Just hours before voters went to the polls in the 2008 New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton teared up. Exhausted after months of nonstop campaigning and deflated by a stunning third-place finish in Iowa days before, Clinton showed a rare bit of emotion and vulnerability. Some observers instantly declared it the end of her campaign.
Instead, the memorable moment turned things around. Clinton, who had fallen behind Barack Obama in late New Hampshire polls, won the primary. The headline on the New York Post: “Back From the Dead.”
It’s too soon to say if D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is back from the dead, and he’s not about to tear up before the cameras. But at Wednesday’s big Newseum debate between Fenty and D.C. Council Chair Vincent Gray -- which, thankfully, may be the final of their many public encounters -- there was actually something new. It took place off the stage -- and involved neither of the candidates.
The mayor’s wife, Michelle Cross Fenty, has stayed out of the spotlight during her husband’s term and has been all but invisible on the campaign trail. Washington’s “Other Michelle” is a successful lawyer who met Adrian Fenty at Howard Law School in 1994. She has tried to keep her own career and her role as a parent separate from her husband’s very public profession.
It was striking, then, that after the debate, she offered a vocal, impassioned, and emotionally charged defense of her husband’s four years as mayor. She told reporters, “Everything he has done has been for the community. There are so many misconceptions about him, about us, about our family, I think it’s important for me to speak up.”
Admitting what the Fenty campaign has not, she said this weekend’s Washington Post poll, which showed Gray leading by 17 points among likely primary voters, “solidified what our worst fears are.” She said the poll was “striking,” and said that “to hear the things that people are saying about my husband that I know are not true is very painful.”
Cynics might see politics at play. Her husband has recently launched what some are calling an “apology tour,” discovering a newfound humility after a term filled with perceived arrogance. The new humble Adrian Fenty admits mistakes and wears contrition on his sleeve. Is his wife’s 11th-hour emotional appeal just another facet of this new strategy?
Perhaps, but it seems unlikely. Clearly Michelle Fenty spoke out because she wants her husband to win, but the encounter with the media was brief and unexpected, and her remarks did not seem to be premeditated. In a campaign that has been largely about Washingtonians’ very emotional feelings about their mayor, this was an episode of a spouse emotionally defending a man she cares about deeply.
But will voters care? That seems unlikely, too.