By Vanessa Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Tomorrow morning, barring foul weather or unwelcome emergency, Adrian Fenty will walk out of the front door of his house at 6.
Three, maybe four friends will be waiting for him. They will take off toward Rock Creek Park for a six-to-seven-mile run. If you show up at 6:05, he'll be gone, say those who have joined him for these Monday-Wednesday-Friday exercises.
This is no fun run. This is triathlon season, and Fenty is in training.
In addition to running, he bikes 30 to 40 miles at least twice a week and swims a half-mile to a mile two or three times a week.
So it makes sense, this plan of his to knock on "as many doors as humanly possible" and personally ask people to vote for him in the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary, to do it for eight, nine, 10 hours straight, on days when the ground was frozen or the asphalt is simmering.
This kind of physical challenge is second nature to Fenty. He is not trying to create the image of a young, energetic candidate; he is a young, energetic candidate. He also is the front-runner in the race, according to the polls. And, at age 35, he is the youngest serious contender for the mayor's office in Washington history.
Retail campaigning is a staple of electoral politics. Every office-seeker does a bit of stumping on the front porch or the street corner. But never has the District seen such intense hand-to-hand contact between a mayoral candidate and the electorate. Since he began his door-to-door blitz in June 2005, Fenty says, his volunteers have visited every house in the city and he has personally been to more than half of them.
"Door-to-door is the purest form of political campaigning," he says, "the most efficient way of campaigning." Go door-to-door armed with a voter registration list and you're much more likely to find whom you're looking for.
The campaign tactic has created so much hype that most people aren't surprised anymore when they open the front door and find themselves face-to-face with Fenty.
"You're ahead in the polls," Holly Bolger says as she and her husband, Bob, chat with Fenty on the sidewalk outside their house in Dupont Circle on a recent Saturday.
Later that day, a supporter who was getting dressed when Fenty knocked on his door catches up with the candidate a few blocks later and hands him a check for $500.
"You will never guess who's standing in my living room!" Robin Erby, 16, gasps to her best friend, whom she calls on her cellphone when the candidate stops by her family's home a few weeks ago in far Northeast Washington.
Fenty says he did not grow up dreaming about one day becoming mayor of his home town, and that rings true. Although he projects the confidence of a candidate in the lead, he does not seem like someone who has been groomed for political stardom. He is not a great orator, his sentences at times peppered with too many ahs and his thoughts stumbling from his mouth. His platform -- good schools, safe streets -- is not particularly visionary (although some would argue that his promise of a responsive government is by itself a utopian notion). He has no lyrical catchphrase, a la former presidential and vice presidential candidate John Edwards's "two Americas."
Even so, political handicappers had figured Fenty for a future mayoral bid after election night 2000, when he toppled Charlene Drew Jarvis, the Ward 4 council member for nearly 20 years, by waging an aggressive door-to-door campaign. The buzz grew louder as he built a reputation for delivering services to the residents of his ward, which covers much of Northwest Washington east of Rock Creek Park.
"It just snowballed," Fenty says, and now he describes himself as ready for the challenge. "No question. My energy level, my focus, the experience I've gained over the past six years . . . I've done the training."
Some of his colleagues on the D.C. Council are beside themselves that Fenty is leading in the mayoral race. He might be Mr. Constituent Service, they say, but he has shown little interest in or aptitude for the behind-the-scenes work of lawmaking. Running a multibillion-dollar government is not the same as running around delivering Supercans, one of his opponents snipes.
In late July, a Washington Post poll showed Fenty leading Linda Cropp, the current council chairman, by 10 percentage points among likely voters. Since then, she has largely abandoned her approach of running on her experience -- 16 years on the council and, before that, 10 years on the school board -- in favor of trying to knock Fenty off stride with a barrage of negative campaign ads. One calls him "reckless" for voting against a cap on government spending; another warned voters that Fenty's vote against last month's emergency crime bill "puts our safety at risk."
But if Fenty is sweating, it is because he's still out hustling for votes in the late summer heat.
His plan is to knock on doors until the polls close on primary day. He doesn't want there to be any doubt in voters' minds.
"They should know I'm tireless, and they should know I want it: I want to be the mayor," he said.Lunch to Go
Fenty is cruising up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway toward Laurel for a Sunday afternoon mayoral candidates' forum at the Oak Hill juvenile detention center, where the District houses its youthful offenders on a dingy campus surrounded by rows of barbed wire. The youths are holding a straw poll on the mayor's race.
"The first time I visited it, I thought it was like something out of a horror movie," Fenty recalls. As he drives, he skips around the radio dial, sampling the selections on various hip-hop stations.
He bobs his head to the music while munching on McDonald's chicken strips that have been marinating for several hours in the back seat of his Ford Expedition. He washes them down with Glaceau Vitamin Water. (He drinks eight to nine 20-ounce bottles of the fruit-flavored water during long, hot days on the street.) Earlier that day he put in six hours with a canvassing team in Ward 7. After the forum he will rejoin the volunteers and knock on doors until dark. This would have to do for lunch.
On the drive back to the city, he is asked how he feels when he sees those kids at Oak Hill. "It makes me want to make this a city, a government, a community where all these kids would be successful high school students," he begins.
He is asked to consider the question not from the perspective of a candidate, but as a young black man. Could he, like too many black boys, have ended up in Oak Hill?
"Nope," he says without hesitation. He then tells a story about how when he was in college an acquaintance suggested they do a little drug dealing on the side.
"I remember thinking, 'What would my dad think if I got caught doing something like that?' What a letdown something like that would be for him," Fenty says.
Fenty describes his father, Phillip, as "the ultimate lead-by-example type. . . . He doesn't use a lot of words." When Fenty and his two brothers, Shawn, 40, and Jesse, 34, were small, his father stayed home and took care of them while his mother, Jan, worked as a schoolteacher. By the time the boys were teenagers, Phil and Jan Fenty had opened Fleet Feet, an athletic-shoe store in Adams Morgan.
Adrian Fenty remembers his parents working endless hours to get the store established. He and his brothers worked alongside them after school and on weekends.
Does he miss spending time with his own 6-year-old twins, Matthew and Andrew, while he's so consumed with his mayoral campaign?
"I'm not with them as much, but I make sure I know where they are and everything they're doing," he says. Several days ago, Fenty says, he had been a guest speaker at the baseball camp attended by his sons.
The coach asked Fenty what his word of the day was.
"I told them," Fenty recalls, "my word for the day was 'hard work.' "Fenty's Colleagues
Mention Fenty's name and several of his colleagues on the D.C. Council roll their eyes, snicker, shake their heads. He's a showboat. A camera hog. He takes care of his ward, they argue, but he doesn't take care of business inside city hall.
The thing that most drives them crazy, they say, is that during council work sessions, where members meet behind closed doors to debate important legislation, Fenty has very little, if anything, to say, instead typing on his BlackBerry. It especially piques Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has on occasion publicly upbraided Fenty for being inattentive. He said he likes Fenty personally but does not think he would be a good mayor.
"We all like [Cropp] and I can see us working together very closely," Evans says. "With Adrian, I can't say that won't happen, but it has not happened to date. He would have to completely change or find himself at odds with the council." Evans, along with at least two other council members, has endorsed Cropp.
Fenty acknowledges that he indeed taps away on his BlackBerry during those work sessions, preferring to converse with constituents rather than with colleagues. "When it's time to vote, I vote publicly," he says. "And I don't vote 'present,' I vote yes or no."
None of Fenty's colleagues has endorsed him. But one rose to defend him, sort of.
Jim Graham, who represents Ward 1, said he considers Fenty a friend. They sit next to each other on the council dais, and Graham described Fenty as an ideological soul mate, a fellow liberal.
Right now, there's a hiccup in the friendship. Graham is still steamed at Fenty for voting against a segment of the rent control bill. (Fenty voted for the overall legislation that passed.) Graham also is unhappy that Fenty has refused to cut ties with a campaign worker with whom Graham has clashed.
Still, he says this about Fenty: "He is one of the most mature persons I know. I say that from . . . watching all of the ways in which people have tried to provoke him, and he does not rise to the bait."
Graham signed onto Fenty's mayoral exploratory committee in 2005, because "I believe Adrian represents a new politics for the District of Columbia, a fresh approach to leadership."
He said he still believes that, but he can't bring himself to endorse Fenty.Lessons Learned
Fenty's brief career as a practicing attorney was unremarkable, except for his fumbling of a case assigned to him by D.C. Superior Court. Like many lawyers, Fenty signed up to take probate cases for wards of the city. In such cases, the lawyers are generally paid from the clients' assets. The court assigned him in 1999 to oversee the affairs of William Hardy Sr., an elderly man who was suffering from dementia and whose money the court thought was being pilfered by relatives.
During the year that Fenty acted as conservator for Hardy, $22,500 disappeared from the man's credit union account. The court found no evidence that Fenty had stolen from Hardy, but it did find that he made mistakes in filing documents and monitoring Hardy's affairs that allowed Hardy's relatives to exploit him. Fenty repaid $15,000 to Hardy's estate and received an informal admonishment from the Office of the Bar Counsel.
Cropp has used the Hardy case, and that of another probate client whose case Fenty was dismissed from, to question Fenty's readiness for the mayor's office. Fenty "turned his back on the elderly," said one Cropp brochure; another said he "abandoned" Hardy.
What happened in that case doesn't jibe with the image of the council member known as intensely passionate about individual attention to constituents. Fenty will not discuss how it happened, brushing aside questions about whether his inexperience led to the mistake or he was distracted by his preparations to run for the Ward 4 council seat.
"No excuses. It shouldn't have happened," he says. "I've always said I made a mistake, and I learned from that mistake."
What did he learn?
"I learned you have to cross every 't' and dot every 'i,' because one little thing can lead to a big problem." You can see that he's taken those lessons to heart, he suggests, by the kind of disciplined, responsive operation he has tried to run as a council member. "I learned to show the type of attention to detail to make sure that never happens again."Finishing the Marathon
Fenty's wife, Michelle Cross Fenty, met her future husband at Howard Law School, when, as a third-year student, she was assigned to mentor the first-year Fenty. She says friends now tease her that she married Adrian because she knew he wanted to one day be mayor of Washington.
But Michelle Fenty, 37, says her husband never talked about a political career until he worked on the mayoral campaign of former council member Kevin Chavous and later won a seat of his own on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Ward 4.
"I saw that was what gave him passion," says Michelle Fenty, who practices law at Perkins Coie, specializing in executing international business transactions. "He was the happiest when he was on the ANC. He would come home very excited about having talked to all of these people and how he was going to help them with their problems."
Adrian Fenty says he became fascinated by the process of lawmaking in an 11th-grade civics class. He decided he wanted to become a lawyer and help shape public policy behind the scenes.
He did not get involved in student politics at Oberlin College, where he ran cross-country and track and played on the basketball team. But he interned for three members of Congress and volunteered for the campaigns of the late Council Chairman David A. Clarke.
After he got married and bought a house in Crestwood, Fenty says, he started attending meetings of his neighborhood association. There, he says, was the beginning of his interest in elected office.
Shawn Fenty manages the family store and races bikes. He jokes about "dragging Adrian around" on the bicycle, but says he can't hang with his younger brother on those 6 a.m. runs.
When Fenty won the Ward 4 council race, Shawn says, he let Adrian talk him into taking over his old ANC seat.
"I really hated it," he says.
"I like to get things done, and it's not easy to get things done in city government," he adds. "I do not have the patience for the meetings and the posturing . . . the people who want to sit and debate one thing for hours."
But Adrian "never seems to get frustrated about it or flustered about it," Shawn says. "He really is made for it."
Last Sunday, Adrian Fenty rose at 3:30 a.m. to go pick up his father, 65, who still lives in the Kenyon Street NW house where Adrian and his brothers grew up. The two men drove nearly two hours to compete in the North East Triathlon in Cecil County, Md. But they ended up not competing because of a downpour. So Fenty came back to the District and joined his volunteers knocking on doors.
This would have been their fourth race since May. Last month, a day after taking part in a 90-minute debate with long-shot opponent Marie Johns and spending eight hours knocking on doors, Fenty and his father drove to Delaware to compete in a triathlon. Adrian placed 150th out of 478 athletes and 18th out of 46 in his age group. Hitting the triathlon circuit is an annual ritual for the father and son.
Phillip Fenty's eyes light up when he talks about the first marathon that they ran together, when Adrian was 15. It was the Marine Corps Marathon, no big deal for Phil Fenty, who took up running at age 30, when he decided that he needed to get himself in shape to keep up with his three little boys.
"Around mile 16 or 17, I could see that he was visibly tired," Phil says. "I said to him, 'Okay, tuck yourself close to me. Don't look at the other people who've stopped, don't look at the people who are walking. Just focus and you'll get through it.' And we ran it together all the way."
What Adrian remembers most about that first marathon was that it was hard and that there was "no way in the world I would have finished that first marathon without my dad. My dad could have run the whole race probably an hour faster if it wasn't for me," he says.
The races and the training, he says, have taught him much about discipline and perseverance.
"The toughest thing about a marathon is not just physical, it's mental," says Fenty. "You have to mentally push yourself through when the body gets tired and wants to quit. It's just a great feeling to accomplish such a tough challenge."
These days, after finishing a race, Fenty waits for his father. "Then I go back and I run the last mile or two with him."