Against the Fenty Write-In: A Rebuttal
Georgetown resident John Hlinko, founder of the Adrian Fenty write-in-campaign for mayor on Facebook, offered an objection to my take on the write-in campaign, including my opinion that the effort appeared to be “peculiarly un-democratic” (“The Fenty Write-in: A Democratic Success Story,” from the November 16 issue).
I don’t mind people objecting to my analysis and opinion—it’s an opinion page after all. And I only mildly mind that opinion being called “Orwellian” or that I saw the write-in as some sort of attempted coup complete with tanks.
But there’s one hyperbolic description too many in his rebuttal: that’s the claim that “it’s hard to see how this was anything but profoundly democratic” (His words).
Let’s also admit that while the primary was not the final or general election, it was indeed a democratically conducted election, meant to choose the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in the general election, and the principal candidates were Mayor Fenty and Chairman Gray. The fact that DC is a heavily Democratic city has historically made the primary winner the winner of the general election. To use a fine democratic American phrase, Mr. Gray won fair and square, for a variety of reasons, most of which were documented in the Washington Post and other media, and they were born out in the result. The election was not a verdict on education reform. It was a verdict on Mr. Fenty’s political and leadership style, and the autocratic way that education reform was processed.
That’s what primaries are: an electoral method to choose candidates to represent political parties in a larger election.
I don’t have an objection to people offering up write-in candidates, or candidates unhappy with the results of primaries attempting to do the same. Nobody likes to lose, by twenty votes or by thousands. It’s been done before. Up in Alaska, one candidate lost the Republican primary for a senate race, took on the Tea Party-backed candidate in a write-in and won in the end. Joe Lieberman, ousted in a Democratic Party primary in Connecticut by an anti-war candidate, ran as an independent and won. And several years ago, Mayor Anthony Williams was forced to run as a write-in candidate due to a technical foul up by his campaign. Two years ago, Carol Schwartz, the lone Republican on the DC City Council, was undone in the primary by a young GOP candidate backed by the local business community and ran a write-in campaign and lost. Michael Brown—the one on the council—ran as an Independent, even though he’s been a heart-and-soul Democrat from practically his first breath, and he won.
But write-in campaigns are usually run by candidates themselves, not their supporters. Mr. Fenty repeatedly said he was backing Mr. Gray in the general election, even if those assertions were not made with any great passion. It is not productive or very reasonable to vote for someone who is not even running.
The write-in supporters often claimed that while they liked Mr. Gray, they feared he would not continue the education reform efforts begun in dramatic fashion by Mr. Fenty and School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned before the general election.
In effect they, like Mr. Fenty and Chancellor Rhee and national media types, were claiming that Mr. Fenty was a victim of an anti-school reform effort, and they were trying to save reform, which apparently only Mr. Fenty would pursue with enough rigor, energy and vigor.
This was, to begin with, a misreading of Mr. Gray, who has repeatedly insisted he will continue reform, that there would be no going back.
What was undemocratic about the write-in, to my reading of it, is that it cavalierly disrespected the primary vote results and those voters who supported Mr. Gray. If the primary election and the Washington Post polls that preceded it showed anything, it was that DC was a city dramatically divided by race, class and wealth.
What exactly did the write-in accomplish? The write-in effort proved to be very effective indeed, racking up solid numbers in the very same white and affluent Wards 3 and 2 which had given Mr. Fenty a solid advantage in the primary. In short, the write-in exposed again the racial and economic divides in the city.
But there was never a chance that the effort would actually succeed in coming up with a win for Mr. Fenty. That was always a fantasy. Elections are about consequences, winners and losers, as well as risks. This write-in accomplished nothing that was constructive, or anything resembling clarity. It muddied the outcome, suggested that the primary result was somehow illegitimate or beside the point. Far from being “profoundly democratic,” it ended up being an exercise in electoral peevishness.