Iron Fist of Change

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on March 10, 2009

(by Emily Belz, WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation’s capital is a city accustomed to centralized power, not only because of federal authority but through a history of heavyweight mayors like Marion Barry, mayor for four terms beginning in 1979. “He may not be perfect, but he’s perfect for D.C.,” went a campaign slogan for Barry, convicted of cocaine use in 1990.

Why do the District’s 600,000 residents repeatedly vote into office men with iron fists? Maybe because high crime rates, an atrocious education system, and one of the highest rates of AIDS in the country make people desperate for reform, and fast.

Enter Adrian Fenty, the young, athletic mayor who has assumed far more power than his years might confer on him. Fenty was 34 years old when he decided to run for mayor of Washington in 2005. He faced veteran opposition from his own Democratic party, the chair of the D.C. city council who had held office on the council while Fenty was still in elementary school. But Fenty knocked on doors, and two months before his election he had visited more than half the homes in the District of Columbia. His volunteers had knocked on every single door. In the primary he thrashed the council chair, Linda Cropp, and won the mayor’s race with 89 percent of the vote, becoming Washington’s youngest mayor ever.

Since his election in 2006 Fenty has used his strong popularity to pull the arms of city government directly under his control, taking charge of the failing school system and city development projects. In the process he has alienated his own city council, the teachers union, and some residents who think he is being autocratic. But Fenty’s influence may expand further because of his close connection to Barack Obama.

The two have overt similarities: Fenty, like Obama, has been married to only one woman (her name is also Michelle), and he has three children, one newly born. Like Obama, he sends his school-aged children to private schools. And like Obama, he started his career as a lawyer, then stumbled into politics.

They also have differences: Unlike Obama, who was raised by his single mother, Fenty grew up with both his mother and father. Fenty is the biracial son of Philip and Jan Fenty, owners of a local running store, Fleet Feet, and he himself trains for triathlons in the early morning about three times a week. Unlike Obama, he’s never been a smoker, and he doesn’t even drink coffee-all in the name of staying healthy for the races he runs. And unlike Obama, he supports legalizing same-sex marriage.

The two ate half-smoke hot dogs together at the city’s Ben’s Chili Bowl in January, turning it into a must-see tourist destination, and the Obamas and Fentys are sporadically spotted out in the city, socializing. Fenty endorsed Obama in July 2007, early in the election process, when Obama drew thin crowds and had no bodyguards. The mayor went on to campaign for him around the country.

When Fenty recently faced a $400 million-plus budget shortfall, he pushed for aid to the District in Obama’s economic stimulus bill and got it: $227 million for the school system and $612 million for other city projects, though details of allocated resources that may affect the city aren’t entirely clear. Spending on the federal government level brings money in for the city, and the stimulus provides $650 million for the construction of a new Department of Homeland Security headquarters in southwest Washington. The president told a gathering of mayors in Washington that the stimulus is designed to do more for cities than “anything Washington has done in generations.”

As the District becomes a central hub for financial disbursement with bailouts and stimulus funds, and billions of dollars in new programs on the horizon, the local economy and tax coffers are growing from lobbying firms expanding and new ones opening their doors and their wallets. Since Obama announced his plans for a stimulus in November, over 90 new lobbyists have registered to push their issues on the Hill, according to The Washington Post.

Citizens of the District also hope that the city will get voting rights in Congress with Obama’s help, something he has supported. The legislation is divisive mainly on party lines; it would give the solidly Democratic District a seat in the House of Representatives. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he doesn’t support it because it’s unconstitutional-the District is not a state. Last time the legislation came to the Senate, it fell three votes short of overcoming a filibuster and passing, but now that Democrats have more seats, the bill has a greater likelihood of becoming law (a vote was pending at press time).

On a February afternoon, Fenty arrives in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood to break ground on a mundane public project, a dog park, which hardly seems important in a city with a bad school system and a high HIV/AIDS rate. But a dog park is part of Fenty’s vision, and after posing for pictures with neighbors and their squirming dogs, he tells me, “It’s quality of life. Quality of life matters.”

At the groundbreaking Fenty doesn’t wait for people to approach him: He strides into the crowd and begins greeting each person before most people even realize the mayor is there. He wears his trademark Jay Gatsby cap on his shaved pate. When he gives speeches or answers questions, he is brief, not the stereotypical public figure who rambles in order to control the conversation.

“You better keep up,” said one of his staff at the dog park when I paused to take notes while Fenty was heading for his black Smart car. But some D.C. residents don’t like the mayor’s swiftness to change city institutions, and some local bloggers have labeled him authoritarian. Other residents, citing the District’s dismal national standing in education and health issues, say a firm hand is needed.

When he took office, Fenty simply told the city’s school board to go away, to dissolve. Schools in Washington then were places where fights that sent students to the hospital broke out regularly. Good teachers rarely stuck around, dropout rates were high, and students would arrive at schools without heat and without textbooks to read. Fenty appointed a new chancellor of the schools, Michelle Rhee, to do whatever she saw fit to make schools better. Rhee has fired principals freely, closed schools, undone tenure for teachers, and otherwise upset the teachers union. This year, students came to schools and had textbooks, and their math and reading proficiency scores have gone up, but fights persist. Top educators around the country are watching her closely to see how the radical approach takes hold.

The mayor has also allowed crime fighting to bypass constitutional rights, said some city council members. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has used her authority to seal troubled neighborhoods, establishing checkpoints where police officers record license plates and question nonresidents entering the area. The strategy seems to have reduced drug use and prostitution but flared indignation among some city residents who find the move draconian. Fenty also started a summer work program for youth in the city that flopped, many youth receiving pay from the city without doing any work.

Many on the city council feel like they are a prop to the mayor and his agenda-something most city residents don’t mind, because they like Fenty and they like his drastic measures. “Now we’re at best on the periphery,” council chair Vincent Gray told the Washingtonian last November. With one less school board, 36 fewer principals, and 21 fewer schools, the mayor is governing a lighter, tighter ship, one steered by his hand.

In addition, Fenty has dissolved two nonprofits overseeing city development and taken the city’s development projects in hand himself, promoting “affordable housing” (though residents have given him lower scores on that front) and major commercial developments where nonprofit developers have faltered. The mayor’s office has approved over $10 billion worth of development projects along the banks of the Anacostia River, in the southern part of the city, and some residents worry that the mayor may be serving the special interests of private developers.

Fenty also wants to work with local churches and nonprofits willing to be “partners” with the government in actions said to help the city’s poor. For example, one ministry of the 60-year-old Church of the Saviour helped residents to find over 800 jobs last year, and another provided 325 units of affordable housing.

As the city’s unemployment rate goes up and more people struggle with mortgages, Fenty will need those types of partnerships more and more.

Copyright ©2009 WORLD Magazine, March 14, 2009.  Reprinted here March 10th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at