Rupert Cornwell: 'Jerk' mayor that Washington loves to hate

Out of America: Adrian Fenty delivered the goods, but he's likely to be ousted this week thanks to the vagaries of politics in the US capital city

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In this age of politicians who promise much and deliver little, Adrian Fenty is the exception. In his four years as mayor of Washington DC, he has greatly improved city services, from street ploughing after snowstorms to car inspections and licence renewals. Schools and recreation facilities have been built (among them a spanking new aquatic centre, complete with a 50m Olympic pool, a mile from where I live). He's even forced taxi drivers to install meters, to replace an utterly incomprehensible zoning system that drove tourists and residents alike crazy.

After years of decline Washington's population is growing again. At last, the staid and self-important seat of federal government has acquired real bustle and style. Crime is down, and a solid majority says the city is heading in the right direction. As for Fenty himself, he's raised five times as much money as his nearest challenger. So why, if the polls are right, is he about to be booted out of his job after a single term?

The peculiar and stunted nature of Washington politics mean that his fate will be decided not on 2 November when the rest of the country holds mid-term elections, but the day after tomorrow in the Democratic mayoral primary – the one election that truly matters for ordinary Washingtonians.

The imperial city that likes to think it runs the world doesn't even run itself. That power, ultimately, is in the hands of Congress, which can overrule any law passed by the DC government. Only since 1964 have local residents been able to vote in presidential elections – but since Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 10 to one, the destination of DC's three electoral college votes is a foregone conclusion. If you want to escape the din of the presidential campaign, the quietest place to be is the nation's capital.

On Capitol Hill, the District has no senators or representative, only a delegate who cannot vote. It briefly seemed that this injustice might be corrected last year, only for opponents to produce a wrecking amendment that would have eviscerated the city's strict gun laws. The bill died, and with it a common-sense solution that would have created a rock-solid Democratic seat in the House for the District, balanced by a new and equally rock-solid Republican seat in Utah.

So all that remains is the vote for mayor. But with zero chance of winning, DC's Republicans haven't even bothered to put up a candidate yet for the 2 November general election. Some gallant lawyer or property developer will doubtless step forward, but with as much chance of victory as a true-blue Tory in the Rhondda Valley. In practice, therefore, the Democratic primary is the election for DC mayor. Which brings me back to Adrian Fenty, and his likely defeat on Tuesday by Vincent Gray, currently chairman of the City Council.

At first glance, Fenty's travails seem nothing exceptional in this summer of electoral discontent – just another incumbent about to be punished by voters for his association with a failed status quo. Except that in this case, the status quo is Gray. Fenty was, and remains, the outsider intent on shaking things up and ending government as usual.

Politicians, it has been said, are either healers or warriors. Gray is the former, a consensus politician of the old school who creates few waves. Fenty is the exact opposite, a man who takes no prisoners, and asks only to be judged by results. In another place and another party, he might well have been a darling of the insurgent Tea Party movement that is currently sending tremors through the Republican political establishment.

A lawyer by training, he is by far the youngest of the six mayors elected since Washington was granted limited self-rule in 1973. Even now, he hasn't turned 40, and is a full generation younger than his 67-year-old opponent. In 2006, Fenty scored a stunning upset victory, carrying every precinct in the city, and for a while his record in office carried all before it.

But in politics, results are not all. Human skills matter too. Fenty's relations with the council were dismal, while to ordinary voters he came across as arrogant, aloof and out of touch – so out of touch he failed to pick up the changing mood until too late. By summer, the healer seemed preferable to the warrior.

In vain did The Washington Post "enthusiastically" endorse Fenty in August. A couple of weeks later, a Post poll put Gray ahead by 17 points, and Fenty – an early and vociferous supporter of Barack Obama – is reported to have begged Washington's most famous resident to return the favour. But at this stage of the game, even an Obama endorsement would probably make little difference.

So just a victory for style over substance? Not entirely. This after all is Washington DC, where race is ever a factor. Blacks have always been a majority in the city, and remain so today. Fenty and Gray, as every mayor before them, are African-Americans – but at that point, for many blacks, the similarities end.

Increasingly, Fenty is seen as too concerned with keeping the city's white population happy, and as indifferent to Washington's traditional black power structure. Nothing has aroused more controversy than his appointment of the Korean-American Michelle Rhee to clean up the school system, riddled by patronage and waste and among the worst performing in the country. Ms Rhee, if anything, is even less inclined to take prisoners than Mr Fenty, sacking teachers by the hundred, and closing substandard schools. Success has been substantial, but so has the political price: a resentment of the schools chancellor that has eroded support for her boss among black voters – even though the children of poor and middle income black families stand to benefit most from the reforms.

"Fenty for Mayor: The Jerk DC needs", blared the Washington City Paper editorial the other day, endorsing Fenty. Alas, DC seems to have has had enough of jerks. Even jerks who deliver the goods.

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