CAPITAL CULTURE: DC Mayor's Fall from Public Favor

CAPITAL CULTURE: DC Mayor's Fall from Public Favor

Posted: 09/13/2010 10:15 AM EDT

WASHINGTON – Before Barack Obama there was Adrian Fenty: a young, energetic, biracial lawyer and Democrat looking to fill a top political post in Washington.

Two years before Obama was elected the yes-we-can president, it was Fenty who captivated the nation's capital, becoming the youngest-ever mayor of this city with so many challenges. When Fenty threw his support behind Obama in 2007, the future president said Fenty embodied the "bottom-up politics that can bring about real change," and said he was trying to do the same.

A friendship seemed to form. The two men lunched at Ben's Chili Bowl, a Washington institution known for its chili half-smokes, and Fenty and his wife later got a coveted invitation to Obama's first state dinner.

Now Fenty, 39, is fighting for his political life in Tuesday's primary election, fending off accusations that he has become arrogant and aloof.

The latest poll put him seven points behind his challenger with 14 percent of voters still undecided in this heavily Democratic city. The incumbent recently acknowledged that he asked for the White House's endorsement to help pull him through the primary. The White House has declined comment so far.

Obama, too, is a victim of sinking approval ratings and the enthusiasm gap that opens when high hopes from the campaign don't translate into all that was expected.

Both men are finding that bottom-up change can be hard to deliver.

"I've made mistakes. I understand that I can do better," Fenty said during a recent debate with his main challenger, Vincent Gray, the 67-year-old chairman of the D.C. Council.

Like Obama, Fenty swept into office on a high. The former council member was known for his dogged door-to-door campaigning, and his green signs sprouted like flowers in front lawns. Voters gushed about his energy and his youth. On primary day in 2006 he won every precinct in the city and 57 percent of the vote.

"I love everything about this job," Fenty said after winning the general election. "People expect a high energy administration and I'm looking forward to it."

On his first day in office, he introduced legislation to restructure the city's failing school system.

Every small detail was a matter of fascination, from his enthusiasm for his two BlackBerries to his love of marathons. He won points, or at least amused stares, for his penchant for driving around in a fuel-efficient Smart Car instead of being chauffeured in a city-issued Lincoln Navigator.

Fenty made education his priority and installed another young reformer, Michelle Rhee, as the head of the city's chronically underperforming public schools.

Rhee's choice was controversial from the start, and the backlash against her grew last year when she laid off nearly 400 employees. In July, she fired 200 more under a new evaluation system. Fenty has unfailingly supported her, saying the district's schools have improved. Test scores have risen some, but Gray minimizes the significance of the changes.

More broadly, Fenty is catching criticism for his operating style. Opponents call him arrogant, unwilling to meet with people or listen to alternate views, and say he's turned his back on voters, particularly those in black sections of the city. He kept Rhee's selection from the council, teachers and parents until just before the announcement.

Polls have shown a majority of white voters back Fenty, while blacks, who make up more than 50 percent of the city, favor his opponent, who is black. Some also accuse Fenty of spending money disproportionately in white areas of the city for things such as dog parks, and not doing enough for heavily black sections of the city, though a Washington Post analysis of the numbers found that not to be true.

Still, so many former Fenty supporters have switched allegiances, including former Mayor Marion Barry, that Gray has rolled out a website dedicated to clips of "Formerly Fenty" voters talking about their change of heart.

Fenty isn't blind to the change and has said he is now the underdog in the race. He has run a commercial promising to be more inclusive, and said repeatedly he will do better if given a second term.

For now, he's back knocking on doors.

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