Adrian Fenty: His Own Worst Enemy?

Adrian Fenty has run DC with a strong hand, but his imperial style has turned off lots of voters. He’s up for reelection, but it looks like the only person who can beat him is . . . Adrian Fenty.

By: Harry Jaffe

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.

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.

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?”

Why Is Fenty’s Support Soft Among African-Americans?

Four polls—one by labor, one by a business group, one by an independent firm, and one by the Washington Post—showed weakness among black voters.

“Do you sense that at all?” I ask.

“I don’t know what the polls say, and neither do you,” Fenty says. “You don’t have any idea what the people of the District of Columbia think. And neither do I.”

In our interview and in subsequent e-mailed questions, Fenty declined to engage the topic of race. He said he ignores polls.

The survey by the nonpartisan Clarus Research Group asked 501 voters in November whether they would “like to see Adrian Fenty reelected Mayor, or would you like to see somebody new get elected?” Of white voters, 51 percent said they would cast ballots for Fenty; only 22 percent of black voters wanted Fenty back.

“There’s some disappointment with him in the black community that has set in over time,” says Ronald Faucheux, president of Clarus. A political scientist, he’s written half a dozen books and advised more than 100 political campaigns. “The racial divide on him is absolutely fascinating. Very rarely do you have an incumbent black mayor who faces these numbers.”

What Fenty faces is disappointment among a part of the African-American population that’s still wedded to Marion Barry. Starting in DC in 1965 as a brash civil-rights activist, through four terms as mayor, and continuing now on the DC Council, Barry opened the government to local blacks. He hired them, awarded contracts to them, put them on boards and commissions. He created a black political and business class.

“Barry connected to African-Americans at a gut level,” says journalist Jonetta Rose Barras, who has written a book about Barry. “He could eat with them and party with them, but in the end he didn’t deliver services or elevate them.”

Tony Williams, an accountant and federal bureaucrat, was elected mayor in 1998 and began to dismantle Barry’s apparatus. Though he brought better services and development to poor wards east of the Anacostia River, many blacks never embraced him. Backed by a solid white vote, he was reelected in 2002.

Adrian Fenty, born in DC and educated in its public schools, was elected to citywide acclaim on the promise of bridging the racial divide.

Has he?

“He’s treated white people with deference and black people with diffidence,” says Lawrence Guyot, a Barry ally, a veteran of the civil-rights movement, and a fixture in DC politics. “Black people don’t like him because he has openly and deliberately taken on all of their interests. He’s against black teachers, against labor unions, for same-sex marriage.

“Look at his staff,” he says. “Look at his advisers and his fundraisers. He’s a guy who does not want to be associated with black people.”

Guyot is no fan of Fenty’s, and his verdict seems harsh. But it does reflect what I’ve heard across the city.

Fenty didn’t endear himself to African-Americans when he canceled two meetings with civil-rights icon Dorothy Height and poet Maya Angelou. They wanted him to keep a tennis-and-learning center open in Southeast. “We were disappointed,” Height told reporters.

“The reason Fenty is having trouble with the African-American community is they thought he was one way and he’s turned out to be the total opposite,” says Kwame Brown, at-large DC councilmember. “They don’t believe he actually cares.”

Marion Barry gave blacks the sense that he cared; Fenty hasn’t proved to Barry’s supporters that he does.

“Everything Barry supported,” says Guyot, “Fenty has clashed with.”

Many Washingtonians see that as good news.

Says Barras: “Marion Barry was all about symbolism. He played the politics of fakery, making people feel good but promising things he never delivered. Blacks are at the table now. We want meat and potatoes. We want outcomes.”

William Lightfoot, Fenty’s campaign chairman, says the mayor’s lack of support among African-Americans is generational.

“Blacks below the age of 50 don’t just like Fenty,” he says, “they want to be Fenty. White or black, that’s his constituency. Adrian is one of the post-racial city politicians, like Newark’s Cory Booker and Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter. They are about being green. That’s not a black thing.”

Guyot, in Lightfoot’s view, is “a race man.” Fenty, he says, “is not a race person.”

Fenty grew up in Mount Pleasant, an integrated neighborhood; his mother is Italian-American, and his father is black.

“Adrian sees questions about race as a trap,” says Tom Lindenfeld, his pollster. “The pitfalls are too considerable. He doesn’t have anything to prove.

“He spent his entire life avoiding race. He figures, ‘I’m just going to do what I do. I don’t want to be judged by whether I am black enough or not.’ ”

Is Cronyism Alive and Well?

Sinclair Skinner met Adrian Fenty at Howard University. Fenty was in law school; Skinner was studying engineering.

Skinner was an activist in the Georgia Avenue corridor in 2004 when he grew close to Fenty, then the up-and-coming councilmember for Ward 4. In more than one instance, Skinner played tough with white businessmen whom he accused of displacing African-Americans.

When Fenty started running for mayor, Skinner joined his campaign and helped organize his neighborhood walking tours. He gave Fenty street cred.

Shortly after Fenty took office, Skinner started a company called Liberty Engineering & Design and another called Liberty Law Group. Through Banneker Ventures, owned by Omar Karim—also a fraternity brother of Fenty’s from Howard—Skinner’s firms have received city contracts to work on renovating recreation centers, parks, and ball fields.

Skinner and Karim and their companies’ deals with the city have been at the center of a DC Council investigation involving $83 million in construction contracts. The council has accused the government of funneling funds to Fenty’s friends, many of whom are members of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi.

The council’s probe has resonated in business circles. Developers complain that Fenty’s friends get special treatment. “The playing field is not level,” says one.

“Whether you are part of his fraternity or not, there’s a sense that it’s tough to do business with the city,” says Barbara Lang, president of the DC Chamber of Commerce. “You’ve got to have a helping hand. If you are close to the mayor, you have a better chance.”

Neither Skinner nor Karim responded to requests for an interview. Their attorney, A. Scott Bolden, says: “If your friends are qualified and they share your view of the city, why should they not get contracts? That’s not unheard of in DC.”

I ask Fenty to describe his relationships with Karim and Skinner.

“Good friends,” he says.

Does he get involved in contracting?

“No.”

In fact, Fenty is many steps removed from the contracting process. The contracts awarded to Banneker came through the semi-independent DC Housing Authority and its development arm. The DC Council discovered that Fenty’s lieutenants, notably David Jannarone in the economic-development agency, saw that the contracts went through. Even after the council canceled one $4.2-million Banneker contract, Jannarone made sure $2.5 million of it was paid—on Christmas Eve.

Fenty explains: “The contracts that went their way are 1 percent of the contracts that go to the little guys. And that is about 1 percent of the funds that go to big developers.”

True enough. Fenty and his development team are working on billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects across the city, especially along the Anacostia River. The parks contracts are chump change. But the appearance of favoritism sticks.

Does Fenty Run the DC Government by Intimidation?

The book on Fenty is that he rules by fear, that he has a hair-trigger temper, that he micromanages the government, that he second-guesses his agency chiefs.

“I heard those stories,” says George Hawkins, who ran Fenty’s environmental agency until the end of last year, when he became general manager of the DC Water and Sewer Authority. “It was just the opposite. The only problem I had in bringing ideas to Fenty was that if he liked them, he wanted them done immediately.”

Upon taking office, Fenty said one of the keys to running a successful city was to hire great people. Granted, he’s had turnover at the top of the health, parks, and employment agencies. Michael Kelly’s departure as head of the DC Housing Authority to work with Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City was a loss.

But in many cases, Fenty has aimed high, lured top-notch executives, and kept them.

Like him or not—and many don’t—attorney general Peter Nickles has been effective. Fenty’s lifelong friend, Nickles came to government after decades as a tough litigator for Covington & Burling. Has he come off as Fenty’s blunt-force instrument pushing executive power? Absolutely. But he also has won cases against slumlords, brothels, big banks, and used-car dealers.

“The District was a pushover,” he says. “Now people know we are not afraid to take cases to trial and duke it out.”

Nickles says he’s up for four more years.

Consider three younger stars:

Harriet Tregoning, Fenty’s planning director. Fifteen years ago at the EPA, she started the “smart growth” movement as an alternative to urban sprawl. She ran Maryland governor Parris Glendening’s planning agency and his smart-growth initiatives. She’s a national leader in urban development and planning.

“Fenty cares about results,” she says. “He gives his agency directors freedom to do things. Everyone knows what’s important to him: better schools and less crime.”

She sees her job as creating better, stronger neighborhoods.

“I have to help with the ‘pull factors’—how do we build a city with affordable housing, great services, and retail?”

Her ally is Gabe Klein, director of the transportation department. When Fenty hired him in late 2008, Klein had never worked in government. An entrepreneur, he had been an executive with Zipcar, the car-sharing company. Before that he was a top executive with Bikes USA, the nation’s largest bicycle retailer. When Klein first showed up at the department, he was wearing jeans.

“Don’t you own a tie?” then–city administrator Dan Tangherlini asked.

At the job for a year, Klein has been overseeing reconstruction of bridges, building bike lanes, managing the new circulator buses, planning for a light-rail system, making parking meters digital, and keeping traffic signals in order. He oversees a staff of 1,000.

“My job is to point the ship,” Klein says. He works in concert with Tregoning. “We want to create a point-to-point transit system with bikes and public transportation.”

Fenty is onboard.

Klein bonded with Fenty, especially over snow.

Klein and William Howland, chief of the department of public works, tag-teamed the job of clearing the streets after December’s 16-inch dump. They each worked three 20-hour days.

“We weren’t perfect,” Howland says, “but we did a great job.”

Howland is a holdover from the Tony Williams administration. A Bethesda native, he worked in Fairfax County’s government for 17 years before coming to DC in 2001. Neither Williams nor Fenty micromanaged his agency. He says Fenty has taken customer service to a new level.

“His orders,” Howland says, “are ‘Get it done, move ahead.’ I don’t think he’s asked me to do anything beyond reason.”

Can Anyone Beat Fenty?

Tom Lindenfeld, the mayor’s political adviser, wants a good election race. “Without a campaign against a credible candidate,” he says, “you can’t exceed expectations. It’s risky to run against someone who’s not credible.”

The most credible candidate considering a challenge to Fenty is DC Council chair Vincent Gray. The same polls that show a majority of black voters wanting to see “somebody new” for mayor also reflect strong support for Gray. Political activists have been holding small meetings to organize support for him. A Washington Post editorial all but pleaded with Gray to run.

He hasn’t announced a decision and he has months to make a move, but he has ample reason to stay put. At 67, Gray would be testing his stamina against a young triathlete. He’s been running the council for two years and by all accounts enjoys the role. But he hasn’t used it to build a bully pulpit against Fenty; to the contrary, he has avoided challenging the mayor. And Gray would have to face charges that he paid a prominent developer for work done on his home only after the deal came out in the press.

Gray risks losing his seat if he takes on Fenty. The odds are long for two reasons: Fenty is on his way to raising $4 million, and his weakness among blacks could be offset by his strength among whites, who tend to vote in higher percentages. There may be little money left.

Money wouldn’t be a problem for developer R. Donahue Peebles; he’s said to be worth $350 million. A native Washingtonian, Peebles has talked about challenging Fenty. Should he run, Peebles would be a long shot at best. He has little status in DC politics, having lived in Florida for the last decade.

Two at-large councilmembers—Kwame Brown and Michael Brown—have mayoral ambitions. Both are building citywide constituencies, but neither is ready to take on Fenty.

Does the mayor fear any candidate?

“I take every candidate seriously,” he says.

And so Fenty is back walking the streets of DC—starting in the black wards where his support has weakened.

“You have the thesis that people are paying attention to who gets baseball tickets and how often I meet with special interests,” he tells me. “I have a thesis that people judge a mayor on how the government works and what they get in return for their tax dollars.”

Fenty’s thesis is about to be tested.