By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Do you know your mayor-to-be, Washington? Really know him? Yes, he's a Democrat. Yes, schools are his top priority. And yes, he's a BlackBerry fiend. But there must be more, right? Things you didn't learn from his sorta awkward political commercials or his citywide press-the-flesh campaign? We thought so, too. So we asked mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty to give us a personal tour of D.C., the city he grew up in, where he met his wife, where his children were born, the city whose future he hopes to shape.
We caught up with Fenty on a chilly, late October Saturday afternoon outside of Fleet Feet, the running-shoe store in Adams Morgan owned by his parents, Phil and Jan. After grabbing a quick lunch of chicken gumbo a few doors down at So's Your Mom ("the soup here is always excellent," Fenty tells us), the tour begins.
Almost begins, that is. On Jan. 2, Fenty will be sworn in as the fifth mayor of Washington, D.C. At just 36, he'll be responsible for a budget of $9.6 billion and a city of about 550,000. But right now, he has a much more pressing concern: Clambering over the back seat of his city-issued shiny black Lincoln Navigator, Fenty is struggling to fasten seat belts on his restless and chatty 6-year-old twins, Matthew and Andrew.
"If you ever run for office, have twin boys," he advises, snapping a belt into place. "They love to go everywhere." The inexorable campaigner ought to know; he took his boys with him to almost every nook and cranny of the city as he sought the city's top office.
"Are we g-o-i-n-g to the park?" Drew asks.
"Yeah, we're going to the park."
"Can we play f-o-o-t-b-a-l-l?"
Spelling is big with the Fenty twins these days.
"Yeah, where's the football?"
"Okay, let's go home and get it."
And so the tour begins with a detour. Fenty's driver sets off to the mayor-elect's Crestwood home to pick up a football. As we arrive, however, Fenty remembers that he hasn't told his wife that he's stopping by with visitors in tow. "I guess I should let her know," he says, flashing a toothy, slightly guilty grin. Standing 10 feet from his front door, the BlackBerry cowboy speed-dials wife Michelle inside the house to warn her.
Michelle Cross Fenty, it turns out, isn't the least bit fazed. The District's future first lady, wearing a trendy white Lonsdale running suit and a warm smile, is a picture of calm. "Oh, please just don't take any pictures of the rotten pumpkins on the doorstep," she says in her charming English accent. Born and raised in London, Michelle met her husband while both were law students at Howard University. Now a lawyer in a high-power District firm, she stands at the front door laughing and shaking her head as her two boys tackle their father to the ground outside -- never mind the Hugo Boss suit and smart black overcoat he's sporting.
No one takes pictures of the pumpkins.
* * *
Football safely tucked in Matthew's arms, we're off to Peirce Mill in Rock Creek Park. The park is a vital spot for the mayor-to-be. An avid marathoner and triathlete, he has logged countless miles on its trails. It's also the site of one of his and Michelle's early memorable dates. "She calls this our 'pearl-in-the-grass date,' " Fenty confides. "We were walking along, and I saw a pearl in the grass and I picked it up. Later I sent it to her with a memo."
Fenty laughs. "No, no, no, not a memo. That's what I send now. No, I sent her a card, a love card, telling her that she was my pearl in the grass."
Nice save, Mr. soon-to-be Mayor.
The park was also a playground for the young Fenty, who sloshed through the creek as a kid, learned to skip rocks in the water and came home soaked and covered in mud. He's passing that rock-skipping skill on to his sons, though on this day they mostly want to toss small boulders into the water for maximum splash effect.
"You can have all of the rec center programs and sports leagues, but sometimes there's nothing better than just throwing rocks into the water," Fenty says.
* * *
Soon we're back in the Navigator, and Fenty asks his security detail to drive through Rock Creek Park. We pass the National Zoo, another of Fenty's favorite spots. He grew up not far from here in a Mount Pleasant rowhouse he shared with his parents and two brothers. "Rock Creek Park is the largest park inside a city in America," the mayor-elect boasts. Kudos to the mayor for civic pride, though we check later and find out that at less than 2,000 acres, the park is actually No. 42 on a list of the biggest city parks compiled by the Center for City Park Excellence. But compared with other high-density cities, the District has the highest ratio of parkland to total land area. So score one for Fenty. Either way, we like the unabashed hometown boosterism. And even if Rock Creek isn't the biggest park, it has to be one of the prettiest.
The route through the park is certainly one of the city's most scenic, passing by the lovely Rock Creek Cemetery, the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Memorial before it feeds into Independence Avenue and the Mall. Just for fun, we ask Fenty what music he'd choose for a soundtrack to the ride. He quickly rattles off an intriguing list of artists: Green Day, Sade, Kanye West, Damian Marley, lots of reggae.
Alas, the serious-looking gentlemen in the front seat don't look like they're about to start bumping Kanye.
As we drive along the Mall, "the people's park," Fenty calls it, he notes that it has been the location of road races he has run, including the Cherry Blossom 10-miler, the Marine Corps Marathon and many others. "You can train all you want, but you really push yourself in a race," he says. "You really find out what you're capable of."
* * *
We continue through downtown and cross the bridge into Anacostia. We're headed to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. "The view here is amazing," Fenty tells us as we approach. He's right. The home of the abolitionist leader, now undergoing renovation in preparation for a grand reopening on Feb. 14, offers one of the most commanding vistas in the city. At one of the highest spots in Washington, it is an ideal vantage point to take in the Anacostia River and the vast expanse of the Mall, including the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
Douglass lived in the home, which he called Cedar Hill, from 1877 until his death in 1895. It was established as a national historic site in 1988 and is managed by the National Park Service.
Wandering through the grounds and the Visitor Center, the Fenty boys are full of questions.
"Did Frederick Douglass die?" "Was he president?" "How tall was he?"
The future mayor and park ranger Eola Dance answer the rapid-fire queries.
"What black history have you learned about?" Fenty asks his sons. Drew scrunches up his face. "Um, Martin Luther King?"
Dance and Fenty share a laugh. Fenty promises a return visit after the Douglass house reopens.
* * *
Headed back downtown, the mayor-elect asks his driver to go past the site of the new 41,000-seat baseball stadium, now well under construction with an estimated price tag of $611 million. Fenty was a vehement opponent of public funding for the new stadium and voted against it. But the stadium legislation passed, and the mayor-elect is now on board.
"We really want to open up that entire area and make it a lively place for families to enjoy, especially along the waterfront." Speaking of family, Fenty needs to make a call. He dials the store and reaches his mom. Wants to know if she and Dad can watch the kids tonight. Yes? Great.
It's good to be the mayor.
* * *
Now Fenty is hungry, and like any Washington politician worth his half-smokes, he heads to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. The night before, he had dinner at see-and-be-seen Cafe Milano in Georgetown; later that evening he will dine at the fashionable Indian eatery Rasika. But with the boys clamoring for burgers, he knows Ben's is the place.
The Ohio State-Michigan game is on the television, but when Fenty walks in, all eyes turn to him. Words of encouragement and congratulatory handshakes are offered. "I'm a fan of yours, and I buy all of my shoes at your dad's store," a middle-aged woman tells him. It's a line Fenty hears often.
"All the people who voted for me are just a subset of Fleet Feet customers," he says, laughing. As he tucks into a bowl of chili, a teacher from Howard Road Academy Public Charter School asks him to speak to his students. A tow truck driver solicits advice about city rules governing his business. Later, a large group of Wilson High students surrounds him, shaking his hand and posing for pictures.
"I know you all voted for me, right?" Fenty jokes with the young teenagers. Then again, maybe he's just planting a seed for his next campaign. After all, in four years, they'll all be old enough to fill out a b-a-l-l-o-t.