Anyone outside Washington, DC, would think that mayor Adrian Fenty is a hero in his hometown. Last winter, Ebony magazine included him on its “Power 150″ list of the country’s most influential African Americans saying that the “no-nonsense mayor” has “dramatically improved schools, lowered the crime rate and brought new hope to the nation’s capital.” Newsweek, meanwhile, put Fenty’s handpicked schools superintendent Michelle Rhee on its cover, along with a flattering profile inside headlined “How to Fix America’s Schools”.
Yet, despite reams of similarly good national media coverage, Fenty appears to be on the cusp of losing his office. On 14 September, Democrats in the District of Columbia will choose between him and Vincent Gray, a longtime city official who now serves as chair of the District’s council. Polls show Fenty to be wildly unpopular with voters who swept him into office four years ago.
The gap between what the national press likes to see in mayors it celebrates as “reformers” – smart city planning, a global perspective, willingness to grapple with local unions and the civic old guard – has never looked wider. One of Fenty’s heroes, New York’s Mike Bloomberg, was cited by Time as one of the country’s top five mayors, only barely won a third term last year. Seattle’s Greg Nickels, so respected by his colleagues that he headed the US Conference of Mayors, lost his re-election bid.
If Fenty loses, nothing will be blamed as much as his reliance on Rhee, whom he hired with a mandate to hold unionised school teachers accountable for student performance. Earlier this year, she laid off hundreds who ranked poorly according to a new statistical assessment. The move was celebrated in Washington’s upscale white neighbourhoods, but in the city’s working-class black wards – where many families include teachers and other public employees – it looked like an affront.
Indeed, the things that are turning voters off Fenty are the type of things that make him look like a new-style mayor elsewhere, such as overseas trips and basic streetscape improvements. Washington Post columnist Colby King argued recently that “dog parks” and “bike lanes” – two Fenty innovations popular with the urbanist crowd – have become code words for Fenty critics portraying the African-American mayor as out of touch with black priorities.
What’s most amazing is that Gray is less interested in discrediting Fenty’s successes than stoking skepticism about his motives. Around the country, the 39-year-old Fenty is celebrated as a young man in a hurry, a brash moderniser with little patience for the antiquated structures that hold American cities back. Gray is encouraging voters to flip that take on its head: a brash, impatient young man showing insufficient respect for the city’s old institutions. “Change,” Fenty responded in an effective new campaign ad, “has enemies”.