In September 2006 the headline of the Washington Post read “Fenty Prevails in Mayor’s Race.” The then-Ward 4 council member defeated council chair Linda Cropp in the Democratic primary 57 percent to 31 percent; winning all eight wards and every precinct in the District.
A year later, Fenty, like former Congressman Harold Ford Jr., Anthony Brown, the lieutenant governor of Maryland, and the mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, was being compared with Barack Obama as part of a new generation of African-American political leadership. These individuals have been credited with running a new type of campaign, not limiting themselves to black districts — running “race neutral” campaigns.
Almost four years to the day later the headline reads “D.C. voters oust Fenty during Dem primary.” Elections are a combination of candidates, issues, and personalities. When a candidate’s personality becomes the issue there’s a problem for that candidate.
As late as January 2010 the Washington Post wrote, “Nine months before the Democratic primary, Fenty (D) has no widely known or well-funded challengers, even as recent polls have shown his popularity declining.” Others (such as Vincent Gray) at that time were thinking about running but any challenger would, “be hard-pressed to match the $3 million that Fenty has raised toward his bid for a second term.” Council Chairman Vincent Gray did not enter the race until March and was able to raise the money and garner enough support to defeat the incumbent mayor with almost $4.5 million in his war chest to Gray’s $1.3 million.
Second only to Sen. Barack Obama’s defeat of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Fenty’s defeat has to be one of, if not the most, significant turnarounds of political fortunes in recent history. Within the span of seven months, Fenty went from being the unopposed incumbent mayor of the District of Columbia to losing the Democratic primary. He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Are there parallels to be drawn between Fenty’s loss and President Obama’s current struggles? They may have some similar problems but for different reasons. Both Fenty and President Obama have run into problems with their base of support. Fenty with African-American voters in Washington, D.C. and the president with progressives and independent voters. The colorblind nature of their politics is not the basis of their problems.
Polls indicated a real disconnect between the perception of accomplishment in D.C. and Fenty’s personality. According to the Washington Post, “Although most of those Democrats polled credit the mayor with a record of accomplishment and say he brought needed change to the District, many doubt his honesty, his willingness to listen to different points of view and his ability to understand their problems. The criticisms are especially deep-seated among African-Americans, who are likely to make up a majority of primary voters.” Fenty’s fall was based upon a personal failing that manifested itself in his inability to retain the trust of the voters in D.C.
President Obama faces different circumstances. He has been overcome by an economic recession that has made it very difficult for him to stay on message. Rasmussen Reports says 41 percent of the nations voters strongly disapprove of the president’s performance, giving him a presidential approval index rating of -12. He also faces a Republican Party that has decided to oppose him at every turn; trying to be bipartisan in an obstructionist environment. Then there are those who question if the progressive policies that he campaigned on were actually representative of his views.
Both Mayor Fenty and President Obama have had problems maintaining the support of their base. Fenty lost the support of African-Americans in D.C. not because of the de-racialized nature of his politics but because of his arrogance, lapses is judgment and his attempts to push initiatives through with out getting buy-in from his supporters. President Obama is loosing his base because progressives and independents don’t feel he has championed their causes and fought hard enough against conservative recalcitrance in congress. They still like him as a person but question his ability to lead, fight, and defend the principles of the left. Only time will tell if the president can correct course in time to avoid Fenty’s fate.
Dr. Wilmer Leon is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Wilmer Leon,” and a Teaching Associate in the Department of Political Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Go to http://www.wilmerleon.com or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.twitter.com/drwleon