Before Barack Obama came here as a United States senator, before Adrian Fenty was elected DC mayor, the two met in Boston at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
Both were legislators on the rise—Obama an Illinois state senator running for the US Senate, Fenty a DC councilmember contemplating a run for mayor. Both had a black father and a white mother. Both were part of the post-civil-rights political establishment.
Fenty had read about Obama and sought him out before the keynote speech that vaulted Obama to national attention. “I found him to be a very open personality,” Fenty says. “We promised to stay in touch.”
The two met again a year later. Dinner with the new senator was an auction item to raise funds for DC’s Shepherd Elementary School; the winners of the Obama dinner invited Fenty, still a councilmember, to join them in the Senate dining room.
The night Fenty won the mayor’s race in the fall of 2006, Obama called to offer congratulations.
So it was no great surprise when Fenty endorsed Obama, but the support did not come without a commitment. “I told him we had one issue that he needed to get behind,” Fenty says. “As long as he gave total support to full voting rights for the District representative in the House, he would get my complete support.”
Obama agreed, and Fenty campaigned for him all over the country.
The notion that a DC mayor could have a personal relationship with an incoming president is unusual if not unprecedented. Fenty is not alone among regional leaders in his ties to Obama, who enters the White House with more connections to area politicians than any president in memory.
“He likes us, we like him,” says Alexandria congressman Jim Moran. “Bush had almost an animosity against Washington. I think Obama will be very good for the metropolitan area.”
During the presidential campaign, Obama stumped at least eight times across Virginia, a state that had not voted for a Democrat since 1964. He often had Governor Tim Kaine by his side.
Senator Jim Webb took Obama through his turf in the state’s southwestern mountains. Mark Warner, the popular former governor running for the US Senate, worked hard to bring money and votes to Obama’s camp. Virginia went for Obama.
Maryland was safely on his side, but it distinguished itself in two ways.
“Maryland was the biggest volunteer export state, second only to California,” says Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who represents Montgomery and parts of Prince George’s counties. “On a per-capita basis, I believe we were number one in campaign contributions.”
As chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Van Hollen was good at raising cash and helping rising politicians. Before Obama won the Democratic nomination, he visited Van Hollen.
Van Hollen spoke often with Obama aides David Axelrod and David Plouffe: “We wanted to make sure candidates in Virginia benefited from the Obama effect.”
Van Hollen succeeded Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel as head of the DCCC. Emanuel is now Obama’s White House chief of staff. “I do have Rahm on speed dial,” Van Hollen says.
DC delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton came out early for Obama and campaigned for him. It was payback: Obama was the star attraction at a 2006 fundraiser for Norton.
Many presidential candidates run against Washington, and some treat the region around their home on Pennsylvania Avenue as if it were hostile territory. They fly in and out, entertain at state dinners, hold Rose Garden ceremonies, welcome visiting dignitaries, ride through the streets in motorcades. Then they leave.
Some have loved the city. John F. Kennedy lived in the District for 14 years as a congressman and senator before moving into the White House. So he and First Lady Jacqueline welcomed Washington into the White House and socialized around town. Washington was Camelot; Camelot was Washington.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was a Texan by birth, but after decades in Congress, he was a Washingtonian by the time he became president. He loved the city and showed it by starting the District on the path to home rule. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson took her beautification projects all over the region.
Richard Nixon—as congressman and vice president—also made Washington his home. He strolled up 16th Street to have dinner at Trader Vic’s. It was President Nixon who signed DC’s Home Rule Charter in 1973.
Jimmy Carter ran against Washington in 1976. In the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, he arrived with his Georgia mafia and promised to clean house. The peanut farmer never settled into the capital city; he was a stranger when he left four years later.
If Carter wanted to reform the federal government, Ronald Reagan wanted to make it smaller. To Reagan, permanent Washington might as well have been part of the “evil empire.” He escaped as often as possible to his western White House in California to chop wood.
George H.W. Bush early on was a Texas oilman but spent most of his working years in Washington as a congressman, diplomat, CIA director, vice president, and president. He and Barbara lived in DC, and they were gracious to the city and its people.