City on a Hill: D.C.’s politics of personality

August 27, 2010

Washington has long embraced local politicians with polarizing personalities and less-than-savory behavior. Think of former Mayor and current disgraced Councilmember Marion Barry’s famous “set up”—and think about how the city continues to embrace him.

Yet, in the run-up to the September 14 Democratic mayoral primary, the media has focused intently on incumbent Adrian Fenty’s personality flaws. Just last week, local alt-weekly Washington City Paper ran a cover story asking readers, “Is Adrian Fenty a jerk?” and after 3200 words, it’s hard not to answer in the affirmative. The Current newspapers recently endorsed challenger and D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray, citing Fenty’s “seeming arrogance towards other elected officials.”

Lost in all of this personality-driven analysis is the strong record of Fenty’s administration in delivering government services, lowering crime, and reforming D.C.’s abysmal education system. Violent crime has decreased significantly, and homicides are at their lowest level since 1964. D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee has carried out significant changes—removing ineffective teachers and closing down poorly performing, underutilized schools—and has the test scores to prove that DCPS is making progress. A 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress study found that, since 2007, when Rhee’s tenure began, DCPS has been the only major urban school district that has made significant gains in reading and math achievement among fourth and eighth graders.

Fenty’s critics charge that his difficult and closed-off management style hampers his ability to govern effectively, but in reality he has fulfilled the major promises he campaigned on in 2006. Fenty has made his share of mistakes, and some serious ethical blunders—like the millions of dollars in city contracts he handed out to his former Howard University fraternity brothers—have understandably detracted from his achievements. This has allowed the well-respected Gray to mount an effective campaign against him.

However, the politics of personality break down when one looks at the alternative Gray presents. While a recent Clarus Research poll shows Gray with a slight lead, the current D.C. Council Chair offers only a few substantive polity differences from Fenty, if any.

Adrian Fentry’s combative reputation has placed him in a tight race driven by personality over substance. Publicly displaying a commitment to the highest ethical standards and a softer management style would send a strong signal that Fenty has learned from his mistakes and is poised to extend his impressive program of governance and reform. If not, a politician who once showed unbelievable promise will be forgotten as a single term mayor who let the trappings of City Hall get to his head.


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