Understanding the DC Democratic primary

Why Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty Lost

When the results came in, Fenty was trounced in largely black districts. In Wards 7 and 8, his opponent, Vincent Gray, won 82 percent of the vote. In Northwest Washington, where white voters predominate, Fenty won 76 percent of the vote. Fenty decisively lost the black vote and decisively won the white vote. D.C. public schools are about 5 percent white, so it is a reasonable supposition that the anti-Fenty vote was fueled to a large degree by parents of children in the public schools. Gray won handily, 53 percent to 46 percent.

Journalists attributed Fenty’s loss to the power of the teachers’ union, but such an explanation implies that black voters, even in the privacy of the voting booth, lack the capacity to make an informed choice. When the Tea Party wins a race, journalists don’t write about who controlled their vote, but about a voter revolt; they acknowledge that those who turned out to vote had made a conscious decision. Yet when black voters, by large margins, chose Vincent Gray over Adrian Fenty, journalists found it difficult to accept that the voters were acting on their own, not as puppets of the teachers’ union.

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Gary Imhoff of DCWatch, for one, is sick of the Rhee hagiography. He says Rhee “became a national symbol of educational reform and, at least in the national press, the success of her methods was unquestioned,” and says that in both national and local coverage of the D.C. campaign, “it became a racial narrative; in fact, it became a racist narrative. Black people, who didn’t value education and who didn’t want their children to be better educated, voted against Fenty because they were angry that Rhee was improving their schools.”

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