A New Engine, But No Machine

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 4, 2007

The applause was generous, the enthusiasm appropriate to the occasion, but this was not Adrian Fenty's crowd.

The thousand or so people who showed up yesterday at the Washington Convention Center for the formal inauguration of the city's fifth mayor since home rule displayed little of the spirit of Fenty's campaign. The vibe in the room was far less dynamic than the door-to-door effort that swept Fenty to victory over Linda Cropp in every precinct in the city.

This was not the new generation that Fenty talks about bringing into power. These were not the newcomers attracted to the District by Anthony Williams's vision of an economically diverse city. No, this felt more like a hiring hall in the Marion Barry era.

In the back of the room, behind the red ropes that separated the ticket-holding swells from hoi polloi, people were busy swapping business cards, résumés and job-hunting tips. (A member of the permanent bureaucracy referred an office-seeker to an old buddy in a city agency: "You call him, you hear? He's taking care of his people.")

The room felt like a reunion of the Williams, Barry and Sharon Pratt Kelly administrations -- devoted public servants mixed in with the leeches and profiteers who have made the District government so dysfunctional for so long. You'd almost think that Cropp, the candidate of the establishment, had won the mayoralty, not the frenetic outsider who scared big business half to death.

The gentrifiers and first-time homeowners, the young people and empty nesters who came to the city because it was no longer a laughingstock were scarce in the crowd because the District, uniquely among American cities, lacks the political machinery to involve such newcomers in the affairs of government.

In his eight years in office, Williams did virtually nothing to build up the scaffolding needed to maintain power. Williams considered the basics of politics -- the party apparatus, neighborhood associations, ministers, community development corporations -- to be dirty work, somehow beneath him. And that's why he was forever scrambling for votes on the D.C. Council.

Challengers in the District often find they must invent their campaigns from scratch. The only machine in town is the aging vestige of Barry's old support system.

When newly elected officials visit The Post, my editorial page colleague Colby King often asks them, "Who's your posse?" because no politician can succeed without a cadre of dedicated supporters who will be their eyes and ears in the permanent structures of government.

Fenty comes into office with little more of a posse than he needed to run his campaign -- not nearly enough to take on the boldly recalcitrant behemoth of the D.C. government.

Martin O'Malley, the Baltimore mayor who takes over as Maryland's governor Jan. 17, has no such problem -- he's already well into the wholesale transfer of trusted allies from his city agencies into state offices. (This is why O'Malley's roots in Bethesda and Rockville will mean little to Washington's Maryland suburbs; his political foundation is in Baltimore, and it is Baltimore that will benefit from his elevation.)

The one electrifying moment in more than two hours of inaugural ritual yesterday came when newly elected council member Harry "Tommy" Thomas (Ward 5) paid tribute to and embraced Barry, who was so moved that he wept, leaning into the loving comfort of longtime adversary Carol Schwartz (At Large).

Thomas, son of the late longtime council member Harry Thomas Sr., spoke elliptically of the importance of family ties and leadership. He talked about "Team Thomas," the family campaign operation that has persisted through generations. He was talking about the kind of political machinery that extends beyond a single campaign season, and he knew at that moment to pay his respects to Barry.

Because in this city, it matters who your posse is, and Mayor Fenty is still recruiting his. He'd better move fast -- the campaign is over.

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