The Chocolate City’s Two Faces

In this first of a three-part series profiling the nation's capital, The Root takes a look at who really holds the political power in this very political town.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, 39, was born — and raised by a white mother and black father — in the city’s culturally and racially diverse Mount Pleasant neighborhood. After representing the majority-black Ward 4 for six years, he took the city by storm in 2006, when he achieved the unprecedented feat of sweeping every precinct in the District in the Democratic primary for mayor. A majority of voters in all eight of the city’s wards — with differences in wealth and race — viewed him in the same way: as a young, energetic mayor who could lead a city grappling with haves and have-nots and a crumbling school system.

Four short years later, Fenty finds himself trailing in the polls against another Washingtonian, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, 67, a late political comer who successfully ran for Ward 7 council member in 2004 and for chairman in 2006. (The Democratic primaries, which overwhelmingly decide the winner in this heavily Democratic city, will be held tomorrow.)

Fenty’s political goodwill was eroded by a number of missteps that excluded various constituencies around the city, but African Americans appeared to feel his perceived slights more acutely.

Washington Post poll in August showed a stark racial and geographic divide between the two candidates, with 64 percent of blacks supporting Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary and 64 percent of whites supporting Fenty in the contest. Among whites, 28 percent said that they would vote for Gray, while just 19 percent of blacks said that they would vote for Fenty.

Gray, who integrated George Washington University’s fraternity system when he joined a Jewish fraternity in the early 1960s, has seized on the city’s frustration over divisions with a campaign that promises “One City.”

In part, Fenty’s unpopularity can be traced to his initial decisions to appoint non-blacks to key, prominent positions in his administration, including police Chief Cathy Lanier, who is white, and the city’s controversial schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, who is Asian. Despite rumblings about the appointments his first year in office, Fenty remained popular among African Americans. But soon, his policy decisions to reduce government and reform public education affected hundreds of longtime African-American workers and teachers who were laid off in the process.