Nation e-Edition

NEW YORK NEW YORK: Bajan mayor shown door

By Tony Best | Fri, September 24, 2010 - 12:00 AM

FOR BAJAN YOUTH in the United States interested in finding an excellent role model with Barbadian roots they don’t have far to look.

There is the United States Attorney-General Eric Holder Jr. Next is Dr Vilma Scantlebury, the world’s first black, female organ transplant surgeon. Then there is Gail Brathwaite, the chief operating officer of one of Connecticut’s largest banks.

To that list, Bajans can add Adrian Fenty, mayor of the nation’s capital.

This energetic son of a Bajan became the city’s youngest mayor in 2006 and people across the capital looked to him to change the fortunes of a municipality which often seemed mired in scandal, mismanagement and corruption. By any measure, he succeeded in changing things.

Unfortunately, Fenty, 39, who speaks openly about his Bajan family connections, now has less than three months before he must leave office.

Just last week, voters in the DC Democratic primary election shocked the nation when a majority decided that they wanted a new face at city hall.

In essence they showed Fenty the door, telling him that four years were enough for the man who can single out some of the 25 plus Fentys in Barbados’ telephone directory as relatives.

They did that by selecting Vincent Gray, chairman of Washington’s city council, as the party’s standard-bearer in the November election.

Because of sheer numbers of registered voters, the Democratic nominee becomes the mayor.

What happened?

At first glance, one can see that the Bajan American had earned another stint as mayor.

After all, the notoriously poor performing public schools are now recording some of their best results in years.

In addition, the city’s homicide rate, routinely one of the nation’s highest is expected to end the year at the lowest level in 50 years.

Just as important, the middle class are finding DC a good place to raise their children, so much so that the city’s population is now at its highest in two decades.

But a closer look would show that Fenty didn’t pay sufficient attention to the politics of the city. Instead, he gained a reputation for being aloof, “distant from the voters and late to respond to local crises”, as one international news publication put it. 

Critics, and you can find most of them in the city’s poor black districts, charged that Fenty was autocratic, often ignoring the political realities of the day, such as his choice of Michelle Rhee, an Asian American as head of the public schools, instead of selecting a black person for the job.

And, as if to make matters worse, Rhee and the mayor fired hundreds of educators for poor performance.

Next is the economy, and DC is having more than its fair share of financial troubles.

Declining local government revenue and rising expenditure have combined to leave the municipality with a sizeable budget deficit, estimated in the vicinity of close to $100 million.

The economic woes are reflected in the unemployment data. At the beginning of the year, joblessness rose to 11 per cent, about two per cent higher than the national average.

The trouble is that while unemployment in many white areas was in the single digits, in several poor, black districts it was as high as 20 per cent, confirming the view of Fenty’s opponents that he wasn’t the mayor of blacks but of whites.

That scenario opened the door for Gray, 67, who while acknowledging Fenty’s relatively good record in office, tapped into the resentment and alimentation by promising to be the mayor for everyone. And where the incumbent was seen as confrontational, Gray came across as a consensus builder who instead of charging head-on would find compromises.

Gray is promising voters a boost in education spending and has pledged to improve public housing. The big question is: where is the money going to come from?

There is a lesson in this for incumbents and elected officials who seem more concerned about results than about communicating with the electorate. All of your good works and deeds may not be enough to keep your office if voters think you don’t care about them.

In the end, Fenty was also undone by the poor national economy and its impact on the city.

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