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Adrian Fenty: His Own Worst Enemy?
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

Why Is Fenty’s Support Soft Among African-Americans?

Four polls—one by labor, one by a business group, one by an independent firm, and one by the Washington Post—showed weakness among black voters.

“Do you sense that at all?” I ask.

“I don’t know what the polls say, and neither do you,” Fenty says. “You don’t have any idea what the people of the District of Columbia think. And neither do I.”

In our interview and in subsequent e-mailed questions, Fenty declined to engage the topic of race. He said he ignores polls.

The survey by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group asked 501 voters in November whether they would “like to see Adrian Fenty reelected Mayor, or would you like to see somebody new get elected?” Of white voters, 51 percent said they would cast ballots for Fenty; only 22 percent of black voters wanted Fenty back.

“There’s some disappointment with him in the black community that has set in over time,” says Ronald Faucheux, president of Clarus. A political scientist, he’s written half a dozen books and advised more than 100 political campaigns. “The racial divide on him is absolutely fascinating. Very rarely do you have an incumbent black mayor who faces these numbers.”

What Fenty faces is disappointment among a part of the African-American population that’s still wedded to Marion Barry. Starting in DC in 1965 as a brash civil-rights activist, through four terms as mayor, and continuing now on the DC Council, Barry opened the government to local blacks. He hired them, awarded contracts to them, put them on boards and commissions. He created a black political and business class.

“Barry connected to African-Americans at a gut level,” says journalist Jonetta Rose Barras, who has written a book about Barry. “He could eat with them and party with them, but in the end he didn’t deliver services or elevate them.”

Tony Williams, an accountant and federal bureaucrat, was elected mayor in 1998 and began to dismantle Barry’s apparatus. Though he brought better services and development to poor wards east of the Anacostia River, many blacks never embraced him. Backed by a solid white vote, he was reelected in 2002.

Adrian Fenty, born in DC and educated in its public schools, was elected to citywide acclaim on the promise of bridging the racial divide.

Has he?

“He’s treated white people with deference and black people with diffidence,” says Lawrence Guyot, a Barry ally, a veteran of the civil-rights movement, and a fixture in DC politics. “Black people don’t like him because he has openly and deliberately taken on all of their interests. He’s against black teachers, against labor unions, for same-sex marriage.

“Look at his staff,” he says. “Look at his advisers and his fundraisers. He’s a guy who does not want to be associated with black people.”

Guyot is no fan of Fenty’s, and his verdict seems harsh. But it does reflect what I’ve heard across the city.

Fenty didn’t endear himself to African-Americans when he canceled two meetings with civil-rights icon Dorothy Height and poet Maya Angelou. They wanted him to keep a tennis-and-learning center open in Southeast. “We were disappointed,” Height told reporters.

“The reason Fenty is having trouble with the African-American community is they thought he was one way and he’s turned out to be the total opposite,” says Kwame Brown, at-large DC councilmember. “They don’t believe he actually cares.”

Marion Barry gave blacks the sense that he cared; Fenty hasn’t proved to Barry’s supporters that he does.

“Everything Barry supported,” says Guyot, “Fenty has clashed with.”

Many Washingtonians see that as good news.

Says Barras: “Marion Barry was all about symbolism. He played the politics of fakery, making people feel good but promising things he never delivered. Blacks are at the table now. We want meat and potatoes. We want outcomes.”

William Lightfoot, Fenty’s campaign chairman, says the mayor’s lack of support among African-Americans is generational.

“Blacks below the age of 50 don’t just like Fenty,” he says, “they want to be Fenty. White or black, that’s his constituency. Adrian is one of the post-racial city politicians, like Newark’s Cory Booker and Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter. They are about being green. That’s not a black thing.”

Guyot, in Lightfoot’s view, is “a race man.” Fenty, he says, “is not a race person.”

Fenty grew up in Mount Pleasant, an integrated neighborhood; his mother is Italian-American, and his father is black.

“Adrian sees questions about race as a trap,” says Tom Lindenfeld, his pollster. “The pitfalls are too considerable. He doesn’t have anything to prove.

“He spent his entire life avoiding race. He figures, ‘I’m just going to do what I do. I don’t want to be judged by whether I am black enough or not.’ ”

Is Cronyism Alive and Well?

Sinclair Skinner met Adrian Fenty at Howard University. Fenty was in law school; Skinner was studying engineering.

Skinner was an activist in the Georgia Avenue corridor in 2004 when he grew close to Fenty, then the up-and-coming councilmember for Ward 4. In more than one instance, Skinner played tough with white businessmen whom he accused of displacing African-Americans.

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