Did Cab Drivers Oust Fenty?

For three years, it's been impossible to avoid criticism of Fenty when conversation turns to politics in a D.C. cab

"He's terrible. He doesn't listen to anybody!" a cab driver told me as we headed down Connecticut Ave., a few weeks before the D.C. mayoral primary.

It wasn't the only time I'd heard as much in this setting.

Ever since Mayor Adrian Fenty announced that District cabs would have to switch from a geographical zone fare system to electronic meters, few cab drivers have had kind words for the mayor, whose tenure ended on Tuesday night as he lost his re-election campaign to City Council Chairman Vincent Gray.

Fenty backed the new meter system, citing the arguments he'd heard from D.C. residents themselves.

The zone system, which involved a confusing map posted to the back of passenger seats in every cab across the city, made little sense, its critics said. It was consistently exploited by some drivers who charged seemingly arbitrary rates, particularly at nights and on the weekends.

In siding against the cabbies, Fenty angered them to no end. Drivers have uniformly complained that they got a raw deal in the new meter-pricing scheme, which, they say, cut into their profits from numerous angles and ruined a good system that everyone liked, and Fenty became their arch villain after the changes were implemented.

Consequently, since October 2007, it's been virtually impossible to avoid (often passionate) criticism of Fenty while riding in a cab if the conversation turns to politics. Sometimes, the Fenty-bashing comes without any prompt.

District cab drivers cite Fenty's stubbornness and failure to listen--complaints that were echoed by Washington Post Metro columnist Courtland Milloy in his post-election analysis Thursday. There were some big issues that drove voters away from Fenty, most notably his education reforms and the firing of D.C. public school teachers. But image and personality seemed to play a big role in this election too.

Perhaps three years of the incidental anti-Fenty messaging campaign, undertaken by D.C.'s outraged cab drivers, had some effect on public opinion. Drivers organized against Fenty on election day, offering free rides to Gray supporters, but the three years of Fenty badmouthing, it seems to me, may have played an equally significant role.

Cab drivers hold a unique power over their riders. When you're riding in a cab, you are a captive audience. Whatever the driver is saying--whether it's politics, a joke, a long story, or a lecture on religious beliefs--you more or less have to be polite and listen.

Many cab riders, to be sure, aren't D.C. voters and had no bearing on this election. Cabs operating in the Northwest part of the city pick up many out-of-towners who only live in the city for a few years and never engage in local politics. So this whole theory is kind of questionable.

But of all the enemies Fenty made during his tenure as mayor, maybe D.C.'s cab drivers were the most powerful.