With weeks to go before the decisive D.C. Democratic mayoral primary, the city’s political establishment seems to have decided that the election boils down to a referendum on the personality of the incumbent, Adrian Fenty.
Unfortunately for the mayor, his fellow pols aren’t debating whether Fenty has a personality problem. Rather, they’re arguing about how to best describe that problem. To pick just three of the terms thrown around during this unhappy summer of lopsided straw polls and campaign-trail boo-birds, the options include “arrogant prick,” “brat,” and “spoiled child.”
“His politics are unnecessarily abrasive, confrontational, disrespectful, superficial,” says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who was on the council during Fenty’s six years there and has continued as a councilmember during Fenty’s four years as a mayor.
“I think his social skills have a lot of room for improvement,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. “It’s gotten completely out of control.”
The feeling isn’t simply shared by the elected officials. It extends well into the politically engaged realm of the general public, that vocal minority of residents who take the time to turn out at campaign debates and political meet-and-greets. “I’d vote for a little dead bug before I’d vote for Fenty,” said a retired school teacher at a recent Ward 7 straw poll.
They don’t like him. They really, really don’t like him. As Fenty fights for his political life ahead of the Sept. 14 primary, few other factors can explain the peril he faces. A political scientist would label the mayor a shoo-in: The city’s population is growing. People are generally happy with city services. Murders are down. And there’s no imminent cliff the city’s about to drive off.
Indeed, Fenty’s main challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has barely even tried to make the case that campaign strategists typically say is essential for ousting any incumbent: That Fenty’s four-year term has been a failure.
And yet, even though the number of specific Fenty policies that Gray is on-record saying he’ll undo is vanishingly small, Gray’s campaign literature announces that “we can do better.” What does he mean by this? Gray spends a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about “bringing people together” and how he’ll be an “inclusive” mayor. In other words, “we can do better” might as well mean: “You’ll like me.”
The election may well hinge on whether enough voters think that’s a sufficient reason to change mayors.
In politics, being likeable is an elusive quality—one that has only so much to do with a pol’s actual personality.
Bill Clinton had legendary closed-door tantrums directed at his staff. Yet even his fiercest detractors agreed he was fundamentally an amiable guy. George W. Bush could be petulant and bitter around fellow insiders. But he still won the 2004 election, in large part because people thought they’d rather have a beer with him than with John Kerry.
Much of Fenty’s messaging involves exploiting that division between on-stage and off. His TV spots acknowledge that he throws sharp elbows, but ask voters to judge him by his accomplishments. Asked about the attacks on his personality, Fenty says it’s just politics: “What people are saying is, they have quarrels with Adrian Fenty the mayor,” he says. “No one is really commenting on me personally, they don’t know me personally.”
If that’s true—that after four years in office, Fenty remains an unknown to most of his constituents—it represents something most politicians would see as a significant communications failure.
But in Fenty’s case, it may well be a blessing in disguise. Many of the people who’ve seen the mayor’s private side don’t much like it.
One police officer who has helped provide security for the mayor on several occasions says Fenty acts friendly to officers when there are other people around. But when it’s just Fenty or his confidantes, the mayor acts “very pompous and very much an ass,” rarely bothering to acknowledge the security guys’ presence. (The officer’s union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has endorsed Gray.)
In Fenty’s own office, current and former lower-level staffers call him a “moody” boss. One says he became so accustomed to Fenty’s angry side that he could see the mayor’s rage coming by watching for the throbbing of a vein in his head. “He runs his ship by fear; people are afraid of him,” says one staffer. “He’s one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life.”
Several sources said Fenty has a ferocious temper. Last December, according to multiple sources, Fenty kicked a trash can, slammed a door, and screamed, “I’m the fucking mayor,” after learning that some much-hated New Jersey Avenue NW billboards were being removed without his being present for a photo-op. A Fenty campaign spokesman disputes the details of that event. The mayor also got worked up when he heard that LeBron James was in town and his staff hadn’t arranged for Fenty to meet with the basketball star, according to sources.
One former staffer likened working for Fenty to being an “abused wife,” constantly fighting a losing battle to make the mayor happy. The one time Fenty gave him a compliment, it came as such a shock that he called his significant other to tell her that maybe the mayor wasn’t such a bad guy, after all.