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Kojo asks: Do D.C. city voters prefer style to substance?

Kojo Nnamdi


On his Politics Hour Friday, WAMU-FM host Kojo Nnamdi took a page out of the Keith Olbermann broadcast playbook to offer a special comment on the mayoral race.

He asks a hard question, one that gets to a number of issues that are shaping the race in a way that can be hard for us reporters to get at:

"Why is that every mayor of this city since Marion Barry -- Sharon Pratt, Anthony Williams and now Adrian Fenty -- gets accused of being anti-black and anti-poor people?" Kojo asked on the air. "In Fenty's case, the hatred is so vitriolic that his detractors will tell you that they know for certain that he's done something worse than kicking a dog, and that Cathy Lanier got to be a police chief by promising not to tell ... even though they have absolutely no evidence."

He continued: "In a city where we can't summon the passion to get mad as hell and face down the Congress over our lack of voting rights, blacks can get mad as hell over Adrian Fenty's 'arrogance' in the same way that whites were mad as hell over Marion Barry's 'arrogance.' I guess we may be united after all. We all seem to choose style ... over substance."

So what do you think? Why is it that Fenty has generated such deep anger in some parts of the city? Why did Tony Williams and Sharon Pratt get pretty much the same reaction (if not quite as vitriolic). Why can't he claim credit for the new facilities in majority-black parts of town? Why is he getting booed? Is it all personality, or is it policy, too?

On that last question, keep this in mind: Marion Barry, for all the love he engendered among black voters, was during his 1980s heyday absolutely beloved in the development community -- the same folks Fenty foes sneer at for supposedly wagging the dog.

Here is Kojo's full comment:

I like Vincent Gray. I think he's a good man. I could vote for Vincent Gray. But I'm beginning to wonder if the city I love has become just another harbinger of hate. What's with the hatred of Adrian Fenty? He's arrogant ... so we hate him? Look. Albert Haynesworth took $21 million from the Redskins and refused to show up for work. I can understand booing him. But Adrian Fenty is a politician, a politician with a mixed record of service. We can debate about that, disagree about it. But why is that every mayor of this city since Marion Barry -- Sharon Pratt, Anthony Williams and now Adrian Fenty -- gets accused of being anti-black and anti-poor people? In Fenty's case, the hatred is so vitriolic that his detractors will tell you that they know for certain that he's done something worse than kicking a dog, and that Cathy Lanier got to be a police chief by promising not to tell ... even though they have absolutely no evidence. I know the temptation to demonize an opponent is strong. We've all heard that Obama may be a Muslim who wasn't born in America. But Adrian Fenty, like Vincent Gray, is a homeboy. Two Native Washingtonians competing, along with others, to run the city of their birth. As someone said, they're not running for Mr. Congeniality. In a city where we can't summon the passion to get mad as hell and face down the Congress over our lack of voting rights, blacks can get mad as hell over Adrian Fenty's "arrogance" in the same way that whites were mad as hell over Marion Barry's "arrogance." I guess we may be united after all. We all seem to choose style ... over substance.

UPDATE, 1:55 P.M.: Here's video:

Photo courtesy of WAMU-FM

By Mike DeBonis  |  June 18, 2010; 12:48 PM ET
Categories:  Adrian Fenty , DCision 2010 , The District  | Tags: Adrian Fenty, Anthony Williams, Kojo Nnamdi, Sharon Pratt, dc mayor, race, racial politics  
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This is the reason: many people in DC are looking for the proverbial free ride from the DC government like they were getting from Barry. With any responsible government, it just isn't fiscally possible. They think that because the mayor is half black that they should all be given city jobs. Ain't going to happen unless the city goes to the canine Barry breed.

Posted by: Calabrese99 | June 18, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

You job, as Mayor, is to be, essentially, your constituents' puppet. That's it--nothing more. Your job is to listen to your constituents and do with they tell you to do. To my mind, the ascriptions of "arrogant", "aloof," and the like are just another way of saying that Fenty does not listen to his constituents. Not only does he not listen to them, but he acts as if they are not worth listening to. Even more than that--he acts as if he "knows better" than them--as if they are just stupid fools that do not know any better.

Let me give you an example. Let's say that I go to the doctor, saying, "I've had headaches all my life, 5 days a week. These headaches impede my ability to enjoy life." The doctor, ignoring me, looks over my chart: bloods tests, x-rays, etc. I visit the doctor once a month, and every time the same thing happens: I say, "I have headaches," and he ignores me. Finally, at the end of the year, the doctor looks up and says, "Good news! We found a new way to deal with back pain! I'll start you on the medication right away!"
"But doctor," I say, "what about my headaches!"
The doctor, irritated, says, "All you do is complain! I can fix your back pain--why don't I get credit for that?"

If you don't listen to your constituents, you may very well be able to fix problems in their neighborhoods. The problem is that they are not the problems that are the most pressing for those people living in the neighborhood every day of their lives. If you believe that your way is the best, the way forward is to convince your constituents, to say, "Here, let's have a discussion. I want to show you why I believe that my way forward is the best way forward." Fenty (and Rhee, for that matter), instead say, effectively: "Deal with it. My way or the highway. If you don't like it, then you're stupid and you're against progress (or you're against "the children", etc)."

Posted by: foldingtime | June 18, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

A better question to ask is why African Americans who are not siding with Mayor Fenty get accused of only disliking him because of arrogance or some notion that he is anti-black or anti-poor. I could care less about Mr. Fenty's personality. I don't like the way he has managed SEVERAL parts of his job. I see that much of his successes have simply come on the coattails of the previous administration. If that's the case why not as Mayor Williams to return. I expected more from the Mayor and I did not get it. I don't care what his style is or what his race is. I am not impressed with him and I won't be voting for him. Although I must admit I have problems with Gray as well. My biggest problem is the corruption that has occurred on this mayor's watch, and while some of it may have occurred on the watch of previous mayors, that does not make it right. Please stop putting me in a category with people who want freebies or hand outs. I have NEVER gotten a job from the District or Columbia nor do I receive any social welfare benefits!

Posted by: negee99 | June 18, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

First, there isn't any substance to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Second, Mr. DeBonis should leave The Washington Post and join Mayor Fenty's re-election campaign.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | June 18, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Kojo: The only thing Fenty has in common with the previous mayors is holding the office.

Kojo, what about going back to school. You insult the listener by asking a question like this. You have been listening to yourself and reading your name in print too much. You are a radio host, a M.C., a moderator you are suppose to know better. Try the Aspen Institute, the Kennedy School, or Brookings and ask that ridiculous question there.

Exchange Dialogue regarding the positive and negative aspects of leadership, how a color blind society only really works when its legislated, and self love vs self hate.

Don't know what you were thinking by asking this question. But our Jewish brothers and sisters, Italians, Irish, Hispanics, Ethiopian, and other ethnic and cultural groups who advocate and work hard for their communities without fear, is surely thinking, Poor Kojo I thought he was smarter than that.

Posted by: gordonbundy | June 18, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

I never slammed Anthony Williams, who was mayor when I moved here, as being anti-poor or anti-black, aloof and nerdy yes, but he was a damn good Mayor and turned this city around handing Mayor Fenty a 1.6 billion dollar surplus and savings. He started Customer Services Operations and hired the hard charging Robert Bobb who turned city service response around. I don't like Fenty because he is a fake. He takes credit where none is owed. He is petty and whines too much.

If Williams were running, he'd have my vote. Gray, like Williams, seems a bit aloof and at time stale, but he is deliberate and seems to care about constituents ideas and the direction they would like the city to move in.

It is insulting to suggest that those who don't like Fenty desire a welfare city. I just want a competent executive, not one who thinks he is entitled to be in the job.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | June 18, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I've heard the rumor for years, King Adrian Fenty beats his wife Michelle Fenty, but there's never been any proof of this. I think this is an urban legend.

Posted by: Ward4DC | June 18, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

It's poor black folks afraid of losing control of the city. For decades they enjoyed the thought that they were sticking it to the man. Now that there is a responsible politician making fiscally responsible decisions for the long term health of the city and poor black folks can't stand that their power is marginalized.

Fenty's not the greatest politician by any measure, but everyone knows that Gray is going to put a stop to any and all reforms that hurt any DC union. Kids will suffer and neighborhoods will suffer.

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | June 18, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

And to foldingtime:

You aren't his only constituent. If you listen to the majority of this city, the majority that doesn't actually provide an income, you run this city into bankruptcy. We've already done this. It doesn't work and it will return this city to the crack days.

Posted by: FormerMCPSStudent | June 18, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I respect Kojo, but I don't know what his history is with Fenty. Where we failed was Fenty got in by his image. White people liked that he was under 40 and athletic, just like Barack won them over. And he pulled the wool over Blacks head by going 'Door to Door' and he was actually from the city.

Linda Cropp would have been a better leader for the city. But no one was listening to the issues then, so why is Kojo bringing in the issues now?

Hillary Clinton would have been the better president for what we needed now to add on to that as well....

Posted by: 4thFloor | June 18, 2010 4:17 PM | Report abuse

The answers are so obvious. Fenty is a textbook example of a narcissistic sociopath, who, if left unchecked, will bring this city into absolute ruin. Look as the damage he's done to the taxicab industry. He's totally ignored the proper protocols of due process and checks and balances, suppressed any input from the Taxicab Commission and the cab drivers of color only to set the metered rate up according to the behests of Little Miss Muffet in upper NW, who has never driven a cab a day in her life.
Fenty has continually abused his power by firing personnel just for the thrill of it. He's petty, dictatorial, stubborn, and acts on impulses and urges driven by the adrenalin rush he gets from dominating and controlling others for his own sadistic gratification.

Posted by: starclimber9 | June 18, 2010 4:27 PM | Report abuse


The job of a politician is emphatically NOT to simply be one's "constituents' puppet." We elect leaders to make decisions for us--and when we don't like their decisions, we fire them every few years. We elect leaders to learn about issues and make decisions that, as individuals, we lack the information, intelligence, interest, or capacity to make for ourselves.

Your analogy suggests as much once its application is corrected. Fenty (for his flaws) is not like a doctor who prescribes you medicine for your back when you head hurts. Fenty--or any good politician--is a doctor who refuses to sign you up for expensive medical treatments to cure a disease you don't have--despite what WebMD told you.

Does that mean that he's going to anger some constituents? Certainly. But look at the taxi cab situation--the vast majority of us are not cab drivers, and the vast majority of us benefited from that decision--whether we knew it or not.

Posted by: DCCentrist | June 18, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

Kojo, unfortunatelly you asked not only a wrong but also an immatured question.

Fenty has generated such deep anger not just in some parts of the city as you tried to indicate but in all part of DC. These issues are not as racial as you said....people just smell something... In contrary to your assumption, no people of reason and logic had approved the Mayor including Ward 3 where Gray wins Fenty in Straw Polls.

Posted by: usee | June 18, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

Kojo's comments are divisive and wrongheaded. I am white and a native Washingtonian. There is a core of people who have labored long and hard in D.C. because they love the city, long before it became popular. We are all races, colors and ages, and we have bonded together out of our love for our home. We are supporting Gray because he is committed to the city as we are and he is a man of principle and substance.

Mike: I loved you at the City Paper. What has happened to you? It seems like you have drunk the koolaid.

Posted by: tacard1 | June 18, 2010 9:18 PM | Report abuse

I have heard that style over substance argument all week from different commentators--it sounds like a Fenty talking point.

If by substances they made the stuff you find at the bottom of your shoe..yeah-he is loaded with substance.

Posted by: 411Tibby | June 18, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

Didn;t we just found out today the FBI is investigating Mayor Fenty over the raid of the pension plan. And unlike him pointing every bad thing to Williams and every good thing to him...this actually originated with him.

I need a four letter word to describe this substance.

Posted by: 411Tibby | June 18, 2010 11:30 PM | Report abuse

Personally I think all politicians are arrogant. That's not style, it's just arrogance. Fenty and substance? There is none. That's why he is on his way out of office.

Posted by: candycane1 | June 19, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

I think it has to do with loyalty. Fenty had so many dedicated campaign workers the first time around and he squandered their trust by taking the imperial approach to decision making. Plus, the off-with-your head personnel dismissals of those that came with him into the administration, who may have had the temerity to speak their minds. Plus axing others who were doing stellar work -- like Michael Kelley and Elizabeth Noel -- who would not compromise their integrity and their duty to the public for his purposes. The man who only trusts his fraternity brothers and running partners does not deserve to be Mayor. That polite young man who stood on your doorstep four years ago ago only wanted your vote and could care less what you think. That worked once, but won't again.

Posted by: mail6 | June 19, 2010 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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