Credit: Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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With weeks to go before the decisive D.C. Democratic mayoral primary, the city’s political establishment seems to have decided that the election boils down to a referendum on the personality of the incumbent, Adrian Fenty.

Unfortunately for the mayor, his fellow pols aren’t debating whether Fenty has a personality problem. Rather, they’re arguing about how to best describe that problem. To pick just three of the terms thrown around during this unhappy summer of lopsided straw polls and campaign-trail boo-birds, the options include “arrogant prick,” “brat,” and “spoiled child.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“His politics are unnecessarily abrasive, confrontational, disrespectful, superficial,” says At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who was on the council during Fenty’s six years there and has continued as a councilmember during Fenty’s four years as a mayor.

“I think his social skills have a lot of room for improvement,” says Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander. “It’s gotten completely out of control.”

The feeling isn’t simply shared by the elected officials. It extends well into the politically engaged realm of the general public, that vocal minority of residents who take the time to turn out at campaign debates and political meet-and-greets. “I’d vote for a little dead bug before I’d vote for Fenty,” said a retired school teacher at a recent Ward 7 straw poll.

They don’t like him. They really, really don’t like him. As Fenty fights for his political life ahead of the Sept. 14 primary, few other factors can explain the peril he faces. A political scientist would label the mayor a shoo-in: The city’s population is growing. People are generally happy with city services. Murders are down. And there’s no imminent cliff the city’s about to drive off.

Indeed, Fenty’s main challenger, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray, has barely even tried to make the case that campaign strategists typically say is essential for ousting any incumbent: That Fenty’s four-year term has been a failure.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

And yet, even though the number of specific Fenty policies that Gray is on-record saying he’ll undo is vanishingly small, Gray’s campaign literature announces that “we can do better.” What does he mean by this? Gray spends a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about “bringing people together” and how he’ll be an “inclusive” mayor. In other words, “we can do better” might as well mean: “You’ll like me.”

The election may well hinge on whether enough voters think that’s a sufficient reason to change mayors.

In politics, being likeable is an elusive quality—one that has only so much to do with a pol’s actual personality.

Bill Clinton had legendary closed-door tantrums directed at his staff. Yet even his fiercest detractors agreed he was fundamentally an amiable guy. George W. Bush could be petulant and bitter around fellow insiders. But he still won the 2004 election, in large part because people thought they’d rather have a beer with him than with John Kerry.

Much of Fenty’s messaging involves exploiting that division between on-stage and off. His TV spots acknowledge that he throws sharp elbows, but ask voters to judge him by his accomplishments. Asked about the attacks on his personality, Fenty says it’s just politics: “What people are saying is, they have quarrels with Adrian Fenty the mayor,” he says. “No one is really commenting on me personally, they don’t know me personally.”

If that’s true—that after four years in office, Fenty remains an unknown to most of his constituents—it represents something most politicians would see as a significant communications failure.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

But in Fenty’s case, it may well be a blessing in disguise. Many of the people who’ve seen the mayor’s private side don’t much like it.

One police officer who has helped provide security for the mayor on several occasions says Fenty acts friendly to officers when there are other people around. But when it’s just Fenty or his confidantes, the mayor acts “very pompous and very much an ass,” rarely bothering to acknowledge the security guys’ presence. (The officer’s union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has endorsed Gray.)

In Fenty’s own office, current and former lower-level staffers call him a “moody” boss. One says he became so accustomed to Fenty’s angry side that he could see the mayor’s rage coming by watching for the throbbing of a vein in his head. “He runs his ship by fear; people are afraid of him,” says one staffer. “He’s one of the biggest assholes I’ve ever met in my life.”

Several sources said Fenty has a ferocious temper. Last December, according to multiple sources, Fenty kicked a trash can, slammed a door, and screamed, “I’m the fucking mayor,” after learning that some much-hated New Jersey Avenue NW billboards were being removed without his being present for a photo-op. A Fenty campaign spokesman disputes the details of that event. The mayor also got worked up when he heard that LeBron James was in town and his staff hadn’t arranged for Fenty to meet with the basketball star, according to sources.

One former staffer likened working for Fenty to being an “abused wife,” constantly fighting a losing battle to make the mayor happy. The one time Fenty gave him a compliment, it came as such a shock that he called his significant other to tell her that maybe the mayor wasn’t such a bad guy, after all.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Some staffers at the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services (MOCRS) say they operate under constant fear of getting caught in the mayor’s unpredictable crosshairs. Their unofficial motto: “Live to die another day.” The 16 or so MOCRS representatives take care of routine constituent-service tasks—getting the trash picked up or having graffiti covered up—that have been Fenty’s political bread and butter. But current and former reps say his mood at their weekly meetings “depends on the week and how he feels,” rather than the quality of their work. Occasionally, Fenty breezes through the meetings, telling everyone they’ve done a good job. Other times he’ll sink his teeth into a staffer for no apparent reason. One MOCRS rep once got such a verbal beat-down from the mayor that his fellow staffers gave him a round of applause after Fenty had left the room.

But does this matter? There are all sorts of dictatorial bosses in the world, many of them wildly popular with the broader public. If a hectoring, unpredictable boss is what it takes to banish graffiti, should anyone else care?

In Fenty’s case, though, the whispered-down-the-lane tales of petty cruelty have made their way into the slipstream of the political campaign—and, from there, into the District’s Byzantine politics of race, class, and status.

You could blame Fenty’s own dysfunctional communications shop for that, as some of his supporters do. Close friend Chuck Brodsky has heaps of praise for Fenty’s personality and calls the mayor “inspiring.” “I like being around him for that reason,” Brodsky says, but adds that the mayor’s staff hasn’t done a good job highlighting the mayor’s good side.

But you could also chalk it up to a different part of his personality: Fenty seems to lack that DNA strand shared by many successful politicians, the visceral need to make people like you, no matter what it takes.

“My brother is definitely not a jerk,” says his older brother, Shawn Fenty. “He’s a Fenty man. In our family, the men tend to sort of be like the strong, silent type…Expressing how we feel about things isn’t something that comes naturally to any of us.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

“He’s a little bit aloof,” says one neighbor in Crestwood, who is pleased with the mayor’s performance in office and plans to vote for him, but asked not to be identified when discussing the private Fenty. “He puts on a little bit of a front.” To this neighbor, Fenty usually appears to be looking past people when talking. “Getting more than a handshake out of the guy is really something.”

Chuck Harney, the owner of the Bike Rack, has been at several races where Fenty—a dedicated triathlete—has competed. Whereas most people are friendly and supportive before a race, Harney says Fenty has never offered so much as a “hello.” “Unless you train with him…he’s not going to pay attention to you,” Harney says. “At the D.C. Triathlon we were all there…and he knows who we are, and not a word or anything. On the other hand, his brother is awesome. Every time we see Shawn, he’s very friendly, he’s great.”

If the 2010 mayoral campaign so far has had a defining moment, it probably took place on Aug. 4, at the Ward 4 mayoral forum. That night, despite a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the Green Team, Gray trounced Fenty, 581 to 401, on the mayor’s home turf. The chattering classes pronounced it the triumph of the old guard over the upstart mayor. Marion Barry sat beaming in the crowd, a Gray sticker on his chest. (Barry, whose whole career is predicated on his larger-than-life persona, says he thinks Fenty is a “good person” and the election shouldn’t be about personality.)

But the question of the night came from WTOP-FM news personality Mark Plotkin. “Mr. Mayor, what happened to you?” Plotkin said, recalling how popular Fenty had been four years ago, when he won all 142 precincts in the city. Plotkin asked if the youthful, polite guy from 2006 had had a personality transplant.

That’s the theory some of Fenty’s critics have taken up this summer. Four years ago, Fenty used his old public persona, the personable, constituent-obsessed Ward 4 councilmember, to gain office—and then promptly underwent a metamorphosis, becoming the imperious, unapproachable mayor.

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Ironically, Fenty’s most antagonistic critics and his most fervent supporters are united in rejecting this version of the story.

To his worst enemies, Fenty was always an abrasive, prickly figure. Fenty the councilmember was a petulant antagonist who would go out of his way to oppose Mayor Anthony Williams for political reasons, rather than substantive policy differences, says one Wilson Building insider. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine this sort of pol screaming at constituent-service subordinates. In fact, back in his less powerful councilmember incarnation, it was part of his appeal.

To supporters, on the other hand, the Plotkin version—you’ve changed, man—ignores the differences between his old gig as an essentially parochial local pol, and his new one as a mayor who needs to look out for the whole city.

Fenty watchers say the mayor began referring to himself as a “big-city mayor” almost instantly after he was elected. In rearranging his executive offices into a “bullpen,” he self-consciously tried to style himself in the mold of New York City’s CEO-turned-mayor, Michael Bloomberg: steamrolling through adversity, making his agenda reality through sheer force of will. (At Bloomberg’s endorsement news conference this week, Fenty said both Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley represent “the standard of a well run, highly responsive efficient manager running a city government like a private sector business focused on results, focused on getting things done.”)

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

And yet it’s a little bit too easy to simply attribute four years of head-butting with pols who ought to be his allies to some sort of grand strategy. After all, Bloomberg’s CEO pose isn’t the only way to run a city. Take the most celebrated mayor of the previous decade, Philadelphia’s Ed Rendell—now the governor of Pennsylvania. Rendell was successful enough to be dubbed “America’s mayor.” But the singular quote from his reams of national media attention was something less family-friendly: “A good portion of my job is spent on my knees, sucking people off to keep them happy,” he once told a reporter.

It’s the rare big-city mayor who doesn’t recognize that as part of his duties: Hand over the councilmembers’ baseball tickets, toss some praise in the direction of venerable community groups, and then count on them to get your back from time to time. Sure, sometimes it’s humiliating. But it works. Fenty seems to have gotten the message, albeit only a month before the election. His latest campaign TV ads have Fenty looking directly into the camera, admitting to making mistakes, and promising to be more inclusive. But it’s still baffling that, for four years, a seemingly shrewd operator like Fenty left his knee-pads at home.

Inside Camp Fenty, true believers see establishment disdain as a badge of achievement. The personality traits that people complain about, like arrogance and aloofness, are the very qualities that have let Fenty cut through the bullshit, they say. The old ways don’t work anymore. The true measure of mayoral success comes from crime stats and test scores, not straw polls and civic endorsements.

“He’s different, and I don’t think we fully respect his differences,” said Fenty’s campaign chairman Bill Lightfoot. “First off, I don’t think we’ve ever had a mayor that works this hard… We’ve never had a mayor that’s so electronically oriented, and we’ve never had a mayor that’s so young.”

The whole narrative about Fenty’s personality, Lightfoot says, comes down to resentment from people the mayor has forced out—people who he says deserved to be forced out. “Even when you hear the ones who don’t like his personality, you scratch the surface and they either know somebody who got fired or somebody who doesn’t have a D.C. government contract, or he’s not meeting or consulting with people they know,” Lightfoot says. “I don’t think people are voting against him just because they think he’s arrogant.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Shawn Fenty likens the mayoral race to the story of former Redskins great Gary Clark. “When Coach [Joe] Gibbs retired the first time, his replacement cut Clark citing ‘an abrasive personality,’” the mayor’s brother recalls. “Ever since then, my father and I always had a little inside joke about people who excel in their job performance only to be fired due to ‘an abrasive personality.’ So the question remains, do you want Mr. Nice Guy, or do you want to win the championship?”

In this telling, Fenty represents the anti-Barry, the man who sees governing as the dispassionate business of administering a large organization rather than the emotional stuff of assembling a coalition. Where Williams, Fenty’s immediate predecessor, merely resented the part of the job that involved treating political hacks as if they were important statesmen, the incumbent actively fights against it. To Fenty loyalists, you can’t play along with the schmoozing and deal-making, or you’ll get trapped in it. Irritating insiders is a sign you’re doing something right.

One problem with this CEO, take-it-or-leave it approach is that it all falls apart when you don’t live up to your own standards. Like, say, when Fenty pal Sinclair Skinner—a failed dry cleaner before Fenty was elected—winds up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in city contracts for engineering work that he couldn’t actually do himself. The mayor who supposedly values cold, hard stats over emotional connections again opened himself up to charges of hypocrisy this week, when he parried questions about the flow of city dollars to the youth outreach group founded by his longtime ally Ron Moten by saying: “I’ve met the kids…I don’t need any statistics.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

But the other problem with this sharp-elbowed logic is that it assumes all acts of political gear-greasing are equally rotten. That’s absurd. Not every political insider wants contracts for their buddies. A little bit of well-timed butt-kissing, for instance, might have salvaged Fenty’s relationship with Councilmember Mary Cheh, whose Ward 3 is the city’s most pro-Fenty jurisdiction.

Cheh, who joined the council at the same time Fenty became mayor, says she had high expectations for working with the young chief executive. And, she says, those hopes were quickly dashed after he made it clear that he expected a quid pro quo type of relationship, where she would support him from the council in return for favors in her ward.

Now, she says, Fenty doesn’t even extend the most routine of political courtesies, like inviting her to ribbon cuttings in her ward. “He’s his own worst enemy,” Cheh says, going a little over the top by comparing Fenty to a “Shakespearean” tragedy. “The idea that you have such promise, you had such potential, you had all that wind at your back and yet because of your own internal failings you squandered it.” In this version, Fenty’s personality doesn’t cut through the bullshit. It creates more bullshit—in this case, a feud that slows down his own agenda.

Listen to enough stories about Fenty’s brusque ways and the campaign’s theory of likability starts to sound like a rationalization. Philip Pannell, a long-time Ward 8 resident and current president of that ward’s largest civic association, tells the story of when Fenty sat next to him at a community meeting. The mayor said hello, then spent the rest of his time typing away on his BlackBerry, giving the impression he did not want to be interrupted. Putting the phone away and shooting the breeze for a few minutes costs nothing. Yet he says Fenty was unwilling, or unable, to do it.

“When certain people come up to me and say, ‘Why are you supporting Vince Gray?’ and I make it very, very clear, I really don’t like the mayor. And they say, ‘Isn’t there a better reason than that?’ And I say, ‘No, that’s really enough for me,’” Pannell says. “Vince Gray will do the same things that Adrian Fenty is doing. Vince Gray is not going to stop building new schools or libraries or hire a bad police chief. He’s just going to actually make you feel good about him as mayor. He’s a person who will spend time with you, quality time with you and will actually come across as someone who cares, and I think that is in and of itself is worth voting for.”

(Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

By now, it’s too late for Fenty to win the insiders back. Instead, his campaign is trying to turn the mayor’s vices into virtues—saying things like “no rhetoric, just results”—and touting some very real accomplishments. Four years after Fenty was elected as an insurgent reformer, he’s once again playing the outside game.

For the people who are coming out to straw polls, or sitting around weeknight political meetings wondering what happened to Fenty, the story of the election is already set. But there just aren’t that many of those people.

Which is enough to give Fenty and his supporters some hope: What matters to insiders and activists could turn out not to matter to average voters. The stories the MOCRS reps tell about Fenty’s management style may turn off the few hundred activists who are on a first-name basis with them. But there’s another side to the fury Fenty unleashes at staff meetings—his temper, and the fear of facing it, tends to keep the city bureaucracy working. Hell, listen to the pistol-whipped staffers themselves: “Does the guy deserve, based on performance, to win again? Yes, absolutely,” says one of them. (The staffer is leaning toward voting for Gray anyway.)

That’s the narrative Fenty’s side will tell over the closing weeks of the campaign. It’s also the only narrative they have left: Sure, the guy may be a jerk. But he’s our jerk.

In the end, the political establishment is probably right: This election will be a referendum on Fenty’s personality. What no one knows yet, and what’s likely to determine the result, is whether that personality winds up helping Fenty or hurting him.