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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Science versus religion in the three-parent baby debate

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee