A Tale of Two Washingtons

A Tale of Two Washingtons


Open drives along the streets of Washington, D.C. show a Mayor’s race defined by neighborhood and race.  Pollsters need not apply; the city is small enough to engage a variety of non-scientific, anecdotal surveys within a manner of hours.  A good hour can get you a good feel for the political vibe from the city’s Northeast New York Avenue corridor all the way to the Northwest hills of Embassy Row snaking up Massachusetts Avenue.  One can get a sense of the fault lines for this particular Democratic Mayoral primary by simply counting yard signs and grasping visuals of supporters at busy intersections.  The awful, 21st century “Age of Obama” truth is that you can tell what complexion of District resident is voting for what candidate based on where you walk and drive.  Oddly enough, both candidates are African American.

Clearly, there is a sense that the “Blacker” side of the nation’s capitol rallies behind the older, 68-year old Vince Gray (D), the deliberate and wonkish City Council Chairman whom some jokingly refer to as “D.C.’s Mr. Spock.”  How will geriatric Gray match Fenty’s marathon-style canvassing? Only two months ago, driving surveys caught only a handful of signature blue background signs with red-border “Gray” – now, the Chairman’s signs populate large portions of the east, with a quiet invasion of windows and yards into Northwest, including Fenty’s Ward 4 home turf where you’ll find barbershops, hair salons and carry-outs fitted with Gray’s red, white and blue.   According to John Vaught Labeaume in the Washington Examiner, that might not bode too well for the incumbent:

The District’s Primary Election Day is four long, hot months away, but up here in Mount Pleasant, yard sign skirmishing has already been engaged. In the race for mayor, along this neighborhood’s long tree-lined blocks, D.C. Council Chair Vince Gray and Mayor Adrian Fenty are waging a surprisingly pitched house-to-house battle.

Fenty’s trademark green and white signs have been planted in District yards for months. But just days after Gray formally launched his challenge to Fenty’s re-nomination, “Vince Gray for Mayor” signs started sprouting up in Mount Pleasant yards, marking an unexpected foothold for the Gray campaign in a neighborhood that could reasonably have been assumed to be solid Fenty terrain. After all, Fenty grew up on Mount Pleasant, in the row house that his parents – longtime proprietors of Adams Morgan’s Fleet Feet sports specialty shop – still call home.

To the west side of D.C., upon crossing some of the busier avenues such as 7th Avenue (which becomes Georgia Avenue), we stumble into Fenty territory, the Mayor’s bold green signs a trademark holdover from his last election.  It worked last time – why not use it this round? Go with what you know.  And, despite the controversy and bad headlines, he doesn’t see a need to rebrand or remake himself.  The more noticeable fact is that Fenty signs are peppered throughout many of the Whiter and more affluent neighborhoods.  We’ve only counted, to date, two African Americans actively campaigning outside for the incumbent Mayor.  Eager, White D.C. yuppies are discovered flashing Fenty banners at rush hour at 16th and U St., NW and outside the Naval Observatory on Massachusetts.  When there was a sudden spurt of Fenty yard signs on West Virginia Ave. (in the heavily Black and troubled Trinidad section) on the turf and to the chagrin of Ward 5 City Council Member and anti-Fenty nemesis Harry Thomas, Jr. (D), they suddenly disappeared within two days of their sighting.  Gray signs are sprouting next to Thomas signs throughout the more humble Ward 5.

There are even folks in predominantly African American Prince George’s County, MD – famously referenced as the District’s shadow “Ward 9” – lining behind the D.C. Council Chair even though the race has no direct impact on them.  Yet, they represent a disgruntled bloc of non-voters who were either forced from District government jobs under Fenty, have family members who were or are among the growing ranks of those displaced by flipped District houses, high property taxes and high rent living that characterizes the new D.C.

Gray is gambling that he can ride in on a mixed tsunami of recession, national mood and local race/class beefs.  What he can’t match in pure physical prowess he assumes he will match in electorate rage. The tale, as it’s been for some time in the District of Columbia, is of two cities.  This is the unfortunate consequence of the primary.  The race is really not Fenty versus Gray; it’s Black Washington versus White Washington.  Classic rich versus poor story.  Old versus new.  Colbert King in The Washington Post walks a delicate line in expressing that recently:

While many voters seem to think the city is headed in the right direction, a significant number disagree, and, alas, along racial lines. As a Post poll revealed, while 67 percent of white residents believed the city is on the right track, a minority of black residents — 43 percent — agreed. Contrast that with the 17 percent of white residents who thought the city is headed in the wrong direction vs. twice as many black residents, 35 percent, who thought so.

Last week, Jim Graham, reportedly joking, told The Post’s Tim Craig that the District is on its way “to becoming more liberal than West Hollywood.”

I suspect many residents who heard that, especially middle-aged black homeowners, aren’t laughing. They would agree that the city’s political leadership, as Craig reported, has rebranded the District as a haven for medical marijuana, same-sex marriage, cyclists, streetcars, dog parks and more affluent, younger residents.

Gray appears to represent the old Washington that grits its teeth at the sound of new condo construction and takes one last impoverished stand as H Street, NE readies itself for a renaissance of shops, clubs and trolleys.  Fenty represents the new Washington basking in the “progress” of novel urban planning, from ubiquitous bike lanes to dog parks.  Old Washington wants its groove back; new Washington feels like they screwed it up and has no intention to stop mid stride.  But, where’s the balance? Can they co-exist and accept the other? Where was “old Washington” when the neighborhoods were in desperate need of revitalization? Where is “new Washington” when half the city feels dispossessed?


  1. Little do people know that those “large portions of the east (signs)” are a product of Fenty signs being stolen at an alarming rate. Ummm, very odd that vandalism would occur for some yard signs right around the time some articles are written about Vince Gray’s support.

  2. Thanks for the insight and perspective, Mike. It’s a cogent point as you’re exposing the seedy underbelly of campaign politics, especially in big cities like D.C. It will get worse over the next several months, the hot weather not making it any better. There’s no surprise there if that’s the case – on the real, it more than likely is: those signs on West Virginia Ave. were removed with serious quickness within only days of viewing them. Both sides are probably employing some rather questionable tactics in street canvassing, and we see this played out every election cycle by every campaign. Some candidates officially, yet privately endorse it; others turn their head in silence, thereby offering quiet approval.

    Not so certain about the timing of various news/opinion pieces concerning either candidate’s support … or lack thereof. It’s simply a matter of the following: this will be an interesting race – a political junkie’s race that all political junkies (like yours truly) are going to watch very intently. It’s one of the more juicy political stories in 2010, particularly since we’re in a very active electoral cycle at the moment with Congressional mid-terms around the corner. Just like we watched Cory Booker and Sharpe James battle it out (and actually get physical) in Brick City; just like we examined similar battles in places like Philly, Detroit, New Orleans and elsewhere. You should expect more than your average share of analysis on this primary. Unfortunately, bank on it getting ugly.

    Keep reading!

    • Keep writing! lol

      By the way, sign stealing is as old as machine politics, if not older. Thank you, sir. Loved these articles and your comments.

  3. I’m voting for Fenty and I am not a fan of his. I figure that Michelle Rhee will be ousted if Fenty loses and she is the only cut-throat, ruthless educational reformist/revolutionary in this country right now with as big of a microphone that can draw attention to change tactics through disruptive innovations. It’s too bad she needs more time to produce results against agrarian and industrialized educational models the masses are clinging to maintain even though they know time has run out on so many because of their fears of radical changes needed “yesterday”.

    So my vote for Fenty is actually support for Rhee; if Gray liked Rhee, then I’d vote for him. Being a former educator, education reform is a top priority public interest issue for me and it effects the mobility and quality of life issues that Grays constituency are desperate in need of learning how to adapt too.

  4. Thanks for the candor, Andrea. Since he doesn’t support Chancellor Rhee, education could be Gray’s greatest policy weakness if he doesn’t come up with a better or more forceful alternative. There are bitter points on both sides of the argument when it comes to Rhee, but the point is that perception rules everything in politics. She’s winning that perception battle at the moment, as far as many parents are concerned.

  5. Another resident of Ward 5 here — whose Fenty lawn signs have been stolen every time they go up. Same story with my neighbors. Fenty canvassed here and the results were a flurry of green signs on each street. Now they've all been stolen.