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Adrian Fenty: Born to Run
Comments () | Published November 1, 2008

For years the opening day of school in DC has been a crapshoot. Would there be books? Teachers? Locked doors because of fire-code violations?

This year schools opened without a hitch. Fenty chose Sousa because it had been renovated over the summer—new kitchen, science rooms, auditorium, halls, music room.

I trailed Fenty for most of the day. Head bobbing in and out of the Smart car, he visited schools, inspected bathrooms, grabbed a turkey wrap on Georgia Avenue, and met with top education deputies, including schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and construction chief Allen Lew, and city administrator Dan Tangherlini. He then chaired a meeting on homicides and gun violence where he questioned police chief Cathy Lanier. By then it was getting toward evening.

Before the education session, I huddled for a minute with Carrie Brooks, who had run Fenty’s press operation before being bumped up to chief of staff. A DC native, she’s the daughter of homeless activist Carol Fennelly and grew up with Mitch Snyder, the late crusader for the homeless. She went to Wilson High with Fenty and scooped ice cream beside him at Swensen’s next to the Uptown Theater.

“Not easy keeping up with the mayor,” I said. “There weren’t too many reporters there at 6:45.”

“Did you hear where he was yesterday?” she asked.

Fenty had flown to Denver Saturday afternoon to attend meetings at the Democratic convention. At dawn Sunday he was in Steamboat Springs to compete in a triathlon. He returned to Denver for an education conference with Al Sharpton and Newark mayor Corey Booker. He took the redeye back to DC and made it to the 6:45 am press conference.

Sleep?

“I don’t see how he can,” Brooks says. “I keep thinking he’s going to slow down a little bit.”

How does Fenty manage to race through one day after the next?

“I love what I do,” he says.

For insight, I put the question to his parents, Phil and Jan Fenty.

“As a child Adrian was always focused,” says Jan. “His dad exercised every single solitary day. Not a little bit—two hours. That was how Adrian grew up.”

Fenty’s parents are sitting on a bench in Fleet Feet, their storefront on Columbia Road. Phil, 68, has salt-and-pepper hair, rings in his ears, bangles around his wrists. Jan is petite, wears her hair short, smiles as she talks. She was a special-education teacher in DC public schools before the couple opened the shop in 1984.

“I’m Italian-American,” she says. “My father was a construction worker. He worked his whole life. Phil’s father was Panamanian and always worked two jobs. So I guess Adrian’s energy and work ethic are in his gene pool and his environment. He saw us working 24/7 in this store since we opened it.”

Fenty was a teenager then. He and his brothers, Shawn and Jesse, worked the floor. “That’s where he learned about customer service,” Jan says. “He’s taken what he learned from me and his dad and gone to a whole new level.”

Phil Fenty pipes up.

“Adrian has taught me a few things,” he says. “You can do anything you want—it’s just a matter of managing time. His time is very structured. He uses it well. He has an amazing ability to be where he is; when he moves on, he’s 100 percent there.”

Phil and Jan Fenty were activists in the Vietnam-era antiwar movement. They took the boys to protests. They describe themselves as politically progressive.

“It’s wonderful to see how all those things we did trickled down to our children,” Jan says. “They actually were paying attention when we talked about making things better for people. Now Adrian has a chance to do something about it.”

What’s the source of his energy?

“People, especially kids,” says Phil. “He grabs their energy, stores it, uses it.”

Can he keep it up?

“Oh, yeah,” says the father. “I tell people, ‘Don’t bet against Adrian.’ ”

Adrian Fenty gets a good night’s sleep, often eight hours.

“We’ve always been early-to-bed people,” says Michelle Fenty. “Adrian goes to bed an hour after he comes home, often by 9 or 10. We’re not staying up until midnight and getting up at 5.”

Michelle Fenty sits behind her desk at Perkins Coie, at 14th and F streets a block up from the Wilson building. She’s a lawyer specializing in contracts. A London native, she met Fenty at Howard University law school. They’re expecting their third child, a girl, in late November. She looks trim in a black dress with a scoop neck.

Her take on her husband as mayor?

“He’s basically a very hands-on kind of person,” she says. “He will get all the information he thinks he needs and make a decision he thinks is best for the city. It’s not his style to ponder and deliberate for a long time. He’s a bottom-line guy. It’s part of his personality. It goes hand in hand with his love of sports. He goes out there and does what he has to do. He won’t stop until he does it.”

Michelle says her husband got involved in the 16th Street Neighborhood Association as soon as they moved to the Crestwood area after law school. He took her to community cleanups on Saturday mornings. He won a seat on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

“What on earth is that?” Michelle says she wondered. “We didn’t have these things in London. But it gave me a chance to grow with him. Each step yielded more responsibility and made the transition easier.”

Has he changed in the past year?

“He’s certainly matured,” she says. “The council position laid a great foundation. He does many of the same things, just citywide.”

Fenty sometimes handles constituent services for the entire city, riding around and calling in crews to fix potholes and signs and streetlights.

Why, I ask, is he so impatient?

“Compassion is what drives his lack of patience with the government bureaucracy,” she says. “There’s always someone suffering at the other end as a result of the bureaucracy. He spent a lot of time in the community seeing that.”

The mayor quits running and relaxes as soon as he walks through the door at home.

“He’s a whole different person,” Michelle says. “He spends downtime with me and the boys. He’s in a whole different world.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles