Hope and change has turned into misery and despair for black workers under President Barack Obama. Last week California Congresswoman Maxine Waters blasted the president for not doing enough to fix black unemployment, which sits at 16%. Obama’s austerity plan will only exacerbate the problem: 20% of employed blacks work in the public sector.
While I doubt blacks will vote Republican in the 2012 presidential race, they may stay home and hurt Obama’s chances in states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia) he carried in 2008.
High black unemployment has hit the nation’s capital too. Last fall it cost Mayor Adrian Fenty his job. Fenty’s experience may serve as a warning for President Obama, as he prepares for Campaign 2012.
Fenty swept into office in 2006 pledging to clean up the schools and to make Washington a better urban environment. At 35, he was the youngest mayor in D.C. history. His winning coalition was blue-print for Obama’s two years later. Affluent, professional liberals and minorities swept him into office.
Fenty’s meteoric political rise rivaled Obama’s. He entered politics in 2000 and ran for a council seat in Ward Four against a popular incumbent. No one gave him a chance. Fenty campaigned relentlessly and won 57% of the vote.
Six years later he ran for mayor. He knocked on thousands of doors across the District. Washingtonians loved what they saw: Fenty carried all 142 precincts in the Democratic Primary and was inaugurated in January 2007.
The new mayor wanted to make Washington a better place to live. He started building swimming pools, bike lanes, dog parks, and soccer fields across the city. He made education reform a top issue, promising to clean up one of the nation’s worst school systems.
These changes appealed to white Washingtonians, but began alienating his black supporters. Fenty hired Michele Rhee as his school chancellor and supported her controversial school overhaul plan. Rhee fired hundreds of teachers, dozens of principles, and closed several poor-performing schools.
Blacks opposed Rhee’s plan and thought the mayor’s reforms were killing black jobs. Blacks saw the school-system as a jobs program. Sure they were troubled by their children’s poor academic performance. But they were more concerned about thousands losing their jobs.
These changes were a far cry from the Marion Barry years. Though scandal plagued the Barry era, the controversial mayor made sure his supporters were rewarded with patronage jobs. This helped create a vibrant black middle class in the District.
Fenty, on the other hand, seemed aloof and out of touch with the concerns of the black voters. This prompted Vincent Gray, an uncharismatic City Council member from Ward 7, to challenge Fenty in the 2010 Democratic Primary.
Polling showed Gray would give the mayor a run for his money. But Fenty remained confident: with $5 million in his campaign coffers, he expected to easily defeat his primary challenger.
Gray began attacking Fenty right away. Ads reminded voters that Fenty had given out city contracts to his fraternity brothers and called the mayor just another crony politician. Gray also blasted Fenty’s education reforms. He told blacks he would bring back their jobs.
This message caught on. Many saw Fenty as an out-of-touch politician. This message was reinforced on March, 30, 2010, when the District had its deadliest day in years. A string of shootings on South Capitol Street left four dead and five wounded. Fenty was in Jamaica on vacation with his family.
Throughout 2010 it appeared that Fenty was in trouble. An August straw poll in Fenty’s home base-Ward Four- showed how dire his re-election chances had become. Gray won the contest 581 to 401. Fenty had lost his base.
Vincent Gray cruised to the Democratic Primary victory, and in January took over as the new D.C. mayor.
Fenty held onto white support, but blacks abandoned him in droves. Gray won wards 7 and 8 (read: poor and black) with 80% of the vote while Fenty prevailed in Georgetown and Northwest (read: rich and white).
A majority of Washingtonians disapproved of the hope and change Fenty provided. President Obama should take note of Fenty’s demise.
The 2012 election will be a referendum on the economy. Voters don’t care about the president’s legislative accomplishments or his foreign policy achievements. They want to see the economy turning around. They want to see unemployment drop.
The president must also rally his base when he returns to Washington in September. Liberals are upset with Mr. Obama’s recent performance. None more so than blacks, who feel he’s taken them for granted. The president must assure liberals that he’s fighting back against the intransigent Republicans.
A demoralized base will cost Obama next November, just like it made Adrain Fenty a loser last fall.