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Gray Defeats Fenty: The Paradox of Issues vs. Personality

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon Iii | 9/15/2010, 12:42 p.m.

In September 2006 the headline of the Washington Post read "Fenty Prevails in Mayor's Race." The Ward 4 Council member defeated Council chair Linda Cropp in the Democratic primary 57 percent to 31 percent; winning all eight wards and every precinct in the District.

Almost four years to the day, the headline of the Washington Post reads "Gray Defeats Fenty in Mayoral Primary." Elections are a combination of candidates, issues, and personalities. When a candidate's personality becomes the issue there's a problem for that candidate.

As late as January 2010 the Washington Post wrote, "Nine months before the Democratic primary, Fenty (D) has no widely known or well-funded challengers, even as recent polls have shown his popularity declining." Others (such as Vincent Gray) at that time were thinking about running but any challenger would, "be hard-pressed to match the $3 million that Fenty has raised toward his bid for a second term."

To the surprise of many, Council Chairman Vincent Gray did not enter the race until late March and was able to raise $1.3 million and garner enough support to defeat the incumbent Mayor with almost $4.5 million in his war chest.

Second only to Sen. Barack Obama's defeat of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Fenty's defeat has to be one -- if not the most significant turnarounds of political misfortune in recent history. Within the span of seven months, Fenty went from being the unopposed incumbent Mayor of the District of Columbia to losing the Democratic primary. He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Washington City Paper
wrote, "Fenty says he prefers to get his sense of the city's mood directly from its residents. That's why he says he didn't know how deep his troubles ran until he started canvassing in earnest this spring--after Gray entered the race." Only when threatened did he see the need to try and connect with a broader cross-section of the city.

Fenty was getting a mood but he was talking with the wrong residents. Instead of spending so much time with developers, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and business interests; Fenty needed to get a better understanding of the underserved constituents in the poorer sections of the city.

Polls indicated a real disconnect between the perception of accomplishment in the city and personality. With the District being segregated along economic and racial lines the polling data and the perceptions created by this data reflected this as well. Many saw Fenty as bringing needed change to the District but questioned his ethics and honesty.

In its endorsement of Fenty the Washington Post stated, "...Fenty has taken the city forward in a remarkable way..." In mostly White Wards 2 and 3 the Post predicted Fenty would get 55 percent of the vote, while many, especially African-Americans doubted his honesty and in largely Black Wards 7 and 8 preferred Gray with a 70 percent approval. These results were not only based on perception but also based upon the reality of where services were delivered.

In Wards 2 and 3 the Fenty administration completed the $35M Wilson Aquatic Center; there are new playgrounds and fields at various elementary schools along with parks and recreation centers. Although improvements were made in Wards 7 and 8 with the Benning Neighborhood Library and the modernization of the Savoy Elementary School and Playground, these were not as significant as the improvements made in other wards.

The perception of the mayor in Wards 2 and 3 in comparison to Wards 7 and 8 could be attributed to the difference between knowledge and realization. Knowledge comes from reading and research while realization comes from knowledge plus experience. Many in the predominantly White upper-middle class Wards 2 and 3 know about the problems in Wards 7 and 8 but because those realities are so far removed from their own, they fail to understand or realize that the city is not moving in as remarkable a way as they think it is.

Did most Democrats polled really credit the Mayor with a record of accomplishment? The Sierra Club, a 3,600 member environmental organization in the District endorsed Chairman Gray. Fenty's efforts to divert proceeds from the 5 cent bag tax to the general fund did not sit well with their membership. The heads of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan AFL-CIO Council endorsed Gray's plan for Jobs & Economic Development.

The 1,800-member D.C. Fire Fighters Association, Local 36 and the 3,600-member Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Chairman Gray. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) also endorsed Chairman Gray for mayor. These organizations do not offer their endorsements based on personality contests. They are policy and result oriented.

Mayor Fenty made a number of mistakes just within the past year that took a "shoe-in" for reelection and turned it into a political dogfight that he eventually lost. In July Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers, 165 of them for poor performance under a new standard that holds teachers accountable for low student test scores creating an even larger rift between teachers and the Fenty administration. This after Rhee had to explain a $34 million surplus after firing 266 teachers to close a $40M budget gap.

In October of 2009 it was reported that the Mayor awarded construction management contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for parks and recreation projects without obtaining legislative approval. In November of 2009 Mayor Fenty broke federal law by cycling on the Clara Barton Parkway with a police escort managing traffic.

Some of the money has allegedly gone to Fenty friend and fraternity brother Sinclair Skinner. Recently in a desperate attempt to enlarge the pool of potential voters, Fenty petitioned the D. C. Board of Elections to open up the Democratic primary to the 70,000 plus unaffiliated voters on the city's voter registration rolls and lost. These are just a few examples of Mayor Fenty's latest political blunders that changed the landscape of this race.

Even with these mistakes as clear examples of poor management and judgment, Chairman Gray had a difficult time distancing himself from Fenty on key policy issues. On issues ranging from retail and business expansion, housing choices, transportation, and education Chairman Gray voted to support a number of Fenty initiatives. Too a great degree that is why the debate focused on personality not policy.

Here are a few final points to consider. Incumbents are powerful opponents. They bring resources and organization to the contest that challengers usually do not have. When a candidate's personality becomes the issue there's a problem for that candidate.

Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program "Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon," and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Go to www.wilmerleon.com or email: wjl3us@yahoo.com. www.twitter.com/drwleon 2010 InfoWave Communications, LLC.