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Home rule is still a relatively new concept in the District of Columbia. In 1974, a new era dawned as the first popularly elected Mayor and City Council took office, beginning the District’s experiment in limited autonomy. Now, 32 years later, the pending retirement of Mayor Anthony Williams means next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, the de facto election in a city where almost three-fourths of residents are registered Democrats, will see the election of D.C.’s fifth unique popularly elected mayor.
A crowded field from the beginning, recent polls show the race narrowed down to two candidates, current Council Chair Linda Cropp and Councilman Adrian Fenty. The two are a study in sharp contrasts: old against young, conciliator against agitator, insider against newcomer. As the race comes to a head and the campaigns make their final pitches, the result—and the future of the city—will likely come down to which resonates with voters more: stability and a long track record or the promise of change and rising stardom. From college students to Hill staffers to lifetime citizens, all city residents will feel the effects of this election for years to come.
In This Corner…
Linda Washington Cropp, now 58, first arrived in D.C. to attend Howard University over 30 years ago. After earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees there, she began a career in the public school system as a teacher and counselor, and went on to represent Ward 4 on the Board of Education, eventually becoming president. In 1990 she mounted a successful run for an at-large position on the City Council, and became chair after a special election in 1997 following the death of then-Chair David A. Clarke. She has held the position ever since.
Around the time Cropp was receiving her Master’s from Howard, a child named Adrian Malik Fenty was born in the same city. Raised in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of the District, Fenty attended Oberlin College in Ohio and went on to earn a law degree from Howard. Before joining the City Council, Fenty was the Committee Clerk and Counsel for the City Council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, and also worked occasionally at his family’s Adams Morgan-based sporting goods shop, Fleet Feet. In 2000, he was elected to represent Ward 4—the same ward that elected Cropp to the school board—on the Council, and won reelection in 2004.
The two often found themselves at odds during their six years as colleagues on the council. The baseball stadium saga serves as a prime example: despite some dramatic shifting in her stance on stadium financing, Cropp was one of the major players ensuring a deal was made, while Fenty stood firmly opposed to a stadium built with public financing from the beginning. The former is perceived as an insider, a close ally of the mayor (and the recipient of his endorsement), and has promised to be a consensus builder if elected, while the latter was recently called an “action hero” by Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher for his responsiveness to constituents, and is willing to stand alone on his principles, as demonstrated by his lone vote against last month’s emergency crime bill.
Fenty announced his candidacy for mayor in June, 2005, and Cropp followed in September. Three other names—former Verizon executive Marie Johns, Councilman Vincent Orange, and Democratic activist Michael Brown—have also been in the race since its early days, but outside of their campaigns they have rarely been considered more than also-rans. The most recent Washington Post poll, taken in July, showed Fenty with a 39 to 31 percent lead over Cropp among registered Democrats, and an even wider lead of 10 percentage points among likely voters.
In an election, however, two months can result in a sea change. That may be especially true in this city, where the accoutrements of a modern election, such as campaign web sites and blogs, are being blended into a throwback version of communal, civil society-style politics that was lost long ago in many parts of the country. That meetings in churches and door-to-door canvassing should make the difference in the home of the large, impersonal federal government is the beautiful irony of Washington’s municipal politics.
One such church meeting was the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations’ “Super Tuesday Invitational” held on August 29th at the People’s Congregational United Church of Christ. The lower level of the cozy sanctuary on 13th Street in Brightwood was just about full by 8:00 p.m. The undercard, a four-way debate between candidates for Council Chair and Councilman-at-Large, began an hour earlier before a modest crowd, but interested citizens trickled in steadily over the hour to watch the main event: a one-hour debate between Cropp and Fenty.
In between debates the pandemonium resembled a high school classroom without a teacher, and Linda Cropp was in the middle of it, kissing cheeks and checking up on familiar faces, asking “how are you?” with the extended vowels one would come to expect from her grandmotherly appearance. However, as order was restored to the room, it became increasingly clear that no one was sitting behind the “Adrian M. Fenty” sign on the altar. Moderator Leo Alexander, a former Washington-area TV journalist, took the opportunity to chastise Fenty for declining an invitation to debate in “his backyard,” then left it to Cropp to hold court for twenty minutes in front of a panel of three other Washington TV and newspaper personalities.
Bookended by stained-glass windows depicting the “Ole Ship of Zion” and proclaiming “Free at Last,” Cropp shunned her chair and was on her feet for the entire 20 minutes. She was calm and articulate from the start, spelling out her plans for local businesses to receive a portion of all city contracts—”They create jobs for D.C. residents,” she said—and her demand that developers replace all the low-income and affordable housing projects they remove.
“We cannot be a city of the very, very rich and the very, very poor,” she said, before repeating former Council Chairman John Wilson’s joke that it’s “because neither of them pay taxes.” She also advocated flexible zoning, allowing extra stories to be added to certain zoning rights if they are used for affordable housing.
When asked about the future of embattled Police Chief Charles Ramsey, Cropp said she would ask the mayor’s entire cabinet to submit their resignations, and then interview each one to see if they had the same vision for the city as she did.
As the topic inevitably turned to education, she bemoaned the city’s abandonment of vocational schooling and pushed for an expansion of vocational education into the 20 to 55 year-old demographic. She also touted a new endeavor.
“I want to have a D.C. ‘Peace Corps’ for education, to provide extra support for non-performing schools,” she said. She later clarified to The Voice that this organization would be composed of college students, adding, “There’s so much talent that hasn’t been tapped in the universities.” Her own record on the school board, often held up by opponents as a failure, became a point of pride as she related her fight to open and save Banneker High School, which has since become one of Newsweek’s top fifty high schools nationwide. The story ended in cheers from the crowd.
Cropp’s tone remained placid until she was asked why her campaign had turned to attacking Fenty instead of maintaining a positive message. She then became positively excited, working herself and the crowd up toward a fervor as she harped upon her campaign’s catchphrase, “public record.” Her history as a legislator, she believes, is what sets her apart.
“I don’t think this decision should be based only on knocking on doors,” she said.
Fenty, Vidi, Vici
Beth Solomon’s M Street apartment, located far from the chic shops and fine eateries of Georgetown, offers a fantastic view of the city from the other side of Ward 2. On the evening of September 3rd, scattered across the hardwood floor and black leather furniture of the modestly upscale living room were roughly thirty Adrian Fenty supporters, most with their first names scrawled in permanent marker on one side of their shirt and Green “Fenty” stickers on the other. Ranging from college-aged to elderly, they were gathered amidst the modern art and smell of perfume for a “pre-election rally.”
Amidst the chatter before Fenty’s arrival, Solomon told the story of how she became involved in his campaign. A resident since 1989, she and a few others sought someone to challenge Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, a 20-year incumbent, after losing the battle against the new Convention Center and other development in the area in 1999. They found Fenty.
“Adrian was this kid, words would tumble out of his mouth,” she said. The group held its first fundraiser in a warehouse, and so sparked a rapidly rising career. Solomon guessed his age at the time at 29, to which Fenty would later assent with a smile and a thumbs-up.
A minor hush entered the room when Fenty emerged from the stairwell leading into the apartment, but any sense of anticipation he felt did not deter him from going around to shake hands and greet supporters personally. Finally taking his place near the piano, with the night skyline at his back, Fenty addressed his supporters after an introduction by Solomon.
“It’s now time to take on the world, to conquer the world, to change the world,” he began, after offering the obligatory acknowledgments. He stressed that Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital, should be a beacon for other cities looking for guidance on how to run a government. He also tacitly acknowledged his lead in the polls, but continued to “take nothing for granted.”
He went on to address the issues that have come to define the campaign.
“People are saying, Fenty, you gotta fix the school system, you can’t continue to let us move into these great areas or live here for decades, and have schools that are inadequate to send our children,” he said, while positing increased accountability as the key to fixing the education system. He also showed himself to have a sense of humor while talking about traveling to other cities to compare educational best practices, claiming they would be “day trips” in a nod to Mayor Williams’ recent world travel. His insistence on researching education practices in successful cities (he named New York and Miami specifically) echo his contention that no option is off the table for fixing the school system, and speak to the potential for wholesale change if Fenty is elected.
“We knock on doors in Georgetown, we know what the concern is … people are concerned about service delivery,” he continued, referring to EMS and fire services. He also addressed the recent crime wave and the need to see more police officers on the streets. During the campaign, he has indicated he would fire Chief Ramsey, a Williams appointee.
Fenty’s final message to his supporters reflected the principles upon which he has based his tenure on the council.
“The only thing that anyone will ever remember you for is how many people you helped, whose life you changed along the way,” he said.
The differences established between Fenty and Cropp throughout the campaign were highlighted in full during their lone one-on-one debate, held on the News Channel 8 program NewsTalk on August 28. It seemed a microcosm of D.C. politics in general: the contest lacked the formalities, such as time limits, opening statements and podiums, for which political debates have become famous, and instead saw the two candidates seated almost absurdly close to each other on the small set to talk about their differences.
While hot-button issues such as education and crime were of course addressed, the real import of the debate was Fenty’s first foray into counterattack against Cropp. Fenty’s record has come under fire from the Cropp campaign in recent weeks, particularly the case of William Hardy, an elderly man whose estate Fenty neglected as a lawyer after being appointed its guardian in 1999. Fenty received an admonishment from the D.C. bar, the lightest sanction possible.
Cropp has also touched upon Fenty’s membership on the board of a failed charter school, for which he has claimed he “did not attend the meetings.” In an interview with The Voice, she brought up Fenty’s record of her own accord, saying she feels her record is stronger on fiscal management.
“My major opponent has shown a pattern of fiscal mismanagement and poor judgment,” she said.
Fenty spoke directly to these fiscal concerns during the debate, displaying a chart showing the city’s budget deficit lasting through 1998. The balance budget, he claimed, was not a product of Cropp’s leadership, but of the then-new mayor and the financial control board.
“If you want to talk about who’s got a record of irresponsible financing, I think the record speaks for itself,” he said during the debate. Cropp then claimed she had presented balance budgets prior to 1998.
Fenty acknowledged the mistake made with the Hardy estate, turning that attack around on Cropp as well.
“I get ahead in the election, just like I get ahead in this debate, and my opponent starts going negative,” he said. “My opponent was president of the school board when it ran itself right into the ground.”
Despite repeated calls to his campaign, The Voice was unable to interview Fenty. Cropp responded that she was proud of her record on the school board, but not satisfied with where the schools are.
And the Winner Is…
The Fenty campaign scored two major victories this past Tuesday, a mere week before the election, in the form of endorsements from both The Washington Post and former mayor Marion Barry. Cropp is not without her fair share of endorsers, however, which include the Board of Trade, the D.C. Association of Realtors and the Washington Council, AFL-CIO, in addition to Mayor Williams.
The battle lines in the election are clear, and the result could mean very different futures for the District of Columbia. If Cropp was able to catch up in the polls, Washingtonians will likely see a continuation of the Williams administration’s policies they have grown accustomed to over the past eight years. Sweeping changes and a new leadership style could be in store, however, if Fenty was able to maintain his lead.
Either way, another step in the establishment of permanent home rule will be taken by the residents of Washington, D.C.