A Quick Thought on Fenty and Rhee

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Harry Jaffe caught up with Adrian Fenty (h/t WashCP) and asked if he'd have done anything differently. Here is his Dubya-esque reply:


"Absolutely not," he said. "Of the hundreds of decisions I made, I would not have changed one. I have no regrets."

Bill Turque asked Michelle Rhee about the effects of Gray's win:

"Yesterday's election results were devastating, devastating," Rhee said. "Not for me, because I'll be fine, and not even for Fenty because he'll be fine, but devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C."

I think when you're in a pitched battle over something you care deeply about, it's often tough to remember that it isn't enough to be visionary, perceptive, or prophetic. Leadership, in a democracy, isn't simply a matter of identifying solutions. You also have to convince a critical mass of people to either trust you, or at least trust your solution.

Having not lived in the District in some years I could well be getting this wrong, but those two quotes, and yesterday's reporting in the Post, paint a picture of an administration that believed being right was good enough. Again Michelle Rhee:

Rhee said she "absolutely" felt guilt over Fenty's loss and said her original prediction to the mayor when they first met -- that hiring her as chancellor could be his political undoing -- turned out to be accurate. But she scoffed at the suggestion by the moderator, New York Magazine's John Heilemann, that she might have been able to preserve Fenty's career and achieve her reform goals in a more politically deft manner.

"I think part of the problem in public education to date has been that we all have to feel good, let's not ruffle too many feathers," she said, noting that when she arrived in 2007, eight percent of the District's eighth graders were doing math at grade level. 

"I am not going to sugarcoat that," she said. "I am not going to make you feel better about that. That is an outcome that is absolutely criminal."

We can all agree on the substance of that statement--eight percent of eighth graders doing math at grade level is criminal. I suspect that many of the people who voted Fenty out would also agree. But Michelle Rhee isn't merely in public education--she's in politics. Presumably, she understands this as she was out, last week, doing political work for Fenty. In that context, the implicit reasoning here--that being politically deft necessarily equals sugar-coating--is rather amazing. In a democracy, persuasion is a necessary aspect of politics. Large-scale reform certainly complicates persuasion, but the two aren't antithetical. 

Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani were both reformers who introduced policies which had substantial impact on the city's black communities. Giuliani made crime his signature issue, and sure enough, during his tenure crime decreased in black communities. But Giuliani steadily lost support in the black community. Among other things, releasing the juvie file of a father of two murdered by the cops will do that. (Giuliani claimed that Patrick Dorismond was "no altar boy." In point of fact Dorismond was an altar boy at the very same Catholic school Giuliani attended.)

Bloomberg continued many of Giuliani's policing policies, and then doubled down by seizing control of the city's schools. In his first term, Bloomberg endured some of the same police-community fights that plagued Giuliani. But Bloomberg aggressively courted the black community, even as he pushed reform, going so far as to embrace Al Sharpton. When Bloomberg went up for re-election in 2004, he garnered 45 percent of the black vote, running as a Republican.

A lot has been made of the role of race in this campaign, and the sense that Fenty is the tool of white interlopers seeking to turn D.C. into Seattle. Fear of the oncoming white horde of gentrifiers is old in D.C. and I do not doubt that the paranoia was an integral part of the political landscape. But having understood that landscape, it's a politician job to navigate it. 

I am put in the mind of this piece from FiveThirtyEight, where, during the 2008 campaign, an Obama canvasser calls the home of a white voter and is abruptly told, "We're voting for the nigger." That is an essential part of politics--not alienating your allies, and converting would-be enemies, all while pushing the right solutions. 

It would have done no good for Barack Obama to sit around stewing over race. It was the business he chose, and part of that business is persuading people, despite their prejudices. This is the case in the broader America, and for humans, in general, living in democratic countries. There is no reason why it would not be the case for those human beings living in the District, many of whom happen to be black. The business is politics, not debate club. 

It is not enough to simply be right, if only because sometimes you aren't.
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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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