Posted on September 29, 2010

Other Black Mayors Grapple With Forces That Led to Fenty’s Downfall

Karen Tumulty and Perry Bacon Jr., Washington Post, September 23, 2010

Once welcomed as a reformist mayor, he developed a leadership style that was criticized as aloof and autocratic. Budget cuts produced clashes with public employees and alienated some of the most important constituencies in the city.

Ultimately, the hope he once inspired gave way to suspicion of his “post-racial” brand of politics.

That, of course, was the narrative of Adrian Fenty’s rise and fall as mayor of Washington. But the circumstances he faced are not unique. Most of those statements could also describe the political arc of Mayor Cory Booker in Newark, Mayor Michael Nutter in Philadelphia, and Mayor David Bing in Detroit.

Booker has received glowing reviews nationally for his leadership. On Friday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who met Booker at a conference in July, is expected to announce a gift of $100 million to improve the city’s troubled schools. But skepticism of Booker has grown within the city. He had to campaign aggressively and spend $5.5 million more than his opponents to win reelection earlier this year with 58 percent of the vote. It was a sizeable victory, but a 13 percentage point drop from his landslide in 2006.

Nutter–whose approval among African-Americans has polled a third lower than among whites–could face a difficult battle next year for a second term, even though his most likely opponents are white and the city, with a black plurality, has a history of voting along racial lines.

Bing, a former National Basketball Association star and business executive, was accused of “ethnic cleansing” when he ordered the bulldozing of more than 10,000 houses in blighted neighborhoods that he hopes to convert to parks and urban farms.


To white ears, the word “post-racial” sounds like progress. But to African-Americans–particularly those who struggle daily with the lingering effects of generations of discrimination –it can feel like abandonment.

“I think Fenty’s overwhelming initial win blurred the continued racial bifurcation in the city, and fed into the post-racial narrative that many of us wanted to feel, even if we really didn’t believe it deep down inside,” said Cornell Belcher, a black pollster who advised President Obama’s campaign in 2008.

“Ethnic politics is still very much alive and well in big-city politics,” Belcher added. “Can you bridge the ethnic politics, or at least not trigger them in a negative way? Yes. But you have to be strategically cognitive of it. You can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter, because we are somehow post-racial.”

The latest wave of African-American mayors has faced a different set of challenges than the earlier generation who arose from the activism of the 1960s–predecessors like Marion Barry in Washington, Sharpe James in Newark, and Coleman Young in Detroit. {snip}

Indeed, the elections of this new breed of mayor were in many ways a direct result of the disappointment that followed when those breakthroughs for African-Americans did not solve other problems with crime, bad schools and unemployment.

The new generation is what Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, describes as “uber-pragmatists”–forging alliances with corporate interests and prosperous suburbs, encouraging gentrification, hiring outsiders to fill key jobs, inviting in private foundations that see the inner cities as testing grounds for their ideas.

Philip Thompson, a professor of urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls them “technocrats,” who view most problems in terms of management and resources, rather than culture or politics.


The jobs they have eliminated–sanitation workers in Newark, bus drivers in Detroit-are the path out of poverty for many, particularly African Americans. The teachers fired while Fenty was mayor, many of them middle-aged African Americans, are also symbols of the possibility of taking another step up the economic ladder.

“Much of the African American middle class in these cities are public sector workers who work for the city,” said Fred Siegal, a Cooper Union professor who has studied urban governance.

And while Nutter avoided widespread layoffs, the alternative was a hike in sales taxes, which hit the poor the hardest.


It hasn’t helped that, in some instances, these mayors have not been politically attuned to some of the relationships that undergird their communities. Just as Fenty was criticized for failing to make the rounds of black churches, the Detroit News has reported Bing’s absence from places like Big D’s Barber Shop, where his predecessors would often be found mixing it up with the regulars.

“When we talk about barbershops, that’s old politics,” Bing said when asked about that report. “I don’t have time for that; we have a city that is in crisis. My first eight months, I had to stay in the office to fix problems. You have to be focused.”


As Fenty learned the hard way, different parts of a city can have very different views of a mayor’s performance.


“The demographic breakdown of support for Nutter on these poll questions follows a consistent pattern, with the mayor doing better among whites than blacks, better among high-income residents than people with less income, and better among college graduates than those who are less well-educated,” the think tank wrote.

Fenty fell victim to that same divide, which is becoming a paradox of urban politics in the 21st century. How well these other mayors deal with it may well determine their political survival–and the success of their cities.