Cropp and Fenty Have Pursued Their Legislative Agendas By Opposite Means

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

Mayoral candidate Adrian M. Fenty offers no apology for his independent, contrarian style on the D.C. Council. As mayor, he says, he would pursue the same approach, unbowed by criticism and willing to stand up for his beliefs.

"If you think of the role of mayor, it's someone who puts forward bold ideas and sticks to them," Fenty said. "It's not compromising on everything just to make sure something gets passed. Margaret Thatcher had a quote: 'Consensus is the absence of leadership.' "

His chief opponent in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, Linda W. Cropp, is best known as a consensus builder in her role as council chairman. She says a mayor must be able to move an agenda forward by working cooperatively with diverse groups.

"To be mayor is not a dictatorship," Cropp said. "It's not just standing up and saying, 'This is what I want done,' and miraculously it's going to happen."

During their years on the council, six for Fenty and 16 for Cropp, the two have pursued strikingly different legislative styles. Fenty, 35, has focused on constituent services and taken radical, attention-grabbing positions that have irritated colleagues but played well among residents. Cropp, 58, is the quintessential insider, wielding influence quietly, often behind closed doors, and moving legislation forward through negotiation and compromise.

Political observers say their performances on the council are a window into the type of leadership each would provide as mayor.

Other candidates in the primary -- such as business executive Marie C. Johns, council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5) and lobbyist Michael Brown -- have not garnered enough support or money to pose major challenges. A Washington Post poll last month found Fenty leading Cropp by 10 percentage points among likely voters.

Under Cropp, a council diminished during the city's bankrupt days a decade ago has gained stature and respect, as well as an ability to work as a united force. Budget debates have become less contentious, a hybrid school board was established and -- albeit painfully -- a baseball stadium financing plan, with a spending cap, was adopted.

Cropp said she brings diverse groups together while Fenty's style "is just splash. He gets onboard an issue that people are already talking about and says he's with them and has a built-in audience."

Fenty opposed the stadium deal, saying the team owners should pay, and he cast the lone vote against an emergency crime bill last month, calling it just a "feel-good" measure. His proposal last year to spend $1 billion to renovate schools was initially dismissed by colleagues, but it caught on with advocates and was eventually approved.

"I see my role as fixing things," Fenty said. Asked whether he lacks seasoning, Fenty replied: "At a certain point, experience just gets you a reputation as being part of the government," adding that he considers the city government to often be ineffective.

In some ways, their respective approaches might reflect a generation gap. Cropp has spent 27 years in elected office and said she believes that patience and deliberation make for responsible governance. Fenty is bidding for higher office midway through his second council term and believes that the government has not been as ambitious as he has.

Seizing an Opening

Fenty won the Ward 4 council seat in 1999 after a relentless door-to-door campaign to oust Charlene Drew Jarvis.

With no council committee chairmanship assigned to him during his first four-year term, he focused on constituent services. Fenty, armed with his ever-present BlackBerry, and his staff answered 200 e-mails a day, distributed bulletins to 2,500 constituents and posted replies on six neighborhood Listservs.

Sara Green, a Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner, said she had unsuccessfully lobbied the city's Transportation Department to install a stop sign at an intersection. At a neighborhood meeting, Green said, a Fenty staff member challenged a transportation official, who agreed to reconsider.

Fenty popped up so often at meetings that residents of other wards began calling him. Not all of Fenty's constituents were as enamored, however. Dwayne Toliver, former head of the Shepherd Park Citizens Association, said Fenty was slow to respond when asked to clean up an abandoned property on 14th Street NW and to stop construction of multiple homes near a park.

"He's done a lot with the easy issues -- streetlights, potholes, cutting grass," Toliver said. "But more challenging issues -- nothing."

Inside the District government building, Fenty found ways to insert himself into big issues even though he was a junior member.

For example, in 2003, he proposed implementing a commuter tax on suburbanites even though the D.C. Appleseed Center, a leading proponent of the tax, advised him to wait until a federal lawsuit had been decided. Fenty's aggressive maneuver risked angering Congress, but it illustrated his willingness to take a stand. Also that year, Fenty held a news conference with school activists decrying the condition of buildings at the same moment the council was meeting with the mayor to discuss education.

His tendency for theatrics put Fenty in the headlines but drew colleagues' criticism that he was more interested in media coverage than in the hard work of legislating -- fine-tuning proposals and negotiating with fellow council members.

Last year, Fenty took reporters on a tour of the city's dilapidated public schools and proposed using lottery proceeds to fund $1 billion in construction bonds to renovate them. But council members promptly mocked the idea when the city's chief financial officer ruled that the lottery revenue could not support the bonds.

"He did not know what he was doing. He was just grandstanding," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has long been critical of Fenty. "I don't think he's a serious person."

By then, school activists had bombarded the council with calls and e-mails. Under pressure, Cropp, Evans and Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) worked out a new financing plan, with Fenty excluded from the deliberations.

On his campaign Web site, Fenty lists the measure as his top achievement.

"I've never seen a person who has more political savvy than Fenty," said Bonnie Cain, a parent and school activist. "Everyone in the city was saying they wanted this, but he was the only one who touched the imagination."

Fenty and his colleagues also have argued over who deserves credit for the smoking ban approved in January. Fenty first proposed the idea in 2003, but his bill died in a council committee. Not until two other members redrafted the legislation last year was it adopted, but Fenty takes credit on his Web site.

Ed Lazere, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, praised Fenty, who has chaired the Committee on Human Services for two years, for increasing the child-care budget and putting into law protections for the homeless.

But Fenty's relationship with his colleagues is so strained that none has endorsed him and some have suggested that Fenty would be unable to move his agenda as mayor. Reciting his successes, Fenty said: "The simple fact that those bills got passed is a repudiation of that."

Art of Compromise

Cropp assumed the chairman's job during the late 1990s, when the bankrupt city was overseen by the financial control board. Like Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), she believes that pleasing Wall Street and fostering economic development are paramount, friends say.

Cropp rules legislation out of order if it is not blessed by the city's finance chief. She demanded a spending cap on the baseball stadium at the request of business leaders, who were funding the bonds.

As chairman, Cropp exerts her influence by carefully doling out committee assignments and summoning members to her suite for bargaining sessions. When developers and tenants' rights advocates were in a standoff over how many affordable housing units should be required, Cropp met with them for a year to work out a compromise.

"What drew our endorsement was her balanced leadership," said Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Her role on the council is like herding cats. They all have different agendas, but she listens and, when there are diverse points of view, tries to work out a compromise."

But detractors say Cropp's greatest skill is finding middle ground rather than leading down new paths.

When Williams lobbied for an appointed school board in 2000, Cropp balked. Having spent 10 years on the D.C. Board of Education in the 1980s, she would presumably be in position to offer creative options.

Instead, it was Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) who came up with the alternative: a hybrid board with five elected and four appointed members. Latching on, Cropp won the mayor's support, and the concept was adopted.

In 2004, Williams sought to assume full control of the schools, which Cropp again opposed. This time, she settled on an "education collaborative" in which she, Williams and the school board worked together to select a new superintendent.

"She's done a good job bringing council members together," said Iris Toyer, president of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools. "But she lives for consensus, and I don't get a sense she's passionate about anything but consensus."

At times, Cropp's personal positions seem muted or unformed as she seeks input. During the stadium deliberations, Ambrose tartly told Cropp to make up her mind when Cropp, for the second time, floated the idea of rebuilding near RFK Stadium.

Greg Rhett, a community leader in Eastland Gardens in Ward 7, recalls trying to win council approval for the mayor's proposal for a hospital at the site of the old D.C. General. Although Cropp supported the plan, she told Rhett that she would send the legislation to five council committees -- a tactic Rhett believed would bog the bill down in bureaucracy.

"On first blush, we thought she was trying to kill it," Rhett said. Cropp explained that she was following bylaws and asked Rhett to lobby other members.

Although Cropp has gained the respect of her colleagues -- four have endorsed her -- some supporters say that as mayor, she would have to be bolder.

"If she has any failings, she has not articulated the way," said the Chamber of Commerce's Lang. "The ideas and programs are there, but others have taken credit."

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