Four years ago, Adrian M. Fenty rode a wave of support to become the District of Columbia’s mayor, with the promise of governing the nation’s capital in a more efficient and business oriented manner. Like Cory Booker in Newark, New Jersey and Detroit’s Kwame Kilpatrick, Fenty represented a new wave of youthful Black leadership that was poised to put its stamp on several of the nation’s key cities. Today, just Booker survives as Kilpatrick has gone down in scandal and voters in D.C. sent Fenty packing on Tuesday night, opting for the older City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.
While Fenty’s loss does not represent the end of a generational shift in Black politics, the election results raises questions as to the temperament of the Black electorate and its tolerance for a different type of post-civil rights leadership. By all accounts, Adrian Fenty lost his bid for re-election on style points. Despite having taken several substantive steps to improve the quality of life of District residents, Mayor Fenty came up short in the personality department. Voters accused Fenty of being indifferent toward criticism, aloof and arrogant. His attempt to run on his record did not persuade voters and he lost considerable support in the Black community. By Election Day, Mayor Fenty was trailing his opponent badly and there was little Fenty could do to save his job.
It is hard to imagine a swifter fall from grace but today’s emerging Black elected officials should heed the lessons of Adrian Fenty’s downfall. While Black voters are demanding change, the change they are demanding cannot abandon traditional concepts of “community” or stray too far away from race consciousness. District voters first elected Fenty to the City Council in 2000 as a reformer, an outsider who was prepared to engage in a more results oriented governance and who was not wedded to the traditional political playbook. In the same way, Cory Booker first came to prominence in Newark as a reformer. As mayor, Adrian Fenty continued to manage the city in a very detached way. His estrangement from his own political base marked the beginning of the end for Fenty and gave Vincent Gray the opportunity to cast himself as more in tune with the needs of the District.
While personalities such as Fenty and Cory Booker, more so than Kwame Kilpatrick, seem to have perfected the role of populist reformer as candidates, they seem to have underestimated the power of racial identity. Both men ran “post-racial” campaigns, similar in rhetoric to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential bid, although they were seeking office in cities with sizeable Black populations. Each man also distanced himself understandably so from the civil rights generation since their life experiences are markedly different from pre-1968 Black America. In both cities, there were mayoral legacies, in the persons of Marion Barry in Washington D.C. and Sharpe James in Newark, whose politics embraced the civil rights message and leaned on racial solidarity to frame their administrations. Fenty and Booker are two of the new breed of Black politicians, visually Black but embracing a more universal message and resisting any overt racial identification. Competency, efficiency and effectiveness are the buzzwords for this new crop of Black politicos and they are taking a more technical and clinical approach to governance. In some respects, they are students of the Michael Bloomberg “school of politics,” as New York’s billionaire mayor has set the standard for this clinical approach and has had warm words for both Fenty and Booker.
In the backdrop of Fenty’s loss is Cory Booker’s declining popularity in Newark. After a resounding victory two years ago, Black voters in New Jersey’s largest city are signaling their frustration with the mayor who has been a media darling. While observers outside of Newark still sing Booker’s praises, he is getting a much colder reception within the community and his stock has fallen considerably. Part of Booker’s fall in popularity can be attributable to the normal rough and tumble of Newark politics, an environment where the political can quickly become personal. Still, there is a real sense that many Blacks in the city are taking issue with Booker’s team, the importation of a cadre of “outsiders,” and the perception that the mayor’s allegiance is to white monies interests. In this year’s City Council elections, two upstart candidates, Ras Baraka and Darrin Sharif, took on Booker’s political machine and ran on a grassroots platform, and beat the mayor. Now, both Baraka and Sharif stand as potential rivals to Booker.
This new crop of Black political leadership may have overplayed its hand in offering up a managerial model to voters and failing to understand the importance of racial group identity. Black voters might be clamoring for better governance but we do not appear to be at that point in our nation’s history when racial identification does not matter. In the case of the District of Columbia, racial sensitivity is high in a city where gentrification is knocking on the Black community’s door and there is still resentment over the city’s second-class voting status in Congress. While the appointment of Walter Washington as mayor seems eons ago, issues of political control and self-determination are still fresh in the minds of many District residents. Much the same is true of Newark, where Black voters first elected Ken Gibson to office in 1970. What we can gather by Tuesday’s polling in the District is that Black voters there felt there was too much physical and emotional distance between them and Mayor Fenty. While the jury is still out on Mayor Kasim Reed in Atlanta, the new generation of Black leadership may need to rewrite its political playbook to avoid the fate of Fenty.