For all their divisions, supporters of Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray share a basic sense of what 2010 means. A vote for Fenty, mayoral fans argue, continues the District’s metamorphosis into a more cosmopolitan, upscale city. A vote for Gray, admirers of the D.C. Council chairman imply, stops The Plan dead, putting all those whiny newcomers in their place.
Both versions are phony. The demographic changes polarizing the electorate mostly reflect things no mayor controls: Interest rates, changing tastes, suburban commutes. To historians, the story of early 21st century D.C. will be that, after decades of shrinking, the city began to grow again—in the process acquiring a richer, whiter population than it had between World War II and the 1990s. Same goes for many other big cities.
The main job for the next mayor—and the mayor after that, and the mayor after that—is managing this change. Demography may be destiny, but plenty of variables remain, not all of them racially polarized: Will non-rich longtime residents feel like they benefit from an expanded tax base? Will newcomers believe D.C.’s schools, parks, and government live up to the higher standards they experienced elsewhere? Will Washington grow by embracing big-city density? Will it attract immigrants as well as yuppies?
On these questions, neither candidate is perfect. Fenty has bungled the job of making poorer residents feel a part of the new D.C. Admirers say the only people who call Fenty a jerk are the hacks he’s ostracized. But as emotionally satisfying as it is to hear him elicit wails from the Washington Teachers Union, even a half-smart pol knows that gratuitous dissing of D.C. employees and insiders can play as disrespect for the African-American population that comprises most of those employees and insiders.
Fenty, we now know, isn’t a half-smart pol. When he came to chat with Washington City Paper, he dismissed concerns over a shady parks contract for his failed dry cleaner pal Sinclair Skinner by saying an independent city authority cut the deal and he didn’t have the statutory authority to override it. True! But he had the moral authority. Is he too dumb to realize that sort of muddy message, even on an absurdly overhyped scandal, hurts his ability to sell major initiatives? It’s not that Fenty failed to sell his administration; until his poll numbers tanked, he didn’t even try.
All the same, public policy matters a lot more than even the most idiotic communications. And on this front, it’s hard not to love Fenty.
Building on Anthony Williams’ efforts, Fenty has overseen a dramatically more professional D.C government. There’s a reason that even polls predicting a lopsided Fenty loss reveal happiness with the general state of things. Thanks to appointees like Gabe Klein, Harriet Tregoning, and Cathy Lanier, the city’s agencies are more responsive to citizens than they’ve ever been.
With schools, Fenty’s been even more ambitious than his predecessor. Michelle Rhee’s assault on the D.C. Public Schools status quo will go down as a rare attempt to raise local institutions above the low standards Washingtonians once accepted. Rhee shares Fenty’s abrasive traits, but in her case, it’s easy to be more charitable: When it comes to reforming a failed school system, you either go monomaniacal or go home. It’s naïve to think that you can do it while simultaneously making nice with the old guard.
Making nice with the old guard, alas, is a key Gray tactic. He hasn’t argued that Fenty is a failure—to the contrary, he makes Fenty’s case by failing to criticize the mayor on substantive policy grounds. When we asked Gray to name three Fenty policies he’d overturn, he struggled to come up with one, dinging Fenty (politely) for giving short shrift to the University of the District of Columbia in his education efforts.
Instead, Gray’s message is about style, about how a mayor must be more “respectful.” What does that mean? A pretty good hint came in the form of an e-mail asking fired city employees to contact Gray’s campaign, presumably to testify about how disrespectful Fenty is. Gray distanced himself from the e-mail, but not from the idea that his election means bureaucratic job security will be a top priority again at the Wilson Building.
Polls have shown the courtly Gray benefiting from voters’ conclusion that Fenty is a jerk. Content with riding that into office, he’s settled—wisely—on a strategy of being all things to all people. Take transportation: He wants to get people out of their cars. But he wants cheaper parking, too! Or growth. Should a D.C. mayor push for new residents? “Yes, within limits,” he says. “I don’t know what those limits are at this stage.” Thanks for clearing that up.
The “yeah, but...” strategy is especially pronounced on education: Gray wants school reform, he says. “Aggressive reform,” even! But when it comes to school closings and teacher firings—“aggressive” in action—he is Mr. Passive. Contrast his rare shots at DCPS’s status quo ante with the ample time he’s spent on pusillanimous process questions about Rhee’s personnel decisions.
When Gray came to visit, he extended his noncommittal approach beyond policy questions. Who, we asked, did Gray think was the best mayor D.C. has had under Home Rule? They’d all done some good things, he said. Who was the worst? “I’m curious as to why you even ask that question,” he said.
Well, Vince, we’ll tell you. For a dozen years, D.C.’s government has generally, if imperfectly, gotten better at doing its job. There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the biggest one may be the way two successive mayors made it clear to employees that a sword of Damocles hung over them. Fuck up, and you just might get fired. This wasn’t true under Marion Barry, who’s endorsed you, or Sharon Pratt, who first brought you to government. So, yeah, it’d be nice to know just who you admire.
When people evoke Washington’s bad old days, they don’t just mean mayoral drug arrests. For locals, the strongest memories are of smaller ignominies at the hands of a nincompoop government—one that screwed up minor DMV tasks and major social-services responsibilities alike. One Gray supporter lamely told us that bureaucratic competence was now “baked into the cake.” People once said the same about incompetence! Campaigning on his style, Gray hasn’t proved he’ll watchdog against revived ineptitude—especially if watchdogging means acting like… a jerk.
Gray is a decent man, someone who won’t embarrass via personal escapades and won’t stoop to Barry-style race-baiting. He holds himself to high standards—higher, often, than Fenty. But until we hear him explain how he’ll hold others to those same standards—and until he demonstrates that he has whatever combination of managerial toughness, personal ruthlessness and out-and-out misanthropy it takes to exorcise those who don’t measure up—he ain’t our guy.
Vote Adrian Fenty. He’s a jerk. But he’s your jerk.
D.C. Council chairman Vincent Orange
You know who we’d really like to endorse for D.C. Council chairman? Vince Gray! Gray’s plodding style is a good fit for a body that only recently started to provide a real check on the executive branch. Alas, he’s not on the ballot, and the two candidates who are—At-Large Councilmember/boating enthusiast Kwame Brown and former Ward 5 Councilmember/Pepco lobbyist Vincent Orange—are no great shakes.
The choice serves as a reminder of the cowardice of D.C.’s political class, many of whose more appealing members should have run in this race. Nearly all of Brown’s colleagues have endorsed him, which means only that they think he’s going to win and don’t want him to mess up their comfortable status quo. That’s reason enough to oppose him.
Vote Vincent Orange. If you must.
At-Large council member Phil Mendelson
This year’s Democratic primary for at-large member of the D.C. Council could provide proof-positive that the District, dynamic new image notwithstanding, houses the world’s dumbest electorate. How else to explain the fact that a relative unknown named Michael D. Brown is running ahead in the polls—mostly because voters confuse him with popular incumbent Michael A. Brown, who’s not on the ballot?
The reasons for opposing Brown go beyond concern for hometown dignity. They mainly involve Phil Mendelson, the stellar public servant who’d be ousted in the process. A legislative workhorse who shepherded initiatives like gay marriage into law, Mendelson is also kind of a quibbler, which can be irritating to mayors and other ambitious types. But he’s in a job that suits his persnickety skills.
Vote Phil Mendelson. And follow all of the appropriate procedures when you do.
Ward 1: Bryan Weaver
In Ward 1, on the other hand, Jim Graham’s case for re-election doesn’t involve wonkery so much as omniscience. Graham’s been the go-to guy, his campaign says, on every issue—from potholes to crime to development—where residents must interact with their government. After a term that saw Graham’s chief of staff arrested on bribery charges and Graham’s service as Metro board chairman come under prolonged attack, is that any reason to keep him?
It might be, if not for the fact that Graham is facing a challenge from Bryan Weaver, a four-term advisory neighborhood commissioner and all-around good guy. Weaver can match Graham’s constituent-service hustle—and brings some worthy experience battling slumlords and reaching out to at-risk kids—and he comes without much of the incumbent’s baggage.
Vote Bryan Weaver. And watch the video!
Ward 3: Mary Cheh
Ward 3’s Mary Cheh faces no primary challenger. This is kind of a drag, since we’d have liked to see how she handled her loathing for the mayor while facing a challenge in her Fenty-loving ward. We’ll concede that most of the problems in their relationship were Fenty’s fault—it’s his job, after all, to keep hard-to-please legislators on the team. Still, if Gray wins, Cheh will have done her part to drive Michelle Rhee out of D.C. We gladly endorse her based on a stellar legislative record. But it’s a pity she won’t have to answer for this on primary day.
Vote Mary Cheh. She’s the only choice. (Literally.)
Ward 5: Kenyan McDuffie
In a crowded field, Ward 5 Democrat Harry Thomas, Jr. may be the most vociferous opponent of reforming the way D.C.’s government does business. Unfortunately, his highest-profile opponent on primary day is Delano Hunter, whose high profile stems in large part from the fact that he’s the darling of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage.
Thomas’ brave vote in favor of gay marriage is one of the few reasons to applaud his term in office. There will be more reasons to applaud four years from now if voters pick Kenyan McDuffie, who would bring a wonkier style—and fewer ties to the status quo—to the job.
Vote Kenyan McDuffie. Spouses of any gender welcome at the polls.
Ward 6: Tommy Wells
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells rocks. He’s a champion of transit, the environment, and the walkable city of lively neighborhoods that we hope D.C. will become. For all that, he’s facing a challenger who’s throwing around class-politics code-words to imply that Wells’ urbanist concerns are only important to the rich, Capitol Hill parts of the ward.
Bullshit. Living, breathing, walking neighborhoods—and the transit and commerce that enable them—create jobs and reduce crime, which are basics for everyone.
Vote Tommy Wells. And please, walk to the polls.
D.C. Congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton
With most of the electoral attention on the Wilson Building, the race for D.C.’s congressional delegate has largely been off the radar. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton’s critics—including primary opponent Doug Sloan—slam her for failing to win a vote for the District despite a large Democratic majority in Congress. But with Republicans poised to gain in November, chances are that whoever is D.C.’s delegate will no longer worry about playing offense.
Instead, the task will be defending the District against members who want to use us as their legislative petri dish. Norton was stellar at that during the last GOP majority. And her power and influence have grown since then: She chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure economic development subcommittee and is the No. 2 Democrat on the subcommittee that oversees District affairs. Bottom line: It would be really dumb to boot someone with Norton’s grit and know-how—not to mention her seniority.
Vote Eleanor Holmes Norton. While you still can!
D.C. shadow representative Mike Panetta
Without status or paycheck, D.C. shadow representative is an appropriately obscure office. Challenger Nate Bennett-Fleming, a young Ward 8 native, is the most passionate speaker about the District’s lack of voting rights. But the incumbent, political consultant Mike Panetta, has done more than speak passionately. In creating the Free and Equal D.C. Fund, a PAC funding home-district challenges to members of Congress who mess with D.C., he’s actually spoken the one language national pols understand: The language of money and fear.
Vote Mike Panetta. But more importantly, contribute to his PAC.
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