By Karen Tumulty and Perry Bacon Jr.Washington Post Staff Writers Thursday, September 23, 2010; 4:30 PM
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.
The Detroit mayor, who was raised in Washington and still has friends in the city, said he had followed Fenty's plight and saw some parallels. At the same time, Bing played down any personal electoral concerns, noting the cities are different politically and that he will not stand for reelection until 2013.
"When you are in a city as distressed as Detroit and maybe D.C. to some extent, there are some difficult decisions that have to be made," Bing said. "There are some things that should have been done years ago, and now you are confronted with making these decisions in your term and you get a lot of pushback."
Some experts see a paradox in the fact that these African-American mayors are facing such difficulties in the years after a black man has become president. But Barack Obama's election may have implanted an overly simplified view of racial politics, particularly in big cities. Fenty's race, for instance, was entangled in racial politics despite the fact that his opponent, Vincent Gray, was also an African-American.
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 -i t 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. The agendas of that first wave were based on empowering those who had been disenfranchised by discrimination, ending the abuses they had suffered and giving them access to city jobs and contracting.
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 first of those technocrats, he said, was former Cleveland mayor Michael White, who was served from1990 to 2001. Others who followed that model - and won with substantial support from white voters - included Detroit's Dennis Archer and Washington's Anthony Williams.
Some of the things that have brought today's technocratic mayors acclaim from outside their communities engendered suspicion within them. In municipal politics, Katz said, "constituents see benefits or the losses more directly, and take them more personally. It happens more quickly."
That they should be trying to do all this at a time of economic crisis vastly increases their difficulties, especially for those whose cities have been hit harder than Washington.
"If you have resources, being a technician is great, but cities haven't had resources since Reagan," said MIT's Thompson.
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.
"When I look at the things Cory and Adrian have had to deal with, with the budget and labor costs and taxes, a lot of things are the same," said Elnardo Webster, a longtime political adviser to Booker. "They came in with ideas and inspiration, but [because of the recession] they had to become managers. And the old guard has utilized that major discontent and said, 'We told you so.' "
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."
Nor can many in their communities relate to some of the issues these mayors have chosen to focus upon. Bike paths in Washington or campaign finance reform in Philadelphia may be good things, but they don't have much of an impact in parts of the city where unemployment is in the double digits.
As Fenty learned the hard way, different parts of a city can have very different views of a mayor's performance.
A poll released in February by the Pew Charitable Trusts' Philadelphia Research Initiative found that Nutter got relatively high marks overall for his performance, with 53 percent saying they approved and 32 percent saying they didn't.
However, the survey found that his ratings among blacks were 20 to 25 percentage points lower than among whites. Blacks were evenly split at 43 percent on the question of whether they approved or disapproved of the job that Nutter is doing; 65 percent of whites approved.
"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.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this story.