In his victory speech on primary night, de facto mayor-elect Adrian Fenty cribbed a line or two from the populist candidate’s handbook. “You did it!” he said, starting his address. The crowd broke into an extended roar.
More boilerplate ensued: “This victory belongs to the people of the District of Columbia,” he declared. He boasted of the “type of campaign that energizes the people of the District of Columbia,” a crusade that “achieved something nearly impossible: We ignited the populace.”
LL’s heard it all before. It’s easy for a politician to claim to be at the vanguard of a popular uprising while fueled by the ego-boosting juices of a landslide.
But in Fenty, the city may have its first bona fide populist mayor. He’s a politician who made few sleazy deals on his way to victory. He will enter the mayoral suite with only a handful of payoffs to deliver—particularly if you can discount the adoring reporters and editors at the Washington Post.
Fenty’s detractors are a Who’s Who of D.C.’s entrenched power brokers. When they finally get around to going hat-in-hand to the mayor-to-be, they’ll be dealing with someone with the most fervent on-the-ground support since the heyday of Marion S. Barry Jr.
Fenty worshipper-activist Peter Rosenstein is convinced his guy won’t repeat the same mistakes made by that other D.C. mayor who swept into office promising radical change. “He will do what good politicians do—they keep their election machine together,” said Rosenstein. “Not like Anthony Williams. After his campaigns, he closed up shop and said goodbye.”
In Fenty’s case, closing up shop would involve folding up the tent. In true egalitarian fashion, Fenty held his victory party under a pavilion in a parking lot across from his Shaw campaign headquarters. The Vitamin Water–fueled faithful freshened up in PortaJohns.
Anyone looking for the buffet table was at the wrong place. The only food offering came in Styrofoam takeout boxes.
“Look at where we are,” said Fenty backer Ray Crawford Jr. “This is a flea market lot, not some big, glamorous place where they check you at the door.”
The only people required to sign in were of a tribe so low that even the Fenty crowd decided it was wise to keep tabs on them: the press.
Leave it to one of Fenty’s Howard University student volunteers to explain what all the fuss is about. “You can feel the vibe of his movement,” said Jeremy Hughes. “The movement is here to stay. It’s about being genuine, honest, and caring. That’s his vibe.”
Lawrence Brooks, a homeless man and a veteran, donned a Fenty cap and T-shirt. He put in an 18-hour day at the polls. He has the Fenty faith. “If he can keep any of the promises he made, he’s the only guy who can help people like me.” Brooks then dug into his takeout box, turned to LL, and asked, “Did you eat today?”
The cohesion of Fenty’s tent city will get tested a few months down the road, when he tries to push his vision for the city. When he turns his guns on the police force, when he presses developers for more affordable housing, when he champions his people-first budget before the D.C. Council. At that point, the D.C. represented by Linda Cropp—the old guard, the downtown people—will officially end the mayoral courtship and honeymoon that started on Tuesday evening.
The press, too, will eventually turn on this energetic triathlete/action hero/born manager. That doesn’t worry Rosenstein. “When the press starts attacking,” he says, “the Fenty legions out there are going to attack the press.”
And some Fenty supporters say their hero has a pretty good idea where his faithful followers are coming from. “These are kind of everyday, working people. When you’re on a high, they will support you,” says attorney Rawie Anderson Jr. “When you need a kick in the teeth, they’ll do that, too.”
GRAHAM COMES HOME LATE
As Fenty received the adulation of his faithful late on Election Night, one of only two councilmembers to endorse him stood on the platform next to the winner. At every crescendo of Fenty’s victory speech, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham thrust both fists high into the air.
The adoring crowd provided enough of a gust that Graham never had to lift his well-tuned index finger to see which way the political winds were blowing.
When Graham endorsed Fenty five days before the election (after the Washington Post did and after several polls showed a likely Fenty victory), the Ward 1 councilmember announced that he was “coming home” to his true choice for mayor.
Let’s review the Graham history on his council pal, now the mayor-in-waiting.
During the Fenty exploratory effort, when the buzz about the young and charismatic councilmember was the talk of the D.C. political world, Graham was on hand at the exploratory kickoff to back Fenty. A couple of weeks later, he introduced him at a Ward 1 fundraiser.
But Graham’s political weather vane took a sharp turn when the council chair started making noises about getting in the race. “Adrian knows that if Linda Cropp gets in the race, I would have to reassess….I have a very high amount of respect for the chairman and the mayor, too,” Graham said at the time.
With such a long contest in the offing, Graham says, “I had to do what was right for the voters of Ward 1.” In other words, it’s bad John A. Wilson Building politics to get on the wrong side of the council chair.
Graham’s strategy is a familiar one: wait and see. So Graham sat on the fence—until five days before the primary.
The way Graham sees it, he never hedged his bets. “I was always for Adrian,” he says. “Everybody knows that.”
For some, the record amount of money thrown into the 2006 electoral primary means D.C. has finally hit the modern age of campaigning. For District residents, the final days of the cash-soaked contest were just a giant pain in the ass.
What did all the money add to our vaunted democratic process? Take a look:
•Mountains of junk mail. Households with two or more registered voters were snowed under with all manner of glossy campaign pieces with almost indistinguishable messages. Never have a bunch of politicos subjected the city’s recycling program to a truer test.
•Bad television ads—during the Redskins/Vikings game, no less. Thanks to the political gods, no-chance candidate Vincent Orange added some comic value to the flickering promotions. With his fellow candidates trading slick ads, Orange chose a low-budget number in which he reads a popular poem about the race going to the man who doesn’t quit—and took out a $67,000 loan to pay the bills.
•Dueling phone calls. What genius figured that the best way to get your voters out to the polls was a relentless assault on the peace of home? The number of reminders to vote and testimonial calls were truly staggering. LL stopped counting at a dozen in the days leading up to the election. The payoff: an average voter turnout in an election with several hotly contested races.
THE ENDLESS CAMPAIGN
Fenty wasn’t the only mayoral contender trying to keep the campaign apparatus up and running. After his own marathon mayoral tilt, Michael A. Brown used Election Night to kick off his run for Fenty’s soon-to-be-vacant Ward 4 seat. In the waning days of the mayoral race, Brown withdrew as a candidate and endorsed Cropp.
When asked about the horribly kept secret that he was already assembling a team for a run in a special election that would be necessary to fill Fenty’s seat, Brown replied, “You might just be right about that.”
Brown’s small but dedicated band of loyalists was less vague—he’ll be running.
And he made sure no one beat him to the starting gate. Brown joins A. Scott Bolden in the ranks of mayoral contenders who looked down the ballot after realizing they had set their sights a wee bit high. (Bolden chased after an at-large seat this summer after dismissing a mayoral run.)
When Fenty was asked about Brown’s plan to succeed him in Ward 4, he replied, “No comment.”
•Poor Philip Pannell. There’s really only one explanation for his crushing defeat for the shadow U.S. senator position at the hands of Michael D. Brown: that would be the mayoral campaign of Michael A. Brown. Every time the latter, a candidate for mayor until Sept. 7, put up a lawn sign or hit the airwaves, he was giving his ballot doppelgänger a boost.
Sure, D. Brown put up some signs. He was first on the ballot in a race that gets little press. And the Democratic shadow U.S. senator-nominee is a hell of a nice guy.
But the nearly 35,000-vote margin of victory seems a bit out of whack. “The name Michael Brown has been out there for a year,” Pannell says. “I expected to lose because of the confusion.”
For the record, Michael D. Brown has maintained that the citywide visibility of that other Michael Brown played no role in his decision to run for office.
•Political endorsements are always overrated, but At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz’s election-eve decision to back Cropp made practically no sense: Cropp’s campaign was sinking, and Schwartz is a Republican. “Tomorrow there is an important election in D.C. and I could no longer sit by without letting my opinion be known,” Schwartz wrote in a statement. “We need Linda Cropp as our mayor. She offers proven capability and stability, as well as a proven record of getting the job done.”
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