Deja Vu: Obama-Clinton, Meet Fenty-Cropp
Political analogies are always rough, but as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton head into their showdown in New Hampshire today, this campaign is starting to sound awfully familiar to D.C. voters.
The 2006 mayoral race that pitted the young, green dynamo--council member Adrian Fenty--against the presumptive heir to the office--council chair Linda Cropp--featured many of the emotional and psychological aspects of the current Democratic presidential face-off. Cropp, like Clinton, was a lackluster speaker who by most accounts knew the issues and the territory better than her young challenger. Cropp, like Clinton, was endorsed by the power establishment, admired by older voters, and had been groomed for the top office for years.
Money, power and inertia favored Cropp. The times did not.
Fenty, like Obama, seemed less than seasoned. He wasn't always sure of himself on the details of government. He spurned party elders. He spoke to a new generation of voters. And he spoke across racial lines. As a man of biracial background, he ran almost without mention of race--and certainly without mention of race as a limiting factor or cause for bitterness or resentment.
Like Clinton, Cropp derided her opponent as the purveyor of false hope, of easy answers and insufficient rigor. Like Obama, Fenty largely ignored such criticism, instead wowing young and new voters with his personal energy, apparent integrity, and simple message of hope and trust in a new way of doing things.
Obviously, the racial dynamic in the District is far from that of the nation as a whole. Yet the role race played in these two political contests was, but for the skin color of each electorate's majority, remarkably close. Both Fenty and Obama spoke of race more through their actions and presence than through rhetoric or policy positions. The very facts that they were who they were and where they were sufficed to send the message that they had somehow transcended race. This, combined with their ability to communicate levels of energy and competence that seemed to break with tradition, persuaded many white voters to support them--and that embracing and expansive manner in turn persuaded many young black voters to join in.
It is no coincidence that Fenty (Oberlin) and Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law), like Mayor Cory Booker of Newark (Stanford, Oxford, Yale Law), Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (Milton Academy, Harvard College, Harvard Law) and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (Harvard College, Harvard Law), are products of elite educations. Their experiences teach them that privilege knows no color, that the meritocracy, fragile and flawed as it may be, is far from closed to people like them. They are post-civil-rights movement Democrats who won elections with campaigns that steered clear of race-conscious appeals.
If they are viewed with suspicion by older voters, both black and white, they don't much care. Their focus is on their own generation and those who come behind them. When they speak of a new America--and they all do--they see the color-blind friendships so common among their children, and they think of their colleagues from college and beyond, believing that they can populate government with top-shelf thinkers and doers like themselves.
To candidates such as Cropp and Clinton, who grew up in a far more racially divided culture, this all seems overly optimistic, even a bit delusional. Cropp scoffed at the idea that Fenty's door-to-door campaigning could amount to more than her own decades of service in the bowels of the District's political machinery. She believed that support from unions, party organizations and other old-line groups meant far more than Fenty's campaign by yard signs and Blackberry messages. Like Clinton, she lectured audiences about how the work of governing was far more complicated than her young opponent made it out to be. Where Clinton talks about how naive it is to speak of "ending" the war in Iraq when the withdrawal of troops is a tricky and difficult business, Cropp would deride Fenty as someone who didn't understand that negotiating with Major League Baseball was a job for an adult who steered clear of simple, direct stances.
Adrian Fenty won every single precinct in one of America's most politically, racially and economically divided cities.
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