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Washington mayor faces reelection battle despite accomplishments

Adrian M. Fenty heads into Tuesday's primary trailing challenger Vincent Gray. Despite the gains made under Fenty, voters are divided, largely along racial and socioeconomic lines.

September 14, 2010|By Kim Geiger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — He was an ambitious and a tenacious campaigner when he won over Washington in 2006, going door to door to tell voters of his plans to reinvigorate the blighted neighborhoods in the nation's capital and to reform the district's famously troubled school system.

By most measures, Washington is a better place to live since Adrian M. Fenty became mayor.

Fenty has managed to attract businesses beyond the corridors of Georgetown and Pennsylvania Avenue. His policies have, with mixed success, reduced crime. By all accounts, Fenty staked his political career on an aggressive takeover of the district's schools. If the state of the school system were an accurate indicator — fourth-grade students here lead the nation in reading gains — Fenty would be cruising toward an easy reelection.

But despite the mayor's accomplishments, Washingtonians are divided — largely along racial and socioeconomic lines: Fenty is generally viewed as a post-civil rights era leader with the ability to transcend racial divides.

His challenger, City Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has appealed to a sense among blacks that Fenty sold them out — that the mayor cares more about dog parks and bike paths in upper-middle-class white neighborhoods than improving the distressed wards across the Anacostia River.

In this city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 11 to 1, the Democratic primary is known to determine elections. Fenty won all 142 precincts in 2006, but he goes into Tuesday's primary trailing Gray, according to recent polls.

The race has also become a referendum on school Chancellor Michelle Rhee, whom Fenty appointed after he wrested control of the school district. Rhee runs a predominantly African American school district and has raised test scores in 2009. Like the mayor, she is popular among whites. Yet she has stirred controversy by closing more than 21 schools, firing teachers and dismissing principals. The moves gained national attention and also angered unions and some parents.

Fenty has vowed to keep Rhee while Gray has hinted that he would replace her.

Although both candidates are Democrats and African American, they are from vastly different neighborhoods.

Gray, 67, is from the impoverished neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where African Americans outnumber whites more than 9 to 1. Districtwide, the African American population has declined while the white population is on the rise. Experts say blacks, driven from the city by rising rents, will by 2020 lose their majority.

By late August, Gray had amassed a 13 percentage point lead over the incumbent mayor, a Washington Post poll found. A third of respondents said they thought Fenty cared more about whites and 44% said he cared more about upper-income constituents. A mid-August poll revealed the racial divide — 70% of Gray's supporters were black and 63% of Fenty's supporters were white.

By contrast, Fenty, 39, grew up in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Mount Pleasant about the time that it was becoming desegregated. He attended public and private schools, and his parents owned a popular athletic apparel store.

In an interview, he acknowledged that his policies had alienated some voters. He has responded with apologetic TV ads, perhaps too late to cut into Gray's lead.

"It may be that in some of our neighborhoods we need to do better outreach and connecting with people," Fenty said. "We made a lot of tough decisions that have put us in an uphill battle. We did all of that knowing that it was a politically unpopular thing to do, but it was the right thing to do."

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