For a rare one-on-one interview with a journalist, DC mayor Adrian Fenty chooses Langston Bar & Grille on Benning Road, between the US Capitol and RFK Stadium. The new restaurant and bar lies in the uneasy zone between what the District was and what it’s becoming.
The H Street, Northeast, corridor, a few blocks to the west, burned during the 1968 riots. Its storefronts languished for 40 years; now they’re restaurants and coffeeshops, the refurbished Atlas Performing Arts Center, the Rock & Roll Hotel. Developers are turning rundown buildings into condos. But a short ride to the east down Benning Road is Carver Terrace, a housing project whose sidewalks sometimes run red from gunfights.
I arrive first and pace the sidewalk. Fenty’s advance man shows, a cell phone at his ear. “On his way,” he says.
Two guys are waiting for the bus. I introduce myself and tell them the mayor is about to arrive. I ask what they think of Fenty.
“Speaking as a person of color,” one says, “I don’t think he’s doing a lot of things he should be doing.”
Thomas Crenshaw says he came to Washington when he was 13. He went to DC public schools, served in Vietnam; now he’s looking for work. He says Fenty isn’t doing enough to train workers, create jobs, keep housing affordable.
“He’s moving a lot of us out,” Crenshaw says, then jabs me in the chest. “And he’s moving y’all in.”
The nation’s capital is in the midst of sometimes wrenching change, but Fenty doesn’t deserve all the blame—or the credit. DC has added 30,000 new residents in the last decade, 10,000 in the past year. Many are white; many are moving into traditionally black neighborhoods. The Thomas Crenshaws see themselves on the losing end. African-Americans behind deli counters, in law offices, at bus stops, in community meetings, and inside Langston Bar & Grille offer the same assessment.
“He has no special affinity for black folks,” says Antonio Roberson, who owns the bar. “He’s a little too vanilla right now.”
Fenty’s black SUV pulls up. A cop in suit and tie opens the rear door for the mayor, who is dressed in black—black fedora, long black overcoat, black shoes.
Fenty flashes his smile and walks up to Crenshaw and his buddy, Frank Simmons. “How’s everyone doing?” he asks.
“I could use a job,” Simmons says.
Fenty is all about change—at breakneck speed, whatever the cost. Like Crenshaw and Simmons, not all Washingtonians feel included, not all are aboard.
Four years ago, Adrian Fenty waged an insurgent campaign to become the youngest mayor in the District’s short political history. With only six years under his belt as a DC councilmember, he ran as a native Washingtonian in a city that had elected politicians born anywhere but here. Many voters were still under the thrall of Mississippi-born Marion Barry, who had dominated the city’s politics for decades.
Campaigning for a year, Fenty walked the streets, knocked on doors, and talked to voters. He ran as the face of the new DC against veteran council chair Linda Cropp. It was youth and change versus experience and the old guard.
At 35, he won the Democratic primary in all 142 precincts. He promised to hold his government accountable and to run it like a business.
Voters will go to the polls in September to render a verdict on Fenty’s first term. He has raised more than $3.5 million, an impressive war chest. And he has begun walking the wards and knocking on doors. His reelection seems almost guaranteed.
Should it be?
From a distance, Fenty comes off as an attractive, unstoppable political force, a buff triathlete, a proud father of three, the local mirror image of President Barack Obama. And by many measures Fenty has been a success, especially delivering basic services.