By most metrics, Adrian Fenty would be judged a successful mayor. He won national attention for taking on controversial school reform and helping to boost students’ test scores. Overall crimes rates are down. The city’s population is up, with more and more professionals opting for city living and fewer residents moving out.
His emphasis on school reform was critical to stopping the exodus. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from several gay and lesbian parents who opted to stay in the city rather than flee for the ‘burbs because Michelle Rhee took the helm of the troubled school system.
On LGBT rights, Fenty announced early on that he supported marriage equality and would sign the marriage bill. His critics like to point out that the Council sent him a bill passed with a veto-proof majority, but Fenty was vocal about his marriage support long before the Council voted on it.
So what happened? What should have been a slam-dunk re-election turned into a drubbing by Council Chair Vincent Gray, also an outspoken supporter of marriage equality and LGBT rights.
Having covered Fenty for the duration of his original campaign and tenure in office, one key incongruity emerged. His defeat of Linda Cropp four years ago resulted from an old-fashioned, grassroots campaign that involved Fenty zipping around the city like the Energizer Bunny, knocking on thousands of doors and pledging a new, youthful approach to government. Voters embraced his candor, energy and willingness to engage one-on-one with them.
But after winning that election, Fenty changed. Suddenly the candidate who seemed to be everywhere at once — parades, dinners, crime scenes — vanished. Gone were the photo ops of a sweating Fenty knocking on doors and engaging with residents, replaced by stories of jet-setting trips and obsessive exercise.
His defenders say Fenty’s record speaks for itself and that he shouldn’t be judged harshly for his style — an aloofness that many interpreted as arrogance. At the Blade, we had more success interviewing national politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi than we did Fenty. Our requests to interview him over the years were routinely rebuffed and when we showed up at media events to ask LGBT-related questions, he could be rude, dismissive and uncooperative.
Fenty didn’t understand the importance of serving as the face of the city. Two examples of his absenteeism really struck me. The first came two years ago at the national conference of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a major gathering of hundreds of LGBT elected officials from around the country. It’s an empowering and high-profile annual conference that I’ve attended several times. In Las Vegas and Houston, the mayors of those large cities showed up to welcome the Victory Fund and all the LGBT elected officials that include mayors, members of Congress and others. When the conference came to D.C., Fenty was a no-show, sending his GLBT Affairs director Chris Dyer to welcome visitors in his place.
It wasn’t a deliberate snub; Fenty just didn’t understand the importance of the personal touch. His tone-deafness emerged again and again around the issue of anti-LGBT hate crimes in the city. We’ve covered numerous cases of gay men and trans women who were beaten up or killed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past four years. But getting Fenty to respond proved an impossible task. When asked to address the community, he would dispatch Dyer instead, who insisted that the overall number of hate crimes had dropped during Fenty’s tenure.
That may be true, but impressions count. When the community feels under attack — even if the statistics don’t support the sentiment — it means people aren’t patronizing gay businesses and they feel unsafe walking in their neighborhoods. Sometimes residents need to hear directly from their mayor, even if just for a feel-good pep talk and pledge of support. His stubborn refusal to address hate crimes turned many former supporters against Fenty and into the arms of Gray.
And like many prominent gay activists who once worked for Fenty, other constituencies began abandoning the mayor over the summer months.
The lesson for Gray in Fenty’s stunning defeat: Don’t lose touch with your constituents. One way to accomplish that is to empower your staff to speak on your behalf. Although Fenty sent Dyer to read proclamations on his behalf, Dyer was not allowed to speak to the media. If your GLBT Affairs director isn’t allowed to talk and the mayor is inaccessible, then you’ve created a vacuum. Gray sensed that and knew the electorate, including LGBT voters, had tired of Fenty’s distant style.