D.C. MAYORAL RACE
A Push to Put Government to Work
Thursday, September 7, 2006
Zooming along the Capital Beltway in his white Ford Expedition, Adrian M. Fenty seems dangerously close to losing control. The front end is so far out of alignment that the entire passenger cabin is shaking. Empty Vitamin Water bottles skitter on the floor.
Fenty ignores the ominous vibrations, chatting intently about his campaign for D.C. mayor as he heads toward 16th Street NW. Suddenly, something catches his eye: a torn Fenty yard sign. "What's that address? Write that down," he murmurs to an aide. "Replacement sign needed."
For nearly two years, Fenty has been chasing the city's highest political office, selling himself as a disciplined, hands-on manager with an obsession for detail. But critics see the sophomore D.C. Council member as an ambitious man with no patience for critical but unglamorous tasks, such as cobbling together legislation -- or taking the car in for a tuneup.
With just days until the historically decisive Democratic primary Tuesday, Fenty, 35, is within striking distance of becoming the youngest mayor in District history. Polls show him leading his chief rival, council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, thanks in large part to the enthusiastic support of his Ward 4 constituents, who call him the fresh face of a new generation in D.C. politics. They say Fenty, the son of civil rights demonstrators turned shoe store owners, combines an activist's devotion to social justice with a businessman's zeal for results.
The critics, including several of Fenty's council colleagues, dismiss him as an inexperienced showboat uninterested in the hard work of governing. In six years on the council, they say, Fenty has spent more time calling news conferences than attending hearings. They deride his practice of borrowing solutions to the city's most pressing problems from more experienced leaders and say his brief career as a lawyer reveals a troubling capacity for neglecting mundane but critical tasks.
Fenty coolly brushes off the criticism, saying voters are not interested in hearing it.
"People share the same concerns: They want the government to provide solid schools, to stop wasting their money and to hire people who are competent and professional. And they want a government that does outreach, getting out into their communities," he said. "People are all hungry and thirsty for the same things. And that's what they see in my campaign."
His supporters agree.
"I don't know what they want from this man. He does as much as he can do," said Joan Thomas, a Petworth resident who supports Fenty because he was on the spot at a recent drive-by shooting, took quick action against illegal dumping in a nearby alley and bought a coat for the boy who carries her groceries.
"If Fenty does half as much for this city as he has done for Ward 4, this city will move forward to new heights," she said.
The establishment is skeptical. The mayor, four council members, the biggest unions and the most influential business groups have all endorsed Cropp, although their backing has conferred no clear advantage.
Fenty compares the race to his first campaign, when he upset Charlene Drew Jarvis, a 21-year D.C. Council member who had grown more interested in downtown development than the mundane concerns of her constituents. Fenty knocked on every door in the ward, winning the Democratic nomination by a 13-point margin.