Deep Divides

Adrian Fenty’s wife and close supporters felt the sting on Washington’s streets as the mayor was dealt a primary defeat

By: Harry Jaffe

Caroline Armijo is Adrian Fenty’s kind of new Washingtonian. Just after noon Tuesday, as the voters cast ballots in the mayoral primary, she was pushing a stroller with her toddler past the Chinese Community Church at Fifth and I streets, Northwest. She lives in a brownstone a few doors away. She had already voted for Fenty in Precinct 143 in the church basement.

“Schools are a big issue for me,” she said. “Young families have bought condos around here. We’re interested in education and playgrounds.” Armijo moved to DC in 2004. Her rowhouse is dead center in the condo canyons along Massachusetts Avenue, just west of Union Station. She’s part of the new community linked by listservs and playgroups. She and her friends were counting on schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s leadership to improve the public schools.

But old Washington won out over new Washington Tuesday, as middle-class African-American voters pushed back against Fenty’s aggressive leadership style and cast ballots for City Council chairman Vincent Gray.

Fenty has only himself to blame. He ran his own campaign into the ground. He ignored advice from professionals such as Tom Lindenfeld, top aides such as Neal Albert, friends such as Bill Lightfoot. He adhered to a small group of buddies, such as Sinclair Skinner and Omar Karim. The net result is that Fenty squandered a rare opportunity to make Washington into a world-class city with a public-school system that educates the kids who need it most: poor African Americans and Hispanics.

After touring polls across the city, I encountered Fenty at 5 PM on the corner of Calvert Street and Wisconsin Avenue, in the heart of Ward 3. Polls were still open; Fenty was trolling for votes.

Would he have done anything differently?

“Absolutely not,” he said. “Of the hundreds of decisions I made, I would not have changed one. I have no regrets.”

The fault lines of his strategy and the weakness of his voting base were on display. He begged for votes from about ten people who passed by: Half said they were registered in another state or another country. Welcome to a transient town.

A few hours earlier, Anwan Glover was trolling for Fenty votes in front of Anacostia High School, an experience he says demonstrated the depth of feeling about Fenty’s leadership style.

“I didn’t know old people could be so mean,” he tells me in the gravely voice we heard when he played Slim Charles on The Wire—and that’s saying something for a man who was shot growing up in Columbia Heights and lost his brother to a shooting in the same neighborhood in 2007. “They come by and push me out of the way, tell me I can wipe my ass with the Fenty flyers, threaten to shoot me.”

But in this summer’s mayoral campaign, aligning with Big G may have been one of Fenty’s mistakes. Fenty used Big G and community activist Ronald Moten to work himself into DC’s go-go scene—at the expense of making inroads into the black middle-class community.

Would Fenty have softened his image and attracted more voters if they had been able to see and talk to his family members? His wife, Michelle, and three children could have been an asset, but rolling them out wasn’t an option.

“We made a strong distinction between our public and private lives,” Michelle Fenty told me at Fenty headquarters around noon Tuesday. “We wanted our children to live regular lives without the fact that their father was mayor interfering with their daily lives.”

Why didn’t she speak up for her husband and his policies, especially on education?

“People didn’t elect my husband to hear from me,” she said.

And how has her family weathered the political storm?

“We have close families,” she said. “We’re close to our parents, our siblings, and our friends. Because of that, we’re protected.”

Now that Adrian Fenty has lost the election, she will need a lot less protection. And new Washingtonians, like Caroline Armijo, might start to reconsider their commitment to D.C.

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