A Final Word on Fenty

UPDATE: For a solid counter check out Megan, who unlike me, actually lives in D.C. Her basic critique is that being more polite would not have soothed the teacher's unions or any of the other entrenched interest that Fenty needed to tackle. I agree. But I think it would have soothed voters. Not all voters, but a critical mass that could have given him another term. 

Big reform, unquestionably, makes running for office harder. When the reformer--quite literally--believes he didn't make a single mistake, when the reformer can't be bothered to hire a pollster, expect it to be significantly harder. 

An old reporting colleague, still living in the District, sends this along:


Last Jan., WaPo did a poll that said most residents loved the direction the city was heading in. But they hated Fenty and saw him as arrogant. He had nearly a year to change that perception. Instead, everything he did during the campaign only reinforced that narrative. 

He had no legit campaign staff. His spokesperson was fresh out of college. How do you graduate from college and end up being the face of a big-city mayor's re-election campaign? On the weekend before the election, Fenty did a triathlon. Gray went to a bunch of churches. 

Both Fenty and Rhee seemed to delight in firing teachers. That was their downfall. You can fire them. Just don't gloat. A lot of people I talked to on election day mentioned Rhee calling in security to escort fired teachers out of their schools in the middle of class. It wasn't cool. 

 The city's unemployment rate is 9.8 percent. 30 percent in Ward 8. Fenty's response: D.C.'s always had a high unemployment rate. Imagine if Obama said that? This past Spring, the D.C. Auditor found that the city was not enforcing it's Living Wage law and First source law. Fenty didn't give a shit. Even though the auditor found it cost the city hundreds of jobs and millions in wages.

Also from Mike Madden over at my alma mater, Washington City Paper:

At the premiere last night of Waiting for Superman (a new documentary on failing urban schools and the reform movement Rhee comes out of), a crowd of national political, media, and education policy gave Rhee a big ovation, and the narrative that was emerging of Tuesday's election was pretty clear: School reform killed Fenty. 

 Which is a preposterously oversimplified way of looking at it. Yes, like many of the white, young, well-educated gentrifying class that made up Fenty's base, I think Rhee's reform plans have the potential to shake up a failing system. And yes, it's clear that much of Gray's base--especially the American Federation of Teachers members who endorsed him and spent $1 million on his behalf--didn't see it that way. But what went wrong with education reform in D.C. wasn't necessarily the substantive policy, or even Rhee's implementation of it. What went wrong with education reform in D.C. was Adrian Fenty.

...the split over education policy didn't have to get so vitriolic and racially charged. if Fenty believed as strongly as Rhee says he did that school reform was good for everyone in the city, he should have doubled down on his efforts to persuade others that it was. Instead, he watched, smugly confident in his own political sense, and sure people would grasp what he and Rhee were doing. And since no one bothered to try to tell voters why firing teachers and closing schools would yield long-term results, some voters, perfectly reasonably, rejected the idea. 

But not all voters, and that's where the school reform focus in the post-mortems goes even more astray. This election was not a referendum on Rhee. A Mayor Fenty who didn't let basic political outreach slide, and who made some effort to keep the District's black middle class engaged in their government, who didn't give his frat brothers sweetheart contracts, who didn't snub Dorothy Height, and who picked his battles for important issues (like fixing schools) instead of pointless ones (like baseball tickets for the D.C. Council) could have done exactly what Fenty did on education, and still won. And even without Rhee, the Fenty we actually saw for the last few years would still have lost to Gray, who--after all--hammered Fenty mostly on style and process grounds.

Some disclosure: I'm somewhat infatuated with this story because I've always had a foot in the District. My parents worked there for most of my childhood. My Dad lives there now, and just graduated a son, by marriage, out of DCPS. I went to school at Howard, and basically dropped out of school to work at Washington City Paper, where I learned how to write and report. I spent a lot of time covering local D.C. There may not be a more misunderstood city in America. For those looking to get some perspective, Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood's Dream City is a good place to start.

As for reform, a good way to halt all forward progress is to martyr Fenty, and wallow in self-pity. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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