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Adrian Fenty: His Own Worst Enemy?
Comments () | Published March 1, 2010

DC’s AIDS agencies have made few strides under Fenty. A Washington Post investigation unearthed millions in misspent funds. Fenty has shuffled agency heads. But the disease still affects 3 percent of the DC population, a rate that puts the capital city on par with many African nations.

Fenty’s efforts in job training have had mixed results. Unemployment in Washington is 12 percent, but in black wards it’s as high as 29 percent.

“Unemployment has a more serious impact on black people,” says DC Chamber of Commerce president Barbara Lang. “We’re adding jobs in the region, but many of our residents are not prepared for those jobs.”

Reforms to the city’s programs for handling young criminals have yet to bear fruit. The system still suffers from overcrowding, and a new youth detention center has been plagued by escapes.

Is the city safer?

“I don’t think that’s the right question,” Fenty says.

He and police chief Cathy Lanier stand behind statistics that show a drop in homicides. In 2009, the nation’s capital recorded 143 slayings, the fewest since 1966—and a 23-percent drop from 2008. The police department also says it closed 75 percent of murder cases.

But residents in neighborhoods across the city do not all feel safe.

“We’re lucky homicides are down,” says Kristopher Baumann, head of DC’s police union. “The number of robberies and carjackings are shocking. People are in danger on Capitol Hill, Columbia Heights. Parts of Ward 7 and Ward 8 are extremely violent. People are afraid to walk to the store or grab a bus.”

Baumann accuses Fenty and Lanier of cooking the crime statistics.

For 2008, the most recent year for which crime numbers have been calculated, Lanier said violent crime was down by 5 percent. But according to the FBI, violent crime—murders, robberies, rapes, and assaults—actually rose by 2.3 percent, while those rates dropped in most big cities. Property crime rose by 4.5 percent, the FBI reported.

“Besides,” Baumann says, “even if you accept the chief’s accounting, our homicide rate is still four to five times higher than New York’s.”

Why Isn’t the Establishment Happy?

The Fenty Doctrine rests on two axioms:

• The world is divided into regular people and usual suspects.

• Avoid process at all cost.

Here’s how Tom Lindenfeld, his political adviser, puts it: “Adrian believes consensus building is overrated.”

Why, I ask Fenty, does he disregard the DC Council and business groups?

“I work for the people,” he says. “I don’t work for any group.”

In theory, that sounds good; in practice, Fenty has come off as imperial.

“It’s fair to say he comes with a belief that he’s got a vision for how he should do his job,” says Trinity Washington University president Pat McGuire, “and he’s better equipped than anyone else to bring it off.”

Fenty is battling the teachers’ union, but he has given the back of his hand to other public-employee unions. Cops have been without a contract for more than two years; Fenty has offered no raises and has cut retirement benefits. He has almost no support among unions. A poll by the local AFL-CIO was one of the first to show the mayor’s weakness.

“At this point,” longtime labor leader Jos Williams says, “Fenty would have trouble being elected dogcatcher.”

“He’s totally inaccessible,” says Emily Durso, a native Washingtonian who’s been active in local affairs for three decades. She was instrumental in building the convention center, founded the Hospitality High School of Washington, DC—a public charter school—and until recently chaired the University of the District of Columbia’s board; she still serves as president of the city’s hotel association. “He comes off as petty. One thing about Washingtonians—no matter what their background—they have a low tolerance for pettiness.”

To “petty” many would add “arrogant.” Take Fenty’s trip to Dubai in 2009 with his family. He didn’t announce the trip, though he had criticized former mayor Anthony Williams for traveling too much and not disclosing his plans. Fenty said it was a vacation and he paid for it. But under questioning he acknowledged that the United Arab Emirates covered $25,000 in expenses; he also admitted that he’d met with UAE government officials but said it wasn’t a matter of public concern.

“He’s crowned himself king,” says the president of a construction company.

Then there was the matter of the swimming-pool heater. The parks department installed a $75,000 unit to heat the public pool Fenty sometimes used to train for triathlons. Again, Fenty dodged questions about it. When reporters discovered he was taking midday bicycle rides with police escorts, he was forced to forgo the cops.

What really set off the pettiness/arrogance meter was the squabble between the mayor and the DC Council over tickets to Nationals baseball games. The team had reserved seats for all the politicians but gave the tickets to Fenty, figuring he would hand some over to the council. He didn’t. They demanded the tickets. He refused. Finally, top aide Neil Albert delivered them.

“In hindsight,” I ask, “would you have handled that any differently?

“Are you trying to tell me this is the number-one question on people’s minds?” he asks.

“Maybe not, but it does stick in many minds. And I want to know.”

“I gotta probe you,” he says. “As a writer for The Washingtonian, is this your top question?”

“My number-one question,” I say, “is given all your accomplishments, why do so many African-American voters not want to see you serve a second term?”

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