Mayor Adrian Fenty, who appeared to have it all when he swept into office four years ago — the support of every precinct in the city and at 36, a seemingly bright political future ahead of him — lost it all early Wednesday when he came up short against challenger D.C. Council Chairman Vince Gray.
With 90 percent of precincts counted, Gray led Fenty 59,285 votes to 50,850. There are also still about 12,000 provisional ballots to be verified and tallied.
Fenty had banked on voters flooding to the polls, driven by his campaign's well-funded get-out-the-vote effort. But it appears the Democratic primary turnout was only somewhat higher than that of recent years.
“Tonight the people of the District of Columbia sent a message,” Gray said early Wednesday morning to a crowd of supporters at a downtown D.C. hotel.
“It's clear we want to bring character, integrity and leadership back to the mayor's office. It's time to come together as one city.”
A Fenty spokesman later said “the mayor is going to call Chairman Gray and congratulate him.”
The alarm bells should have sounded for Fenty in January, when a Washington Post poll showed that the black voters who helped get him elected in 2006 were fleeing the mayor's base. At the time, it wasn't clear why. But as the campaign season entered its final stages in August, Fenty's perception problem became evident: The majority of the District's black residents believed the mayor favored the whiter, wealthier portions of the District. The rapid gentrification over the past decade had spread a fear among black residents that they were losing control of the city.
Rather than taking the steps to make them feel included, Fenty instead touted school reforms and tried to turn the mayoral election into a referendum on the performance of schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
But polls show Rhee is a controversial figure; her approval rating among black residents is low.
It might already have been too late when, in the final weeks of the campaign, the mayor began apologizing to voters and promising them he'd be more inclusive in a second term.
Gray, who lives in Ward 7 and got his political start as its councilman, was quick to pick up on the mayor's weakness among Gray' neighbors.
Fenty pushed the results of his administration, focusing repeatedly on new restaurants, grocery stores and recreation on the city's east side. In response, Gray reiterated his commitment to school reform, refusing to say whether he'd fire Rhee if elected mayor — and all the while accepting the endorsements of the city's teachers union.
Ward 6 resident Ned Whalen exemplified those who embraced the Gray campaign message, saying Tuesday that “Fenty disenfranchised most wards in the city in favor of the wealthier wards.” Gray will “lead the city in a direction where it hasn't been going in the last four years,” Whelan said.
Many voters, of course, lauded the changes Fenty made to the District. When he leaves office in January, Fenty will leave the city safer and wealthier than it was when he took office.
That's why Chantal Jean-Baptist cast her vote at Watkins Elementary School in Ward 6 for Fenty. She has lived in the city for eight years and said she has seen her neighborhood go from “up-and-coming” to a safer, improved environment.
But there weren't enough voters at the polls who joined her in supporting Fenty for a second term.
There were some early problems Tuesday at several precincts with the new touch screen voting machines. Gray also claimed that at least two precincts opened 30 minutes late.
Gray asked the elections board and a D.C. Superior Court judge to have the polls stay open two hours past their scheduled 8 p.m. closing time.
Both turned him down.
Examiner intern Anna Waugh contributed to this report.