Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Adrian Fenty: Can Washington DC Become "One City"???

This is what a polarized electorate, and indeed city, looks like. Now two days out from the DC’s mayor’s race that saw once popular incumbent Adrian Fenty thrown out in favor of City Council Chair Vince Gray, the post mortems are starting to come in and explanations are starting to crystallize (full results here).  The reasons being offered for the downfall of Fenty point to the variables of race, class, geography, and personality as all playing a role. The Washington Post focused on the "character" aspect yesterday.  Like most elections that see numerous streams intersect to produce an outcome, there’s probably some truth to all of these. I want to try and flesh them out a bit, while also pointing something unique to DC that I think provided the underlying context for the outcome.  For a less nuanced analysis, Courtland Milloy hammers at Fenty today.

When Adrian Fenty was first elected Mayor in 2006 as a young, energetic Ward 4 councilman, he promised an administration dedicated, above all else, to results driven reform (see 2006 results here). The abysmal school system would be reformed; city services would be streamlined; ossified bureaucracies would be shaken up. Whereas previous administrations (i.e. Marion Barry) were staffed through patronage, Fenty’s government would be one where technocrats were in ascendance. The personification of this shift was the new school chancellor Michelle Rhee. Given a wide mandate to institute sweeping changes, Rhee has set about a radical, and some would argue much needed, reorganization and reconceptualization of education in the nation’s capital.

Coupled with this reform mindset was Fenty’s reputation for energy and constituent service. The mayor had made his climb through retail politics. He would not be outworked and was visible and accessible. With multiple blackberries holstered to his hip, he could beckon city workers at the drop of a hat to respond to potholes, piled up garbage, or a city park in need of repair. Implicit in this was the feeling on the part of citizens that they mattered. Fenty was reaching out to them, wanting to know what they needed. Not locked up in the Wilson Building, he was a man of the streets, more comfortable shuttling around the city’s neighborhoods than behind a desk. He was a fixer, yes, but also someone who cared about and understood the community.

Four years later, Mayor Fenty is no more. What happened, I think, is that these two aims—reform and service—could not be balanced. Fenty’s personality and style, no doubt, played some role in this. As much of the coverage of his administration has attested to, his drive to change the city was most often done without the input and participation of those who would feel the brunt of his efforts. He was brash, arrogant, and short tempered, yet decisive and forward looking. As long as things got “better,” the assumption was that city would respond, despite the fact that they no longer felt courted by the Mayor. Rather than the Mayor showing up at your door, it would be the improved Washington through better schools, roads, and facilities that would greet you every day.

Unfortunately, “better” can be defined differently and here is where we start to see the polarization of the city come into view. Let’s take the issue of employment. Washington, DC has vastly different levels of unemployment depending at what part of the city one looks. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, these levels correspond to the pattern of Tuesday’s vote. The wards with the highest unemployment in the city—8, 7, and 5—were the wards where Gray’s numbers were highest. Those with the lowest unemployment—3 and 2—saw Fenty claim 70-80% of the vote. When you aren’t worried about losing your job (Ward 3's unemployment rate is 3%) dog parks, bike lanes, and lavish parks are a nice perk. When you are struggling with 25-30% unemployment rates in your neighborhood, they’re a slap in the face, an extravagance. When the Mayor is tone deaf about this to the point of rationalizing it, people are probably going to notice.  As city budgets have been trimmed in the midst of economic difficulties, those in the eastern parts of the city have come to question Fenty’s priorities and whether they are being focused on the affluent of upper Northwest at the expense of those east of the Anacostia. Rather than post-material amenities, these neighborhoods cry for job training and basic services. There is not a single functioning hospital in all of Wards 7 and 8.

In this, race obviously becomes a factor. There is an almost perfect correlation between Tuesday’s vote and the distribution of the DC population by race. While there was no formal exit polling done on Tuesday, the evidence suggests that Fenty won by a roughly 4:1 margin in the predominantly white neighborhoods while Gray won by the same margin in the predominantly black neighborhoods. It is not correct to say, however, that race was the only variable that mattered. It’s a bit more muddled, and why I think we need to look at things like unemployment and the like. Remember, just four years ago Fenty won the support of both white and black voters. He won every precinct in the city. What has happened is that not every part of the city has benefited from Fenty’s changes, at least as they perceive them. Again, what “better” or “results” mean is open to debate. What also matters is how those results are achieved.

Here is where some context matters—and this is an angle I haven’t seen explored a whole lot. One thing that is unique about Washington, DC is its governing structure and history. As the nation’s capital, Washington has only recently gotten relatively full control over its own internal affairs. It was only in 1967 that we received some measure of “home rule,” allowing us to elect our Mayor. An elected City Council did not arrive until a few years later. Prior to that, Washington was ruled by a three person, federally appointed, Board of Commissioners. Prior to Home Rule, and even since, Washington has been overseen by Congress. Every piece of legislation passed by the city government is subject to congressional veto. Thus, in recent years Washington has not only had to have its duly elected representatives’ decisions subject to the whims of the congressional membership (with DC residents becoming a partisan football), but has also found itself as the laboratory in which members can pursue their pet agendas. On issues like gun control, gay marriage, needle exchange, and school choice, Washingtonians often feel as if they aren’t really in control. The height of this came during the 1990’s when Congress instituted a control board to run all of the District’s finances.

Why this matters, I think, is that many district residents are particularly attuned to their role in governing the city. Here is where age becomes an interesting variable. Many of Fenty’s supporters are younger, new arrivals to the city. They didn’t live here prior to Home Rule or the Control Board and so they probably aren’t as sensitive to slights from City Hall. For them, “results” are more important than “process.” For those older residents who have lived in DC their whole lives, being excluded from governing is going to be reminiscent of when the city was powerless. I’ll use the example of my neighborhood here. Earlier this year I moved into Ward 5, Precinct 69. This part of Washington DC is predominantly African American, with long time, older residents making up, at least anecdotally to me, the largest part of the population. Back when the campaign was starting to heat up, Vince Gray signs sprouted up throughout the neighborhoods of Brookland, Woodridge, and Michigan Park like mushrooms. These neighborhoods aren’t poor but they aren’t the cosmopolitan, young, and thriving DuPont Circle either. While only separated about twenty minutes or so by car, Brookland and DuPont can feel like totally separate worlds. Where Fenty seems to have lost these neighborhoods, it seems to me, is that he forgot how these folks have experienced their city—and their role in it—over the years.

In no other way is this better seen than in how Fenty approached the schools. When the Mayor was given the ability to control education and subsequently appointed Michelle Rhee he made it clear that results where going to be the measure of success. If teachers needed to be fired, schools consolidated and closed, and the teacher’s union weakened, so be it. Despite the merits of doing all of these, the blunt force with which this agenda was pursued ran straight into this legacy and history of how the city used to be governed. While it may seem like dull, tedious “process” to include neighbors in these decisions (beyond town hall meetings and listening sessions), for those whose children and neighborhoods that are affected, this “process” is the most intimate involvement they will have with their city’s decision making. That it affects their kids makes it even more critical that they feel invested. In short, I get the sense that for longtime Washingtonians Michelle Rhee is merely the latest incarnation of the Board of Commissioners or the Control Board—an outsider who thinks they know what’s best for the city despite the fact that they didn’t grow up here.  The fact that Rhee hasn't hesitated to talk about the national implications of her work in DC makes things worse.  A parent living in a struggling neighborhood and who is worried about their son or daughter's schooling doesn't care about a grand experiment in education.  They care about their kid.  If you're going to dramatically change the schools, you need to have the trust of the community--parents, teachers, alumni, neighborhood leaders, etc.  As Matt Yglesias argues (as does Washington City Paper's Mike Madden), Rhee and Fenty never really did the work to create that trust.  Ultimately, Fenty paid the price for that failing.

Thus, I can’t say that I’m at all surprised by the outcome, its magnitude, and the geographic/racial/class/age chasm that we see. Washington, DC is certainly two, if not many, cities. Governing it is never going to be easy, especially when you’re trying to make big changes. The ultimate failing of Adrian Fenty is not that he tried to change the city and make it better, its that he didn’t figure out the right way to do it.


BCC said...

I'm curious where you got that race-by-block map?

CBMurray said...

The underlying map is a precinct map that I found from the 2008 Presidential primary. I took the precicnt results from Tuesday and overlayed them onto this, using Microsoft Paint. Kind of rudimentary but given how the vote went, pretty easy to do.

BCC said...

Well, thanks for taking the time. It's fascinating.