It's hard to imagine, but the summer news doldrums may be hitting London worse than Washington. The slow news season has led one British journalist to turn to D.C. news for relief.
Financial Times columnist and former Washington bureau chief Jurek Martin writes up a primer on the D.C. mayoral primary. For Washington readers, it's nothing new: an overview of the issues (or lack thereof) at the heart of the race between incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and challenger Council Chairman Vincent Gray. But Martin's rundown provides an eye-opening perspective on how the mayoral race, and D.C. politics more broadly, looks from across the pond. To Martin, the election looks shallow.
(A subscription is required to read the article, but Googling the headline "DC's mayoral battle is refreshingly local" will get you to the text.)
Martin's language is refreshingly foreign. Here's a take on Gray that could only come from the British press: "He is rated as an effective conciliatory council chairman and does not appear to be under the influence of the city’s great nemesis, the former mayor, Marion Barry, still practising his dark wiles as a council member."
You'd believe Barry was a Defense Against the Dark Arts professor from the world of Harry Potter, not the Councilmember from Ward 8. Indeed, the most refreshing aspect of Martin's column is its language. Take Martin's gloss on Washington: "This is a city where President Barack Obama remains popular, local Republicans can be counted on the fingers of one hand and the Tea Party could not borrow a spoonful of sugar."
That sounds close enough. Yet something about Martin's take gets D.C. all wrong. Martin finds racial animus at the root of most every issue in the campaign, from the role of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to the appointment of Police Chief Cathy Lanier.
"Both appointments, by gender, colour and national origin, were affronts to two of the bastions of the old black establishment in Washington, the teachers and police unions," writes Martin. Really?
He could not go any further out on the limb than he does reading Rhee:
If the election, in effect, turns out to be all about her, then the determining factor is likely to be the black women of Washington. These may be dangerous generalisations but the city’s white and growing Hispanic minorities like Ms Rhee, but they would mostly be Fenty voters anyway, some veteran civic activists apart. Black men probably feel more comfortable with Mr Gray. But it is black women who raise families, mostly alone, and they know the importance of better schools, on which Ms Rhee is beginning to deliver.
That's a contingency based on a contingency. His generalizations are not so much "dangerous" as they are groundless. Why should black men feel more comfortable with Gray -- and how does he know what black women want from this election?
That said, Martin gets that the central campaign issue so far is style. "The amiable Mr Gray plays this local game better, as he should as a veteran of city government." Check. "He has not helped himself by a general arrogance and a refusal to observe the social niceties that matter so much to the black establishment." Check?
None of this recommends the D.C. election. By Martin's estimation, those voters not put off by Fenty's appointments of a white woman and a Korean American woman to significant posts are instead put off by how he doles out baseball tickets. That's hardly a ringing endorsement for Gray -- whose positions on the issues, on any issues, never come up. Not even the street cars show up on Martin's radar.
Maybe Martin gets D.C. politics as well as any subject of Her Majesty ought to. Plenty of voters will pull the lever for Gray or for Fenty on instinct alone. But so long as Martin is looking into the D.C. mayoral contest, he should consider looking closely.