Ouster Of D.C. Mayoral Incumbent Stirs Debate On Black Leadership

The primary elections held around the country this week put the voting behaviors of African-Americans under a spotlight. Host Michel Martin talks about the various races of note with Washington Post reporter, Nikita Stewart, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Cynthia Tucker and Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time for our Friday features and we are going to spend some time today talking about race and politics. The Barbershop guys are with us later. And because this is the weekend the Congressional Black Caucus holds its big annual confab, we'll talk about what the caucus is up to and how its members are navigating the new terrain of being both power brokers and representing the less powerful or the powerless.

And we'll talk about that age-old controversy about women in the locker room following that story about how the New York Jets treated a female reporter last week. In the Faith Matters, we'll talk about Yom Kippur and how Jews today are thinking a new about this ancient observance. That's all coming up.

But first, we want to go back to some key races that were decided in this week's primary. Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his bid for a second term on Tuesday primaries when D.C. voters by a large margin show city council President Vincent Gray as the Democratic nominee. Now, of course, there's still the general election in November, but in overwhelmingly Democratic D.C., the primary generally is the deciding event. So Gray is expected to win easily.

Now, if you live outside the district this might not seem like such a big deal. But this election may - and we say may - have national implications in that Fenty's administration has become identified with some of the most interesting trends in politics right now in part because of his similarities with the first African-American president, Barack Obama. Like Obama, he is biracial, a fitness junkie and he rode a wave of support from those who initially at least liked his aggressive message of sweeping change. So, what happened? And does what happened to Fenty hold lessons for Barack Obama?

Washington Post staff writer Nikita Stewart is here with us to talk about this. She's been covering the race closely. She wrote a behind-the-scenes piece about the efforts to save his campaign for The Washington Post. And she's also written for TheRoot.com, describing some of the racial issues surrounding this campaign, and Adrian Fenty's candidacy. And Nikita Stewart joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Also with us, Pulitzer Prize winning Washington columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Cynthia Tucker. And Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of, among other works, "Republicans and the Black Vote." And I welcome you all and thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Public Policy, George Mason University): Thanks for having us.

Ms. NIKITA STEWART (Reporter, The Washington Post): Thank you.

Ms. CYNTHIA TUCKER (Columnist, Atlanta Journal Constitution): Indeed.

MARTIN: And one of the reasons it's great to have you all here is that you all live in the city, but you also cover politics nationally. So I think it'll be helpful to put this all in some kind of national focus. Nikita, I'm going to start with you because you covered this race so closely. Mayor Fenty, four years ago, when every precinct in every ward in this city - and there are eight - first time that's ever happened. So, what happened four years later?

Ms. STEWART: Right.

MARTIN: That he essentially had his head handed to him.

Ms. STEWART: Well, you know, four years ago it was a big deal because to have every precinct in the city, that meant that blacks and whites felt the same way about him. That was unprecedented in D.C. And it seemed like the city was about to move on to this post-racial era, if you will. Fast forward four years later...

MARTIN: And just, again, the demographics of D.C. are such - people have known D.C. for years as Chocolate City. It's not quite so chocolate anymore.

Ms. STEWART: No, it's not so chocolate, it's caramel with 54 percent of blacks. Well, the population is still 54 percent black.

MARTIN: But it used to be, like, 75 percent African-Americans.

Ms. STEWART: Oh, yes, in the 1970s.

MARTIN: It's a much more diverse city than it used to be.

Ms. STEWART: Yes. So we get to this election and the mayor just could not get a majority of black support. It was amazing to see how much he lost. And it starts with, you know, school reform, the appointments he made. He made lots of appointments of non-blacks to his Cabinet initially. That raised some eyebrows. And what you had was all of these policies that he made and he instituted that affected blacks more directly than any of the other demographics in the city.

MARTIN: Eventually, he was moved to apologize for some of these decisions, or at least to sort of soften the harshness that some people felt of these decisions. I just want to play a short clip from one of his campaign ads. Here it is.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Mr. ADRIAN FENTY (Mayor, Washington, D.C.): Like anyone else, I've made my share of mistakes. Going forward, I'll learn from them and be more inclusive, which will make me a better man. Transition is tough, change has enemies, but results are non-negotiable.

MARTIN: So, Michael Fauntroy, this is the question here - is this a sort of sui generis, is about Adrian Fenty and his particular problems, his personality rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He was perceived as lacking in some of the social graces that a lot of people would like to see in their leaders. Or is this is a larger issue around the politics of race?

Prof. FAUNTROY: I think it's a little bit of everything. You know, the same character traits that drove people crazy in 2010 were among the things that were attractive to people in 2006. And also, in 2010, he had a $3 million financial advantage over a candidate who got in the race in March of this year. So, you know, it's the character trait issue. It's also policy. And Nikita mentioned earlier, some of the bureaucratic changes that not just employ non-African-Americans, but resulted in African-Americans being put out of work.

And so I think there was a lot of concern. Add to that the fact that there's a lot of economic uncertainty going on in this city right now. Washington, D.C. has become a very expensive place to live. And for people who are out of work, behind on their mortgage, upside down and whatnot, you know, Adrian Fenty's focus on things that did not seem to be meeting their interests - and I use sort of dog parks and bike lanes as a sort of metaphor for a larger basket of public policies in that regard.

You know, for people who are focused on how they're going to pay their mortgage or send their kid to college, you know, that other stuff doesn't matter and it appeared - and I have to emphasize appeared - that the priority was more in some of this sort of environmental concerns, as opposed to some of the economic ones.

MARTIN: But the polls show that the voters, by and large of all races, felt that this city was moving in the right direction and approved of his policies. So how, so where's the disconnect there?

Prof. FAUNTROY: I think - I don't want to dispute the results of the poll, but I do believe based on conversations I've had with people over the years, that that support is not particularly strong. And we've seen that in the results of the election.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, one of the reasons we're excited to talk to you - we're always excited to see you - but that you also had a conversation with Artur Davis, who was running in Alabama trying to become the first African-American governor of Alabama. And he also got his head handed to him in his primary...

Ms. TUCKER: He did indeed.

MARTIN: ...by a white candidate. He did not get majority black support at all. He was also perceived as part of this new wave of young and aggressive African-American up and comers. So - and I also think it's worth mentioning that Adrian Fenty was the youngest mayor in the history of the district. He will be - if Gray wins, which is likely - will, at 67, will become the oldest mayor at the time of his election. So, is this a generational issue? What do you see here?

Ms. TUCKER: Well, it's interesting that you used the phrase sui generis because I was thinking exactly that. I think it is important to say in some ways Adrian Fenty's problems were particular. Because I've covered politics for 30 years and I've never seen a politician who was quite such a public jerk as Adrian Fenty was, who offended - he talked about change - in order to make change happen, you have to offend people intentionally to make changes. But he also offended people unnecessarily. So I think that needs to be said.

But I also think that there are three things that translate to other cities about this. One is the terrible economy. I don't think that you can underestimate how that affects politicians in all races fairly or not. And it is absolutely true that a lousy economy affects black folks disproportionately. You - and it has affected - the perception of a politician who doesn't seem to care about people's economic conditions, whether he does or not - and that has also affected President Obama.

People black and white see him working, say, on the Middle Eastern peace process. That is important. But people perceive that as he's not paying attention to the things that are most important to me. So that's one thing.

MARTIN: But do they perceive him as not paying attention particularly to African-Americans and that that is particularly...

Ms. TUCKER: Absolutely. There is a lot of criticism. The members of the Congressional Black Caucus, black legislators in state capitals around the country, that the president doesn't have an agenda that particularly focuses on black constituents. And many of the president's staffers say that's unfair. That a broader economic agenda will help black voters, too, but the fact of the matter is black Americans have a higher unemployment rate than white Americans do.

And many members of the Congressional Black Caucus think that there are to be particular programs that address the high black employment rate. But you mention Artur Davis. One of the things that he and Fenty have in common is a perception - fair or not - that you're catering more to the concerns of white voters than you are of black voters. Artur Davis in particular was thought to be running away from black voters. I don't want to be seen with any old line civil rights activists. And that hurt him.

MARTIN: There's a sensitive issue that we are going to raise. We're going to need to take a short break. But I'm going to - but Nikita, you raise it, so I think it's important to raise it - and this is also the question it addresses -it has some relevance to Barack Obama, and that is the question of biography. And this is Nikita asking Mayor Fenty a question during one of the debates that she helped to moderate and here it is. Here it is.

(Soundbite of debate)

Ms. STEWART: You're biracial and are considered a quintessential post-racial politician. One who talks little about race and ethnicity in your appointments and policy decisions. But you pledged to a fraternity founded by black men and earned your law degree at a historically black university. Given those life experiences, how does it make you feel personally to be considered a leader who does not understand the black community? Are you hurt?

Mr. FENTY: You know, everybody, including myself, anybody who tells you they don't want someone to like them, they're lying to you. Anybody who says that they don't want, you know, someone of their own race and background to like them, they'd be lying to you. To say, yes, of course it hurts.

MARTIN: So, as I said, we need to take a short break. But when we come back, we're going to take up the sensitive question of whether biography still -biography and demography still plays a very large role in our politics. And we're talking with Washington Post staff writer Nikita Stewart, Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist and blogger Cynthia Tucker, and Professor Michael Fauntroy. They're here with us in our Washington studio.

We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about black voters post-racial leaders and politics on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll tell you about Yom Kippur. It's this weekend. It's considered one of the most important, if not, the most important holiday of the year for observant Jews. It's the day of atonement. But we'll speak to a rabbi about why fasting and praying still matters in our fast-paced world and why believers should look forward to this day, he says, instead of dreading it. That is coming up.

But first, more of our weekly political chat. We're talking about why Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty once the most popular political figure in the city lost his bid for reelection. Why - and what this may say about the future of so many other so-called post-racial candidates. To have that conversation, I'm joined in the studio by Washington Post reporter Nikita Stewart who followed the race closely, Cynthia Tucker, columnist and blogger for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. And Michael Fauntroy, professor of political science and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote," among other works.

So, before the break, we talked about the fact that Adrian Fenty is biracial, like our president, and not just that his sort of biography per se, but the fact that he was perceived as somehow not really connecting with the African-American community. And Michael Fauntroy, I want to ask, do you think that his biography played some role in that - how he was perceived and if there is a cautionary tale here for Barack Obama?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, listen, I think biography matters. It shouldn't, but it does. And the reality is the choices that we make, where we go to school, whether or not to join a fraternity, whom to marry, says something - or is perceived to say something about who we are and how we see the world.

So when a mayor comes through - a biracial mayor comes into Washington, D.C., who graduated from Howard University Law School and married someone who was also at Howard University Law School and is a native Washingtonian, I think there's a certain set of assumptions that people make about him.

Now, in this case, for black voters who went away from him in this past election, there's a disappointment that he wasn't who they thought he was. And so we have this circumstance in which some people may have misread the biography or thought that the biography that they saw was all they needed to know about who he was. Now, as it relates to the president, you know, I believed all along that some of the way he's been validated in the larger community has a lot to do with his biography. Had he gone to Morehouse and Howard University Law School, he may be viewed very differently, than going to Columbia and Harvard Law School.

So I think biography matters. And unfortunately, it's difficult to tease that out because it requires people to be a little more honest about what they value than they're willing to say.

MARTIN: And, Nikita, to that point, though, is this about policy or personality? Because on the one hand, you know, Adrian Fenty had this very distinctive personality. Cynthia Tucker called him a jerk. I think a lot of people will agree. On the other hand, he was also pursuing some very aggressive policy changes, like these education reforms, which have gotten national attention, national recognition in some cases, being just - national vilification in other cases. So in having covered this race closely, did this hinge on policy or personality?

Ms. STEWART: Well, you know, it was actually a mixture of both. It was how he instituted the policy. You know, there were many times when he did not go to the D.C. council to do things. He did not go into the community to get input about the decision that he was making. And when he said that he's made mistakes, and when you ask him, well, what are the mistakes? That's what he talks about. That he did not know that he was going to offend people by not talking to them. And he even said - and making them feel like they were a part of the process.

And, you know, that comes through - that is reflected through his personality, you know, he's hard charging. But then he applies to the policies. So, you can't have one without the other.

MARTIN: That's - maybe you can. That's one of the interesting questions. We will see. Because one of the ongoing questions here is whether Vince Gray, as a mayor, will pursue or continue to pursue some of the policies and reforms that Adrian Fenty started. So we'll see.

Cynthia Tucker, a final question to you. I wanted to ask you about long-time Congressman Charlie Rangel who kept his seat in Tuesday's primary even though he's facing five opponents, some of - one of them including his former chief of staff - one with a very famous name, Adam Clayton Powell IV. Despite these ethics charges, which have gotten so much attention and are fodder for Republican candidates - this is an overwhelmingly Democratic district. So, again, the primary will probably prevail here.

But I wanted to ask you about that. What do you think was the most relevant factor here? Was it the fact that his opponents all split the vote among themselves, or do you think that people in this community just don't care about these charges? What do you think was relevant here? Very briefly, if you would.

Ms. TUCKER: I think that Charlie Rangel is highly respected in his district. And that his constituents were proud of the fact that he had at one point at least been one of the most powerful chairman on Capitol Hill as chairman of House Ways and Means. I also think it's one of those issues where his Republican opponents overplayed their hand by continually going after Rangel, his constituents wanted to defend him by continuing to support him.

MARTIN: And it is fair to say that charges are not - a charge is not a conviction made - that the trial is yet to be held. So thank you for that.

Cynthia Tucker, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Michael Fauntroy, professor of political science at George Mason University and author of "Republicans and the Black Vote," and Washington Post staff writer Nikita Stewart who wrote "A Tale of Two Post-Racial Mayors" for TheRoot.com, among many other pieces about this campaign - very exciting coverage. Nikita, congratulations for that. Thank you all so much for coming in.

Prof. FAUNTROY: You're very welcome.

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