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Consultant's postmortem: Fenty became 'flawed and expendable'

In the three weeks since Mayor Adrian Fenty's epic loss, there's been no shortage of whither-education-reform op-ed pieces penned, but there's also been behind-the-scenes hand-wringing over how a once-popular incumbent like Fenty could be trounced so thoroughly. Could it be a sign of more bad things to come for Democratic incumbents?

Bill Knapp -- the veteran political communications consultant, whose business partner Anita Dunn consulted for both Fenty and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee -- has come forward to explain to Democratic operatives that this was more about Fenty's preternaturally bad communications instinct than a latent anti-incumbent mood. He penned a memo on the Fenty campaign (pdf) last week to Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association. Daschle yesterday sent out the memo to an internal list of campaign honchos working Democratic races across the nation.

Fenty lost, Knapp writes, because he "neglected a critical base" and "symbolic of that was the Sunday before the election when he participated in a triathlon in DC instead of visiting African American churches, as his opponent did."

Knapp continues: "The truth of the election was that from a policy perspective, Fenty was popular. From a personal perspective, he had become flawed and expendable." Fenty, he writes, tried to change his personal style "too late and continued to send messages that he hadn't really changed."

More observations:

-- Winner Vincent Gray "did not flit around from issue to issue. He didn't fall into a trap and engage Fenty on the incumbent's turf. He stayed on the offense and painted a rosy picture of the alternative. Fenty went from strategy to strategy and from negative to negative and never really built a case."

-- "Fenty had some great accomplishments, but none that worked against Gray. You need to know what works against your opponent and focus on that, but understand that unlike a federal race, where ideological positions have more power, you need to find real, tangible issues that affect people in their day to day lives."

-- "The absolutely most important element is what I call ethics -- which is to say, not that you are honest (I'll assume that!), but that you care about people. It is reflected in how you talk, in how you spend your time, in your family, in your character, and in your policies. ... Fenty misunderstood this -- he focused on policy and lost the trust of the people."

Knapp ends by commenting on the edu-focus of Fenty's campaign message -- which he says was misplaced: "The truth is education in the Fenty race never became relevant. It was an important issue, but it was not THE important issue; the economy was. ... The seeds that grew into Fenty's loss were planted a long time ago by his failure to make progress in education an accomplishment and then to leverage that to make the broader, more relevant point about his leadership."

In other words: "He should have said, 'I said that I would do [x], and we are making great progress, and now we need to do [y], and I'll do that.'"

There's a lesson in there for those Democratic governors out there, Knapp writes: If all anyone cares about is unemployment and the economy, you have to find a way to make your accomplishments on other issues speak to what the people care about.

By Mike DeBonis  | October 5, 2010; 12:37 PM ET
Categories:  Adrian Fenty, DCision 2010, The District  
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The views expressed by Mr. Bill Knapp are on point and were offered to many reporters and people around Mayor Fenty early in his term. However, it seems they had to come from a certain cadre of intellectuals outside the circle of the community activists often ignored and disrespected in the media to be credible to reporters.

The only people not surprised by the District primary elections results are the steadfast community activists who organized and informed the people of the truth. It was the people out in the community who got it right.

Robert Vinson Brannum

Posted by: robert158 | October 5, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more with the analysis, but I think it extends beyond Fenty to the Washington Post's local coverage. The Post's stories -- and certainly its editorial pages -- tried hard to make this about education and the outcome about race.

There's broader arc of what's happening in DC than I see in the Post's coverage. What's happening in health care, in homeless shelters, in an array of issues that don't get the depth of Post coverage they need?

If the Post can't deepen its relevance to readers, I don't see it staying relevant.

Posted by: 4Ward4 | October 5, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

"If the Post can't deepen its relevance to readers, I don't see it staying relevant." Great point. The Post's local coverage is really second-rate. Having a new "local" page is just window dressing.

Posted by: Aerowaz | October 5, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Outstanding analysis!

Posted by: Darrellfb | October 5, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

This analysis should be required reading by everyone at the WaPo. The WaPo simplistic views, ie the election was about race, show a news organization that is out of touch with the city on which it is suppose to be reporting.

Posted by: Jimof1913 | October 5, 2010 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Robert Vinson Brannum wrote,

"The only people not surprised by the District primary elections results are the steadfast community activists who organized and informed the people of the truth. It was the people out in the community who got it right."

You are absolutely correct! "We the People" were the coup to Fenty’s demise. You can't discount majority of your constituents and expect clemency at the 11th hour.

Posted by: GoldCoast | October 6, 2010 2:43 AM | Report abuse

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