But at closer range the view is much more complicated. In forcing change, he has often appeared dismissive, arrogant, and unchecked. He also has ignored or denigrated establishment institutions—the DC Council, unions, and traditional business groups, to name a few. The means to his ends have turned many people off, especially to his personal style.
“He comes across as someone who’s above public scrutiny,” says Trinity Washington University president Patricia McGuire, though she says she’s never come into conflict with him.
Says Doug Patton, a lawyer who’s been active in DC politics since 1968: “The only way Fenty can lose reelection is if he beats himself.”
Reaction to Fenty is divided along racial lines. Four polls have painted the picture of a city of disappointed blacks and satisfied whites.
“White voters like their leaders to produce results,” says attorney A. Scott Bolden, a partner at Reed Smith who has represented both allies and enemies of Fenty. “Black voters want the same results but like their leaders to make them feel good, to feel touched. White folks don’t need to feel touched. They’re satisfied with better schools, lower crime, lower taxes.”
During a two-hour interview, I ask Fenty why polls show he has alienated so many people.
“I can’t spend time worrying about how I can be more popular,” he says, “or how people can think better of me or like me better or how I can win a poll. What I think about is how I can make the city run better.”
Has He Made DC Services Better?
Fenty can point to improvements.
Take snow removal. When 16 inches came down on the region a week before Christmas, fleets of plows cleared and treated DC streets before neighboring Montgomery County did the job there. That’s a first.
When Fenty represented Ward 4 on the DC Council, he showed disdain for the process of legislating, but he honed his skills in serving constituents. In Shepherd Park, in Petworth, and along Georgia Avenue, he made sure alleys were clean, streetlights got replaced, cops responded quickly. Now he treats the entire city as if it were his ward.
Here’s how he puts it:
“The schools are improving. Our bond rating is the highest in decades. We put meters in the taxis. Great economic-development projects across the city. Renovation of countless school facilities. All high schools are slated for renovation. The homicide closure rate and sheer number are at a 45-year low.
“Look at snow removal, trash pickup, pothole repair, ease of getting driver’s licenses. Nothing is foolproof,” he says, “but we are handling these basic services with private-sector methods.”
City services, with few exceptions, are running with greater efficiency, as Fenty promised.
Have DC’s Schools Improved?
It took two generations and 50 years to reduce the District’s public-school system to chaos. It will take at least a decade to judge Fenty’s reforms fairly.
After three years, not all would give Mayor Fenty and schools chancellor Michelle Rhee high marks. Test scores appear to be on the rise; many schools are safer and more orderly. Some teachers are responding well to Rhee’s assessment and observation of their classrooms; others consider her methods and tactics to be unfair and damaging.
Will voters accept the pain or embrace the change?
Rhee’s brusque manner and uncompromising procedures have alienated some allies and emboldened enemies. Her take: “Change hurts but is absolutely necessary.”
Rhee is adamant about rewarding teachers who make their marks and firing ones who fail. If successful, she would strike a nearly fatal blow to teachers’ unions that have promised tenure to their rank-and-file and vowed to fight merit pay.
“We need a new collective-bargaining agreement,” says Fenty. “That will do more to improve test scores than probably anything else we’ve done.”
The person who has achieved the clearest improvements for the schools is Allen Lew, head of school-facilities modernization. Lew had managed construction of the Washington Convention Center and Nationals Park before Fenty lured him onboard to fix the schools. Lew and his team have whittled down maintenance backlogs from 30,000 to dozens. They’ve fixed bathrooms, painted walls, patched roofs, installed new heating and cooling systems; they’ve modernized 18 schools and are starting to renovate 14 more.
Fenty has given Lew the money and discretion to refurbish athletic fields, tracks, and playgrounds. Every high school has a new track and field. Lew and his crew have managed the rebuilding of a dozen recreation centers.
As with Rhee, Fenty gave Lew total support with one request: “Do it faster.”
Where Has He Come Up Short?
Fenty has had mixed results in improving the perennial urban ills of poverty, job training, AIDS, health care, and crime.
Shortly after he took office, four young girls were found dead in their mother’s care in a Southeast DC apartment. Banita Jacks would be convicted of their murders. Fenty and attorney general Peter Nickles investigated, found a trail of mistakes, released the results, and fired six social workers.
“That’s holding people accountable,” says Fenty.
But problems persist. The tragedy—and Fenty’s response—shook up the Child and Family Services Agency. It’s still under the control of a court monitor and is unsettled at best.