In City Brimming With Black Talent, Fenty's Cabinet Lacks Color

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty says people don't ask about the color of his appointments.
Mayor Adrian M. Fenty says people don't ask about the color of his appointments. (Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

By now, you'd think D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty would be feeling the heat. When a black mayor takes the helm of a majority-black city and starts replacing black Cabinet officials with white ones, you'd expect him to get at least some static.

Not Fenty. He appoints a white police chief. Good reception. Names a white fire chief. Cool. White city administrator. Hailed as one of the best. School chancellor is Korean American. He's thinking outside the box.

"When I'm out in the community, like I was out in the Bloomingdale neighborhood last night, people don't ask me about the race or gender of the people I appoint," Fenty (D) told me yesterday. "Most people are telling me that they want officers walking the beat, more aggressive community policing and reductions in crime. Nine out of 10 people I meet want the schools fixed. They are not asking for one type of person for the job -- the issue is getting the job done."

Fenty, 36, is fast emerging as the District's first black mayor who is not particularly race conscious. (His predecessor, Anthony A. Williams (D), was not regarded as a black mayor so much as an oddball wizard who could turn red ink into greenbacks.) Fenty, by contrast, moves about the city like an old-fashioned ward boss, brim of his black hat turned down on his bald head, showing up on front porches just to see how folks are doing -- all the while sending a message that as long as the city's top dog is black, nobody has to worry about his subordinates being white.

So far, it seems to be working.

"People are inclined to give him running room," said Jim Hudson, a lawyer who served as an adviser to Walter Washington, a black man who was the District's first elected mayor in modern times. "Yes, his perception of race is different. Then again, he's from a different generation, comfortable working with people across a wide spectrum, more trusting of whites than some of the older residents who grew up during racial segregation. There's something about him that makes people think he can deliver."

Nevertheless, some of the new mayor's moves can be downright bewildering. In a city overflowing with first-rate black lawyers, Fenty -- himself a graduate of Howard law -- appoints a white man and a white woman to the city's top two legal posts -- legal counsel and attorney general, the latter of whom is neither an experienced litigator or even a member of the D.C. Bar Association. Surely, I suggested to him, some of his more qualified classmates were wondering whether he'd forgotten where he came from. Howard University, after all, had once been the national center for legal action on civil rights, and the civil rights struggle is not over.

"I'm not saying that no one in the world thinks those thoughts, but maybe because I'm mayor, people will not come up and say those words to me," Fenty said. "A lot of guys I went to Howard law school with are working on a lot of different things, and we've got a ton of Howard graduates in my administration, African American men in their 30s and 40s -- my chief of staff among them."

But let's face it: Chief of staff is not the same as chief of police.

A bit of history: Under white rule in postwar Washington, black District residents suffered from the twin evils of neglect and tyranny. Changing the status quo was a monumental struggle waged by fair-minded blacks and whites alike. And after a mere 30-odd years of trying to restructure a government that was designed to oppress blacks, some now fret that progress is grinding to a halt. Worse yet, to them it appears that a black hand is helping turn back the clock.

Of course, almost no one will say this publicly -- even though Fenty knows the feelings are there.

"I'm not naive," he said. "But having grown up in the city, having seen years of a school system not working and a police department being inconsistent and the budget unbalanced, I believe that the average citizen is concerned foremost with getting the services they deserve."

In other words, beware of playing the race card with him; he's got one, too, and it cuts.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company