News & Politics

Adrian Fenty: Born to Run

Adrian Fenty is always on the go, whether training for a triathlon or running the DC government. In his first two years as mayor, he’s acted swiftly and boldly—some would say hastily and unwisely. His own assessment? “We’re not moving fast enough.”

Before dawn three mornings a week, Fenty trains for triathlons at high-school tracks around DC. He also bikes and swims at Hains Point. Photo by Jay Wescott

The city sleeps. The mayor runs.

It’s 5:15 in the morning. The surface of the new track behind a DC high school north of Capitol Hill is pitch black in the predawn darkness. Runners approach, one at a time or in small groups. No one speaks. They know the routine. They start running intervals, first seven minutes, then six, then five, and finally sprints.

DC mayor Adrian Fenty arrives at 5:30 and slips into the small pack of runners. He has left his house in the Crestwood neighborhood, just east of Rock Creek Park, at 5 am. He got up at 4:45. He tried not to wake his wife, Michelle, who’s about two months from having their third child; he tiptoed past the bedroom where his sons, Matthew and Drew, were asleep. A friend drove him to the track.

He runs with a graceful gait, taking broad strides with his long legs. There are about 20 in all training for marathons or triathlons, the latter the mayor’s chosen challenge. They train at several tracks around DC, keeping the setting and schedule secret; it’s by invitation of the mayor.

In Fenty’s first 22 months in office, his government renovated fields at six DC schools, and it’s completing similar work at six more. Four mayors over three decades, including Marion Barry in his 16 years, had let many of the fields turn to clay as hard as concrete; Fenty ordered them fixed after taking office.

At 6:45 the sun starts to brighten the sky over the US Capitol a few blocks down New Jersey Avenue. The triweekly training run is over. Fenty slips into his warm-up pants and jacket bearing the logo of Fleet Feet—his family’s running shop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. He talks trash with the other runners; some have been training with him since long before he became mayor.

Fenty returns home, showers, puts on a striped shirt, blue tie, and dark suit, eats breakfast with Michelle and the boys, and drives the kids to school in nearby Shepherd Park. It’s approaching 9 am—time to be mayor.

At 9:15 he’s having a breakfast meeting with city-council members on the fifth floor of the John Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. During the hourlong session, Fenty takes notes, works his BlackBerry, consults aides. The smiles around the table mask varying degrees of animosity and mistrust between the young mayor and the 13 legislators.

After the meeting, the mayor is off to race through the rest of the day. He stops by his bullpen on the third floor of the John A. Wilson Building—the open office where everyone from secretaries to top deputies to the mayor has a cubicle. He hops in his tiny black-and-white Smart convertible, riding shotgun so he can work the BlackBerry. His “confidential assistant,” Veronica Washington, drives. He has no police detail; it would slow him down.

By 10:30 Fenty has crossed town to Bowen Elementary School on M Street, Southwest, near the new Nationals Stadium. Bowen served the predominantly black and poor kids of the neighborhood. Fenty, who took over the schools shortly after his inauguration in 2007, closed it and 22 other schools; he’s shown up today to showcase its conversion into a police station.

Fenty and Veronica Washington grab sandwiches at a takeout. He eats the turkey wrap as they ride in the car. His shiny bald head pops up through the open top.

It’s back to city hall for a few meetings, then off to a press conference on Capitol Hill about HIV/AIDS. The District has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of people living with AIDS. Reports indicate that one in 50 DC residents has the disease. Fenty says he wants to make AIDS his top health priority; activists say there’s a lack of urgency. He promises more action.

He heads back across town to city hall for meetings. At 5:30 he and Washington are driving across the Anacostia River in rush-hour traffic to make the opening of the Pop Warner peewee football season. The field at the Kenilworth-Parkside Recreation Center is refurbished, thanks to Fenty. He takes off his jacket, throws footballs, and tosses the coin for the start of the game.

The kids and the adults treat him like a combination of rock star and athlete. It’s a reception he gets all over town from residents who applaud his crusade to make the government more responsive.

At 7:15, 14 hours of nonstop action since he hit the high-school track, the mayor heads home. No downtime. It’s the way he has run the DC government for the first half of his first term.

Which raises questions:

How does he keep up that energy? Can he maintain it—and instill it in his government? Is Fenty’s fast-and-furious style good for the District, especially its most vulnerable citizens?

“There are strengths and weaknesses in wanting to do things yesterday,” says one of his inner circle.

I ask Fenty to assess his first half term. He doesn’t do small talk.

“We’re not moving fast enough,” he says. Period.

Says at-large councilmember David Catania, “He’s not inclined to hold your hand or have a beer with you. He’s not going to make you feel important, period.”

When Adrian Fenty campaigned for mayor in 2006, he walked the city—and won every precinct in the primary and general elections.

He could campaign, people acknowledged, but could he govern? It was a reasonable question to ask about a 35-year-old lawyer who had been on the city council for a term and a half.

After nearly two years in office, some critics say that he is governing too much and too fast.

Having outrun, outmaneuvered, and occasionally ignored the city council, he’s become virtually an autocrat.

I AM DC, proclaims a poster on a bus stop at McKinley Street and Connecticut Avenue. Fenty’s face smiles through the Plexiglas.

“We call him Prince Adrian,” says George Clark, a lawyer and past president of the Federation of Citizens’ Associations. “He says, ‘I won all precincts, and I can do anything I want.’ ”


“I measure myself from talking to regular people,” Fenty tells me. He’s sipping hot tea at a cafe on 14th Street in the Shaw neighborhood. “They will give you their analysis. It’s true of elections; it’s true of governing. I learned from working at my parents’ store that if you want to know how your business is doing, you have to get out on the floor.”

The mayor says he gets high marks from regular people.

“I don’t pay much attention to hangers-on at city hall,” he says. “Longtime residents and new residents are not looking for someone to pander to them. They want accountability; they want results.”

In his first weeks in office in January 2007, he moved to take over the ailing public-school system. The city council acceded. He neutralized the school board, hired Michelle Rhee, and anointed her school chancellor. With Fenty’s backing, she has closed 23 schools, replaced 36 of 157 principals, decimated the central bureaucracy, and antagonized the teachers union.

While attention has been focused on the schools, Fenty has had an even more radical impact on development in the District. He directed his development deputy, Neil Albert, to dissolve two nonprofit development corporations that controlled hundreds of acres of property. Fenty pushed through deals to redevelop the Southwest waterfront and greased the wheels for office and residential development citywide. His development office has projects on the books worth $13 billion—8 million square feet of office space and 2 million in retail.

In the process he has aroused some community groups. Says Jim McGrath, chair of the the DC Tenants’ Advocacy Coalition: “The mayor has surrendered to special interests and the moneyed crowd.”

Fenty has taken control of the bureaucracy at the top and is working his way down, inserting loyalists into middle management. His critics—many of whom refuse to speak on the record—say he’s surrounded by young, green people who fear challenging him. In fact, his top staff is a cadre of loyal, experienced professionals, many of whom he has known and worked with for years. School-construction czar Allen Lew, whom Fenty got to know during his tenure on the council and who oversaw construction of the convention center and Nationals Park, is 57. Attorney General Peter Nickles, a tough litigator, has known Fenty since he was a child and represented him when he was on the council. Nickles is 70.

The mayor is at odds with many public-employee unions because of his penchant for firing workers first and asking questions later and for eliminating city jobs. Local AFL-CIO members picketed his appearances at the Democratic convention in Denver and handed out leaflets calling him “Boss Fenty.”

“This mayor has complete disdain for the frontline workers,” says police-union chief Kristopher Baumann. He says the city offered no pay raises and reduced benefits in contract talks that have stalled and gone to court: “We are at war with the Fenty administration.”

Fenty is at war with the city council. His aides, in their crusade for action, hold the council in low regard; councilmembers accuse Fenty of withholding information and disregarding their role.

“We were clearly supportive of the mayor taking over the schools,” says council chair Vincent Gray. “Now we’re at best on the periphery.”

Gray and Fenty recently agreed to meet one-on-one every other week; Gray is threatening to issue subpoenas in a quest for information about homeless housing and school construction.

Former mayor Marion Barry, now representing Ward 8 on the council, has tried to play Fenty’s nemesis but with little success. “Marion Barry is watching as Fenty dismantles the government Marion Barry created,” says at-large councilmember David Catania. “It’s a total undoing. Marion can’t stand it.”

Barry branded the city during his 16 years in office; in terms of image, the city has traded a coke addict for a triathlete. Fenty benefited from the two terms of Anthony Williams, who began reforming the bureaucracy and started many of the projects Fenty has seen completed.

In colloquial terms, Barry was the “night owl” mayor; Williams was sometimes mayor; Fenty never stops being mayor.

“He’s surprised me,” says Alice Rivlin, who’s long studied DC for the Brookings Institution. “I knew Adrian when he was on the council. I thought he was intelligent and articulate but not terribly substantive. Now he’s digging in and doing things.

“And no one can say we never see Adrian Fenty. He’s everywhere.”

As the city was stirring on Monday, August 25, Mayor Fenty stood before a few groggy reporters at 6:45 in front of Sousa Middle School, in the heart of a distressed neighborhood east of the Anacostia River.

“We are here to welcome students on the first day of this school year,” Fenty said. “We expect it to be a great year.”

For years the opening day of school in DC has been a crapshoot. Would there be books? Teachers? Locked doors because of fire-code violations?

This year schools opened without a hitch. Fenty chose Sousa because it had been renovated over the summer—new kitchen, science rooms, auditorium, halls, music room.

I trailed Fenty for most of the day. Head bobbing in and out of the Smart car, he visited schools, inspected bathrooms, grabbed a turkey wrap on Georgia Avenue, and met with top education deputies, including schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and construction chief Allen Lew, and city administrator Dan Tangherlini. He then chaired a meeting on homicides and gun violence where he questioned police chief Cathy Lanier. By then it was getting toward evening.

Before the education session, I huddled for a minute with Carrie Brooks, who had run Fenty’s press operation before being bumped up to chief of staff. A DC native, she’s the daughter of homeless activist Carol Fennelly and grew up with Mitch Snyder, the late crusader for the homeless. She went to Wilson High with Fenty and scooped ice cream beside him at Swensen’s next to the Uptown Theater.

“Not easy keeping up with the mayor,” I said. “There weren’t too many reporters there at 6:45.”

“Did you hear where he was yesterday?” she asked.

Fenty had flown to Denver Saturday afternoon to attend meetings at the Democratic convention. At dawn Sunday he was in Steamboat Springs to compete in a triathlon. He returned to Denver for an education conference with Al Sharpton and Newark mayor Corey Booker. He took the redeye back to DC and made it to the 6:45 am press conference.


“I don’t see how he can,” Brooks says. “I keep thinking he’s going to slow down a little bit.”

How does Fenty manage to race through one day after the next?

“I love what I do,” he says.

For insight, I put the question to his parents, Phil and Jan Fenty.

“As a child Adrian was always focused,” says Jan. “His dad exercised every single solitary day. Not a little bit—two hours. That was how Adrian grew up.”

Fenty’s parents are sitting on a bench in Fleet Feet, their storefront on Columbia Road. Phil, 68, has salt-and-pepper hair, rings in his ears, bangles around his wrists. Jan is petite, wears her hair short, smiles as she talks. She was a special-education teacher in DC public schools before the couple opened the shop in 1984.

“I’m Italian-American,” she says. “My father was a construction worker. He worked his whole life. Phil’s father was Panamanian and always worked two jobs. So I guess Adrian’s energy and work ethic are in his gene pool and his environment. He saw us working 24/7 in this store since we opened it.”

Fenty was a teenager then. He and his brothers, Shawn and Jesse, worked the floor. “That’s where he learned about customer service,” Jan says. “He’s taken what he learned from me and his dad and gone to a whole new level.”

Phil Fenty pipes up.

“Adrian has taught me a few things,” he says. “You can do anything you want—it’s just a matter of managing time. His time is very structured. He uses it well. He has an amazing ability to be where he is; when he moves on, he’s 100 percent there.”

Phil and Jan Fenty were activists in the Vietnam-era antiwar movement. They took the boys to protests. They describe themselves as politically progressive.

“It’s wonderful to see how all those things we did trickled down to our children,” Jan says. “They actually were paying attention when we talked about making things better for people. Now Adrian has a chance to do something about it.”

What’s the source of his energy?

“People, especially kids,” says Phil. “He grabs their energy, stores it, uses it.”

Can he keep it up?

“Oh, yeah,” says the father. “I tell people, ‘Don’t bet against Adrian.’ ”

Adrian Fenty gets a good night’s sleep, often eight hours.

“We’ve always been early-to-bed people,” says Michelle Fenty. “Adrian goes to bed an hour after he comes home, often by 9 or 10. We’re not staying up until midnight and getting up at 5.”

Michelle Fenty sits behind her desk at Perkins Coie, at 14th and F streets a block up from the Wilson building. She’s a lawyer specializing in contracts. A London native, she met Fenty at Howard University law school. They’re expecting their third child, a girl, in late November. She looks trim in a black dress with a scoop neck.

Her take on her husband as mayor?

“He’s basically a very hands-on kind of person,” she says. “He will get all the information he thinks he needs and make a decision he thinks is best for the city. It’s not his style to ponder and deliberate for a long time. He’s a bottom-line guy. It’s part of his personality. It goes hand in hand with his love of sports. He goes out there and does what he has to do. He won’t stop until he does it.”

Michelle says her husband got involved in the 16th Street Neighborhood Association as soon as they moved to the Crestwood area after law school. He took her to community cleanups on Saturday mornings. He won a seat on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.

“What on earth is that?” Michelle says she wondered. “We didn’t have these things in London. But it gave me a chance to grow with him. Each step yielded more responsibility and made the transition easier.”

Has he changed in the past year?

“He’s certainly matured,” she says. “The council position laid a great foundation. He does many of the same things, just citywide.”

Fenty sometimes handles constituent services for the entire city, riding around and calling in crews to fix potholes and signs and streetlights.

Why, I ask, is he so impatient?

“Compassion is what drives his lack of patience with the government bureaucracy,” she says. “There’s always someone suffering at the other end as a result of the bureaucracy. He spent a lot of time in the community seeing that.”

The mayor quits running and relaxes as soon as he walks through the door at home.

“He’s a whole different person,” Michelle says. “He spends downtime with me and the boys. He’s in a whole different world.

“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.

This has become Fenty’s way of handling bad news: accept blame, fire workers, promise reform, move on. But does the problem get fixed?

In the case of the Child and Family Services Agency, the answer is no.

Last January, Mayor Fenty had to deal with his first human tragedy. Federal officials entered a rowhouse in Southeast DC and discovered the bodies of four young girls. Banita Jacks, their mother, had been squatting in the house and was charged with murdering her daughters. The family had been under the care of the city’s social-services agency.

The aftermath shows Fenty at his best and worst.

He dispatched acting attorney general Nickles to investigate. Five days later he summoned reporters and described in detail how the four girls had fallen through cracks in the system. He played tapes of a school social worker calling the city agency and pleading for help to save the girls.

Fenty quickly fired six social workers he blamed for failing to respond to the troubled family. He called a meeting of social workers and demanded that the situation never be allowed to happen again. Many walked out.

“He’s a pull-the-trigger-first kind of guy,” says a lawyer involved in the matter.

If the mayor had been dealing with failures in trash pickup or building maintenance, his methods might have worked. But for a beleaguered social-service agency that has been in and out of court receivership, Fenty’s actions proved disastrous.

Callers reporting examples of neglect flooded the city’s hotline. As cases piled up, Fenty’s firings demoralized the remaining social workers. Between January and June, many quit, and one-quarter of positions remained unfilled. By August, cases per social worker increased beyond the 15 allowed by a federal court.

The breakdown allowed hundreds more children to fall through the safety net. Fenty failed to recognize the gravity of the problem and hire new staff. The head of the agency, Sharlynn Bobo, resigned in July under pressure from Fenty. Later that month the advocacy group Children’s Rights filed a motion for contempt in the ongoing federal court case over management of the District’s foster-care system that it filed in 1989. The child-services agency has been in and out of federal receivership since then and is still being monitored by the court.

“Since January, child welfare system performance has suffered across the board,” court monitor Judith Meltzer wrote to Judge Thomas Hogan on September 15. She found “little evidence of decisive action by the District to stem the protective services crisis and ensure the safety of children in an unacceptably high backlog of pending investigations.”

Meltzer reported that child-welfare officials had investigations involving more than 3,000 children open beyond 30 days. Social workers had not visited 450 of the children potentially at risk.

“It’s sad for the administration, sad for the kids and families,” Meltzer says. “They are not getting what they need.”

Fall is prime triathlon season. Fenty tries to compete in one a week. He’s increased the frequency of his early-morning runs.

His wife, Michelle, says the training and competition are an outlet for stress and a metaphor for his management style, based on speed and results. But halfway through his first term, his staff is wondering if the rest of the government can keep pace.

“That’s the test,” says chief of staff Brooks. “You can change the top. What about the folks who have been there for years?”

City administrator Dan Tangherlini is upbeat, like Fenty, about the chances of changing the culture of DC government workers.

“There’s a hard-core group in every agency, in every organization, that will fight any positive change,” he says. “There’s 10 percent who are amazing people willing to work with us. We’re fighting for the hearts and minds of the 80 percent” in between.

That formula might work for agencies that issue licenses and clean streets. But for parts of the government that deal with entrenched problems like child abuse, education, crime, and homelessness, speed can lead to disaster, as it has in the social-welfare agency.

So far Fenty has outrun and outmaneuvered the legislative branch. That leaves the courts to redress shortcomings, as they are doing in part with the social-services agency, special education, care of the mentally and physically disabled, and other complicated problems not susceptible to quick fixes.

How Fenty handles services to these troubled constituencies will affect his political fortunes two years from now. For the moment, Fenty is racing ahead and appears to have the field to himself.

This article first appeared in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles like it, click here.