A Tale of Two Post-Racial Mayors
Both Cory Booker and Adrian Fenty were swept into office in a tide of good feelings. Now Fenty is fighting to hold on to his job in today's D.C. primaries, and Booker's black support is waning in Newark. What happened?
In the District, where 75 percent of the electorate is Democratic, Fenty's campaign unsuccessfully petitioned the Board of Elections and Ethics to allow independent voters to take advantage of the city's new same-day registration. The idea was that independent voters could choose to be Democrats and cast ballots for Fenty. Broadening the electorate would have been to Fenty's advantage.
For Fenty, it's a stark contrast with the 2006 elections. The son of a white mother and black father, the Oberlin College graduate is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and attended Howard University Law School. As an adult, he settled in the majority-black Ward 4, which he represented as a council member for six years before taking office as mayor. The flip in opinion among African Americans appeared gradual, beginning with rumblings about his non-black appointments.
Though he pushed his administration to build schools, recreation centers and libraries all over the city, one of the first projects to be completed was a long-awaited pool in predominantly white Ward 3. When Eastern Market in the gentrifying Ward 6 and a library in tony Georgetown were destroyed by fire on the same day, Fenty immediately announced plans and funds for restoration. At the time, in 2007, the shell of the O Street market in the black Shaw neighborhood remained untouched, despite a roof collapse in 2003. (Fenty and developers broke ground on the redevelopment of O Street two weeks ago.)
When Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee began her reform of education, she began by closing two dozen schools. None was closed in predominantly white Ward 3, while predominantly black Ward 5 took the brunt.
Fenty, who has acknowledged the "mistake" of failing to listen to constituents when making decisions, also became known as arrogant and brusque, often shunning the ceremonial duties of his predecessors.
The Sunday before the election, Fenty competed in a triathlon; Gray went to church. But Fenty said he is hurt by the black community's opinion of him. "Anybody who says they don't want someone of their own race and background to like them, you've gotta think about, and yes, of course it hurts," Fenty said during a one-on-one debate with Gray.
Booker, too, has had to go on the defensive about asserting his loyalty to the black community. "I am a manifestation of their struggles," he has said about the criticism he has received from an older generation of black politicians. But if he has aspirations for higher office, Booker may have to do better with the black electorate.
One of the reasons that James, Booker's predecessor, was able to serve a record five terms was that he was able to marshal the city's black voters for gubernatorial, senatorial and presidential candidates alike. Booker has struggled and failed to take control of Newark's Democratic machinery and is often criticized for not having long-enough coattails.
"You will have white politicians who will use that against him. I'm sure they will say that if he can't get the majority of your folks, why should he be the Democratic nominee? Running as a Democrat, you need the black vote. If you don't have the black vote in a statewide Democratic Primary, you can't win," Muhammad says.
Nikita Stewart covers Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and District politics as a staff writer for The Washington Post. She previously covered Newark politics for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter.
Jeff Mays is a freelance journalist based in New York City. He previously covered Cory Booker and the city of Newark for The Star-Ledger in New Jersey. His work has appeared in The New York Times, and he is a featured blogger on AOL's BlackVoices.