Among last evening's election results, the most interesting from the perspective of the small business community may be the victory of Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic mayoral primary in Washington, D.C. Fenty is, according to the Washington Post, "a 35-year-old triathlete with a shaved head, two BlackBerries on his belt and a reputation for round-the-clock customer service." Because the city is overwhelmingly Democratic, most observers believe that Fenty will easily defeat real-estate agent David Kranich, his Republican opponent. (More than 50,000 D.C. voters cast ballots for Fenty yesterday, compared with only 1,000 for Kranich.)
The son of small-business owners and a city council member, Fenty ran as an outsider candidate. The Post describes him this way: "Young, dynamic and native-born, Fenty appealed to families, small-business owners and progressive activists from all parts of town who expect him to reach out to those left behind by the city's economic renaissance, bridge a growing divide between rich and poor and rid the government of a deeply entrenched crony class."
A strange-bedfellow's mix of big businesses and unions had lined up behind Fenty's opponent, Linda Cropp. Fenty has promised not to raise taxes (a step which has been criticized by current mayor Anthony Williams), and to invest heavily in neighborhood development through a network of churches in the city. More controversial, he is eyeing a takeover of the city's troubled school district, into which he says he'll pump a billion dollars for capital improvements.
In a column, Steven Pearlstein, a former Inc. editor, wrote that Fenty was that rare politician who actually conducted public-sector duties with a businessperson's eye for accountability and results. "You'd think this focus on constituent-as-customer would appeal to the business community, along with Fenty's pledge to ruthlessly organize his administration around improved 'customer service," Pearlstein wrote. "It remains to be seen whether he'll really be able to hold departments accountable by measuring -- and publicizing -- their performance and customer-satisfaction ratings. But I can assure you that no other candidate for mayor comes anywhere near Fenty in conceiving the job in such purely management terms."
Though the D.C. establishment seems to have been surprised that a candidate like Fenty could disrupt the entrenched order, perhaps they shouldn't been. In the past decade, Washington's economy has been transformed, and that is bound to have political ramifications. A vibrant growth-oriented entrepreneurial class has take root in the city, to take advantage of record government spending, especially on things like information technology and security.
Metropolitan D.C. is home to the most companies on this year's Inc. 500 (43) and has the second highest number of companies per million residents (8.97), after Provo-Orem, Utah. The Maryland and Virginia suburbs are also booming. As the Post noted in its recap of the election today, Fenty faces some serious problems, especially with the schools. While his entrepreneurial energy will certainly help him, he'll need other skills to achieve the results he wants and the voters now expect.
It's worth noting that the last young mayor to be hailed for his entrepreneurial thinking was Ray Nagin of New Orleans. Though he is best known because of Hurrican Katrina, in the years before the storm, he had focused on economic development in the city, with mixed results. Coming from the business community--he was an executive at Cox Communications--Nagin had only a small base of support within the city's political structure from which to draw backing for his initiatives. In the aftermath of Katrina, many of his pet economic projects have understandably been scrapped. Less understandable is the fact that the city's small business community has been too often ignored in New Orleans' sluggish recovery efforts.
Let's hope that Fenty, if he is elected mayor, will never face an event of the enormity of Katrina. Let's also hope that he can learn from Nagin's experinces prior to the storm, and work more effectively within the system that he has so effectively outmanuevered in this campaign.