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

“He tries to spend lots of time with the boys. He takes them to school, tries to make their athletic events, takes them with him around the city on weekends.”

It takes an extended family to raise the Fenty boys.

Phil and Jan Fenty usually pick them up from school, get them to sports practice, take them home, start dinner. Says Jan: “Adrian still micromanages. He calls and asks: ‘Are you sure they’re doing their homework?’ ”

Michelle Fenty’s sister has moved to town and helps take care of them, too. Her parents live in New York and come down for weekends. Fenty’s brothers often scoop up the twins.

“It’s part of the reason Adrian can do all that he does,” she says. “He has a very supportive family. Everyone steps in. We couldn’t do it without them. The boys have spent their lives surrounded by family. It mitigates any negative effect of their father being away some of the time.

“He’s always on call.”

On Sunday, September 14, Fenty competed in the Nation’s Triathlon. Starting at 7 am, he swam a mile in the Potomac River, biked 25 miles through Rock Creek Park, ran six miles around city streets, and headed toward the finish line on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Wilson building.

Biking along the avenue, I waited for Fenty to finish. The first city employee to cross the line was Neil Albert, deputy mayor for economic development, who did the running leg as part of a team.

Albert and Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, run together often. Attorney General Nickles has done Ironman races with Phil Fenty and slips away for bicycle rides with Fenty during the day. Rhee goes home after an 11-hour day and gets on a treadmill.

Fenty’s team is fit. It also shares his zeal for action and his impatience with bureaucracy.

“He’s very disciplined—he wants things done yesterday,” says JoAnne Ginsberg, Fenty’s head of legislative affairs.

Ginsberg was chief of staff to former Ward 3 councilmember Kathy Patterson while Fenty represented Ward 4. Then Mayor Williams appointed her to the school board; Fenty picked her to lead his legislative team.

Rumor has it that his temper flares sometimes. Is that right?

“He expects a lot, sets a high bar, and expects to be informed,” Ginsberg says. “He gets short with people who don’t perform, but I haven’t seen temper.”


Says city administrator Dan Tangherlini: “The mayor is frustrated by people who can explain every which way they cannot do something. He does not have wild and crazy rages.”

Ginsberg says Fenty wants the council to share his desire to move quickly.

At least one member also believes in the need for speed. “I don’t think this mayor can let himself be held hostage to process,” says David Catania. “For too long in our city, process was accomplishment. He’s not cut from that cloth.”

Says Ginsberg: “He’s not the standard politician, but isn’t that good? Why do we want to wait? We don’t need any more studies.”

Peter Nickles has known Fenty the longest. The veteran litigator and close friend of Phil Fenty’s talks about the mayor almost as if he were his son.

“I’m amazed at how good a politician he is,” Nickles says, “how intelligent he is. He’s a quick study and has good instincts.”

But if those instincts lead Fenty to make poor decisions, Nickles lets him know. He declines to cite any differences but says, “If I don’t think there’s a rational basis for what he’s doing, I just keep coming back at him. And I have changed his mind.”

If he could have changed Fenty’s mind to avoid one disaster, it would have been in this year’s Summer Youth Program.

“It’s our one black mark so far,” Nickles allows. “It was a massive screwup.”

Fenty invited all teenagers to apply for summer jobs and promised to pay them. When thousands more than expected showed up, there were not enough jobs; many kids went to jobs but performed no work; some signed up, never worked, and collected paychecks. Fenty had to admit to $20 million in waste and overruns.

Nickles acknowledges that there was mismanagement but maintains that there was also “obvious fraud” by participants. “If I had the data, I would chase them,” he says.

If Nickles is going to get the data, he will have to see Kevin Donahue, head of the city’s CapStat—short for Capital Statistics—program.

When Fenty got word in July that the Summer Youth Program was hurtling out of control and bleeding cash, he sent Donahue’s people in. They are MBAs, forensic accountants, public-policy analysts. They charted the breakdown, found its faults, produced a report in days.

It is not a stretch to say Adrian Fenty manages his government through the CapStat system. Donahue’s staff measures an agency’s productivity and produces reports and charts for a meeting between the agency head and the mayor. Fenty questions the head at a public meeting broadcast on DC’s cable channel. It is designed to be transparent.

“The mayor makes decisions at the meetings, and the agencies are held accountable,” Donahue says. “There are fairly high stakes involved.”

Donahue, 36, was born in Florida and raised in Bangkok. He got a degree in government and political science at Georgetown University in 1997, then a master’s degree in public policy at Harvard. “I always wanted to work in public service in local government,” he says.

Responding to a blind advertisement, he became a special assistant to Dan Tangherlini when he was head of the transportation department under Mayor Williams. When Tangherlini became Metro’s director, Donahue followed. When Tangherlini took a pay cut to become Fenty’s city administrator, Donahue returned with him.

What Fenty calls CapStat began in New York under then–police commissioner William Bratton as a way to record and evaluate crime statistics. Bratton would show up at police precincts and grill commanders on how to reduce robberies.

Martin O’Malley, when he was mayor of Baltimore, took Bratton’s system and applied it to city agencies. He called it CitiStat. Fenty refocused O’Malley’s system to analyze programs rather than agencies. His CapStat sessions peer into services such as trash pickup, affordable housing, homicide, homelessness, and hospitalization.

“We are a constant General Accounting Office,” says Donahue.

In the case of the summer-youth-program, Fenty read Donahue’s report, waved it at a press conference, took “full responsibility”—and fired the agency head, Summer Spencer. He then installed a trusted aide, Tene Dolphin, as interim director to fix the mess.

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