in the non-profit world, advocating for people with disabilities. He's a patient fellow
known for building consensus even if it takes longer than some might like. Unlike most state elections, D.C. races do not turn on left vs. right, but the candidates do reflect divisions in the city, and they are more about class and income than race, although race is important.
In a town that blacks affectionately call "Chocolate City," Fenty thought he could govern in a post-partisan way, naming an Asian woman, Michelle Rhee
, his schools chancellor, and a white woman, Cathy Lanier, his police chief. Lanier advocated more community policing and she remains popular, but Rhee turned out to be a negative when it came to garnering votes for Fenty. Her reforms attracted national publicity but unsettled black communities that bore the brunt of Rhee's changes, including the closing of schools and the downsizing of a bureaucracy that was the lifeblood of the District's middle class. Rhee's abrupt firing in July of 241 teachers ended Fenty's chance for re-election and his hope that voters would see beyond the turmoil and short-term pain and understand that the changes were in their best interests.
At the gathering I attended with Gray, he tried to pretend he's agnostic on Rhee, and wouldn't take a position on whether he would retain her. He did say that reforms were underway before Rhee took office, and that reforms shouldn't have to depend on one person. Rhee just married the mayor of Sacramento, so I think she would have been a short-termer regardless, and she was not a gracious loser, having been so identified with Fenty. She said his loss was "devastating" for the city's children.
Assuming she goes, let's see whom Gray appoints and whether he's right -- that the positive change Rhee brought will continue while the abrasiveness of her style abates. Gray has a lot of goodwill going for him in all parts of the city, and that's the saving grace of an election fought between two men of ability and vision. There aren't any losers.