D.C.'s choice for mayor: Mr. Me or Mr. Machine

If you are registered as a Democrat in the District, you have a choice on Tuesday: Do you want your tax dollars and the resources of your city to be handed over to the teachers union, the government-employee unions, and the local chamber of commerce? Or do you want the spoils going to the brothers of Kappa Alpha Psi?

Mayor Adrian Fenty has marred his term in office with a string of almost gratuitous acts of cronyism, using his power to help his friends and hurt his enemies.

Council Chairman Vincent Gray, on the other hand, was handpicked by the special interests — the groups that for so long have pulled the strings in this town, and that promise a return to business as usual.

Fenty has a reputation for aloofness — making perfunctory appearances, missing engagements and stepping on toes. The flattering spin is that he's all business and has no interest in glad-handing politics. You could imagine Fenty's answer in a job interview: “I'd have to say my greatest flaw is that I have no patience for petty squabbles and rubbing elbows.”

The less flattering interpretation is that Fenty is thoroughly self-centered — even more so than the typical politician.

Gray wins plaudits for being a team player and a consensus builder. But here, too, there's a damning side to this same coin: More than any other politician who comes to mind, Gray is a creature of the political machine and a champion of the bureaucracy.

Look at the list of groups endorsing Gray: the American Federation of Government Employees, Washington DC Realtors, DC Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Fraternal Order of Police and, of course, the Washington Teachers' Union. The WTU titled its rally for Gray “Respect for Education” — a fitting motto for Gray.

The chairman may not have passion — or ideas — for fixing D.C.'s wretched school system, but he respects the teachers unions. He respects the other special interests, too.

Gray defers to the territorial claims of unions and bureaucracies. Adrian Fenty, on the other hand, is all about Adrian Fenty. That helps explain the unions' passion in this race.

“I've never seen a union effort in D.C. that's this well-funded or better organized,” political consultant Chuck Thies told this paper.

The local AFL-CIO brags of sending three different mailers to 30,000 members for this election. My colleague Freeman Klopott reported that the American Federation of Teachers plans to spend “well into six figures mobilizing their more than 32,000 members by the time Tuesday's Democratic primary arrives.”

This full-barrel assault from the teachers was probably unavoidable. Fixing education meant closing schools and firing underperforming teachers. It's hard to see how Fenty could have made any progress without starting a war with the WTU and AFT.

But Fenty didn't need to make the city council hate him. His refusal to give the city council the baseball tickets to which they were legally entitled was embarrassing and inexplicable. Granting city contracts to Fenty's fraternity brothers and to supporter Ron Moten was small-time gratuitous corruption. At least when Mayor Richard Daley dispensed patronage in Chicago, he did it with an end in mind.

But just as Fenty's graft was pointless, it was also nearly harmless — at worst, a few million thrown away. And just as Fenty seems to think too highly of himself, at least that means he is independent.

“Independent” is the last word you would use for Vincent Gray. His candidacy was spawned by Fenty's lack of “respect” for the teachers unions — whose mission is to save the jobs of teachers who have failed to teach. Gray's campaign coffers are filled with special-interest cash, public employees are burning up the phone lines, and union operatives are going door to door for him.

“Beholden” is the word that comes to mind when considering the prospect of a Mayor Gray.

Mayor Fenty takes credits for many improvements in D.C., but his success lies largely in getting out of the way. When a city begins to improve, it gets its own momentum as citizens, businessmen and some public-spirited government workers begin to believe there's something in it for them to invest. Fenty hasn't stopped them.

Just a importantly, Fenty has kept the bureaucracy out of the way. This is where it matters that Gray is a man of the Machine — he believes in the bureaucracy. He “respects” it.

So, this is D.C.'s choice: Fenty's overblown belief in himself, or Gray's dangerous reliance on the special interests.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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