Center for American Progress

Three Lessons from Last Week’s D.C. Mayoral Race

Three Lessons from Last Week’s D.C. Mayoral Race

As national attention turns to the midterm congressional contests, the progressive politicians that are victorious should study the D.C. mayor’s race and embrace its lessons.

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Lesson one: Race still matters in politics

In Washington’s Democratic mayoral primary last week, white voters showed a 4-to-1 preference for incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty over D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray. But black voters went the other way, casting their ballots at a 4-to-1 rate for Gray. Why such stark differences in a race between two black candidates with similar political ideologies? In short, it boils down to demography and the separate worlds that black and white voters inhabit. Although Washington has a majority-black population, white residents tend to live in isolation across the northwest of the city, away from the swelling numbers of black, Latino, and other racial minorities in the city’s other neighborhoods. This stratification by race and class emerges when voting patterns are revealed.

Lesson two: Successful policies aren’t universally embraced

Fenty cruised to the mayor’s office by downplaying race and pledging to bring competence to City Hall. It worked. He won every precinct in the general election and went on to become a mayor with a record of accomplishments. Even his critics offered praise for the mayor’s efforts at cutting crime, boosting school test scores, and improving city services. But where Fenty saw success, many black voters saw heavy-handed arrogance. Gray, however, never criticized his opponent’s record. Instead, he recognized that policy success was only a part of the equation. Gray understood that personality is just as important.

Progressives need to understand what apparently escaped Fenty—some progressive reforms will burn bridges with progressive voters. In a majority-minority political movement, understanding how different voters will fall on an issue will determine electoral success.

Lesson three: Inclusion is the key to success

What Washington voters did last week by picking one black candidate over another, by turning out Fenty, a once-popular mayor with a demonstrated and generally agreed upon record of accomplishment, illustrates the challenge and opportunity that progressive policymakers are likely to face more often as the country’s electorate becomes increasingly diverse. Issues of importance to progressives must be framed and discussed in ways to inspire all segments of their coalition to become involved and participate in public policy decisions.

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