- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

As Linda W. Cropp was making her concession speech after losing Tuesday’s D.C. mayoral primary, the ever-gracious D.C. Council chairman told a thinly veiled fable about today’s brand of politicking.

Her young grandson announced that he wanted to be president of the United States one evening after she came home from tiresome campaigning — campaigning, mind you, that had cost the youngster his regular Friday-evening time with his granny for weeks.

When he went on to ask the woman who has served for 26 years in elective office what it would take for him to become president, Mrs. Cropp said, “A lot of campaigning.” “Oh, forget that,” the boy exclaimed.

Mrs. Cropp failed to mention how much begging, door-knocking and spin-doctoring is required to capture the attention of an apathetic electorate.

Early on in this expensive mayoral campaign, it was clear that retail politics would win the day. However, no one guessed just how much a personal peep would matter.

Not even Marion Barry, the city’s mayor-for-life and now Ward 8 council member, had captured every precinct in the District.

When I interviewed primary winner Adrian M. Fenty yesterday at the NBC-TV studios in Northwest, even he expressed surprise. “We didn’t prepare for the margin. I wasn’t expecting it to be that big or for the breadth and the depth of the support,” he said.

No doubt that youth (he’s 35) and energy (he’s a long-distance runner) beat experience and performance Tuesday, proving that it’s not what you’ve done that counts, just that you are out there running the race face to face. Do voters ever check the campaign rhetoric?

“People are crazy, man; it’s all this whipped-up illusion,” said outgoing Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who was positively apoplectic at the Washington Hilton on Tuesday night.

Of course, that’s exactly how Teflon Tony got into office and stayed there despite “dissing” poor people. You’d think folks would have learned their lesson by now and voted for substance over style.

We see, as Mrs. Cropp suggests, that victory goes to the best campaigner, not the best candidate. Otherwise, former utility executive Marie C. Johns would have fared better.

Some people can afford to roll the dice and bet on hype and hope, but the folks who need government most — those who were left out or pushed out during the boon years — cannot afford too many baby missteps.

Who wouldn’t prefer a promising administration from the new legends of urban politics, such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker, rather than the disastrous doings of young Detroit Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick.

Clearly, D.C. voters bought the Fenty hype, and that is their right.

But it is the responsibility of the neophyte candidate and his handlers to turn hope and hype into reality now that the primary is over. And his fresh followers must hold Mr. Fenty’s running shoes to the fire.

What does Mr. Fenty have to say to critics, like me, who are concerned about his inattentiveness and inexperience? “They can look to how I ran this campaign … with high standards,” he countered. Better to look at that than at his six-year council record. What the election also signaled was the unpredictability of voters, and that they want change. What change is not nearly as clear.

Old wounds, for example, heal hard. This week, I heard some D.C. voters say they wanted a change in “the old guard.” Is the old guard old-line Washingtonians? Incumbents? Mr. Barry, who supported Mr. Fenty, or the Barry bunch who supported Mrs. Cropp? The business community? Labor? Or the Williams administration and its all-for-baseball agenda?

“This election was a referendum on Tony Williams from top to bottom,” said one political operative, who reasoned that voters were voicing displeasure with the two-term mayor.

But Mr. Fenty was not so quick to accept that assessment.

“To be honest with you, some of the people who voted for me are supporters of the mayor. But, some of them who didn’t like him voted for me, too,” Mr. Fenty said. “It’s a referendum to move this city forward.” Another vacuous political platitude. When pressed, Mr. Fenty spoke of spending money better and improving schools, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether he gets it yet, that he’ll have to do more than parrot and pander.

Aside from retail politics, Mr. Fenty’s primary victory can be attributed to voter discontent with more than one enemy or entity.

Remember that Mr. Fenty got into politics by beating D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis not simply because she was more concerned with citywide issues than constituent services. Just about everybody in her ward was mad at her for just about everything. It didn’t matter that her detractors had competing interests; they had one goal — dump Charlene.

Mr. Fenty was the beneficiary of a perfect political storm then, as now.

Mrs. Cropp’s day, too, is done. But she leaves a legacy of accomplishment. True to her conciliatory nature, she called for unity as the torch is passed.

First, Mr. Fenty will need to recognize that he is not nearly as good as his press clippings. He needs to put away the BlackBerry — which he kept looking at during our chat — and seek lots of political advice and management training during what portends to be a very long and shaky learning curve. He will have to figure out, for example, how to do more than simply co-sponsor legislation. Now, he actually will have to follow through to the nitty-gritty end.

Second, the city’s former and current legislators, administrators and bureaucrats will need to put aside their differences and embrace the upstart and teach him the ropes.

Last, his critics, including yours truly, will have to extend our congratulations for an unprecedented campaign and allow Mr. Fenty a reasonable honeymoon.

After all, we love this city and wish its residents and its most likely next mayor well.

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