Inching Into the Public Eye
A Practicing Lawyer, Mayoral Spouse And Mother of Twins, Michelle Fenty Looks for Ways to 'Make a Contribution'

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

This is not the life Michelle Cross Fenty envisioned when she met her future husband at Howard law school in 1994.

A D.C. police cruiser positioned in front of her Crestwood home. Plants uprooted from her backyard garden to her front for security reasons. Serious contemplation about how to have an impact as wife of the mayor of one of the most important cities in the world.

"I thought he would be a lawyer. He would practice. I would practice. We would have a family. That would be it," she said as she watered an array of evergreens and hollies in her spacious back yard.

"It hasn't been too obtrusive," she continued, careful not to get water on her black dress and pink flip-flops. "So far, it's okay. A lot of people still don't know what I look like."

"Until now," chimed in Mafara Hobson, the mayor's spokeswoman, who is ever present at Fenty's side as she wades through a growing tide of media interviews and public events.

Anonymity is not an option when you are married to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a politician whose visibility, whose constant connection to his constituency is not only his persona but also his mission. To get elected, he tried to visit every home, apartment and condo in the city, then won all 142 precincts -- unprecedented in District politics. He has continued that door-to-door style as mayor, scurrying to major happenings from marches to murder scenes.

Michelle Fenty, however, is an enigma, not easily locatable in the District's political landscape. She is an inconspicuous lawyer in a downtown firm. She is seen about town on the mayor's tuxedoed arm at official dinners and galas, but her thoughts on D.C. affairs are little known. In public, she has the elegant reserve of her British upbringing, but close friends see the down-home bonhomie of her Jamaican ancestry. She is not invisible like her immediate predecessor, Diane Williams, nor as politically active as her predecessor, Cora Masters Barry.

Fenty is a private person married to arguably the most public District resident.

Making a Fundraising Splash

Dozens of women clad in expensive florals and pastels, their diamond earrings and pearl bangles sparkling, mingled at a Chevy Chase benefit fashion show. They were supposed to be there for the $1,200 blouses and champagne. But all eyes were on Michelle Fenty, hostess.

The 37-year-old glided about, strikingly sophisticated and sleek with her hair swept into an elaborate bun, her B. Michael design draping a petite figure. Then she'd speak, her British accent unexpected, her Briticisms captivating. "Brilliant!"

"Isn't she beautiful?" mused Dorothy Ford, wife of former representative Harold Ford Sr. (D-Tenn.) and mother of former representative Harold E. Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), as she sipped champagne. "She's flawless. Flawless."

"She's beautiful," agreed a smitten Capi Renoir, events planner for the Saks Jandel boutique, where the Boys & Girls Club benefit was being held. "She's beautiful. I love that British accent. She's just so chic."

Washington's high society is prepared to anoint her the most stylish D.C. first lady ever. There are even comparisons to the original so-chic-and-beautiful first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Renoir, her blond bangs nearly covering her eyes, paused to watch Fenty a second more, then resumed in a heavy French accent. "I love what she represents -- a young, elegant personality. In our world of politics to have someone involved who is so fresh."

As the benefit wound to a close, Fenty reveled in its success, balling her fist as if clutching an invisible microphone and announcing, "I may just run for something."

She was joking.

In the solitude of her garden, Fenty says she has no interest in politics. You will not hear her opine on the school takeover, District voting rights or waterfront development. If you ask, she won't answer. She has never knocked on doors. She has hosted fundraisers, but her participation ends there.

"I don't get involved too much in the politics. I don't think that's my job," she says. "I wouldn't expect my husband to say, 'You shouldn't have written that clause in the contract.' "

So Fenty has decided to use her new status to promote charities, choosing the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington and the Capital Breast Care Center. "They told me how many women were dying of breast cancer in the District -- how could I say no?" Fenty said.

"I'm still trying to find a way to make a contribution," she said.

Fenty reached out to Washington's former first ladies early on, if not for advice, simply to understand the sisterhood.

Each first lady has been different, although two were married to the same man. Each first lady says she made a conscious decision just how caught up she would get in the politics, the charities, the parties, the swirl.

Effi Barry, former mayor Marion Barry's ex-wife who is now battling leukemia, was unflappable, even through the incident in 1990 in which her husband was arrested in a hotel room while smoking crack and fondling a woman. Even though their son was 9 at the time. She simply perfected the stoic smile of a first lady embarrassed by her husband's imperfections.

When Fenty called, Effi Barry said in an interview this spring, her advice for the mother of twins was simple: "You have to put your family first. . . . Remember that this will all be over."

Diane Simmons Williams gave up the mantle Jan. 2, when Anthony A. Williams completed his two terms. Diane Williams made appearances for only the momentous occasions -- the swearing-ins, the inaugural balls. An accountant, she worked with nonprofit groups, and she shunned the media. "By me being low-key and continuing to work, I kept us grounded," she said.

Williams said she has had lunch with Fenty twice at a mutual friend's home but has not shared her philosophy. Fenty did not ask, she said. "I told her, 'If you have any questions, call me,' " Williams said.

Cora Masters Barry, the most active and out-there of the former first ladies, did not wait for Fenty to ask -- she dispensed her own advice. Take it slow, figure out how to use your time wisely, Barry told her.

Barry was at Marion's side during his historic comeback in 1994. A political science professor who had been friends with the mayor for years, she was known for being his protector. She was 48 with grown children, factors she said allowed her to do more than Michelle Fenty can.

"I think you're the first first lady in a long time to have small children," Barry told the new first lady.

Fenty keeps her whirlwind family running via strict routine and rules. Laundry from 6 to 7 p.m. while watering plants. No clothes on the floor. Put things back where they were. "They all know the rules," she says. "Even Adrian."

The household gets going early. The mayor sprints in the dark through Rock Creek Park, footsteps from their home. Fenty gets the 7-year-old boys ready for school. She doesn't believe in nannies; if a sitter is needed, they call on the mayor's mom. Matthew eats croissants, Andrew eats cereal. Fenty, a near-vegetarian, has just coffee. The mayor "will get my coffee, and he'll bring the paper up," she said.

The twins go to a private school, Tots Developmental in Northwest Washington, which ends with third grade. The mayor has said they will go to a public school -- in a crumbling system he has tasked himself with turning around -- after they finish at Tots.

The mayor heads out to be mayor. Fenty heads to Perkins Coie law firm on 14th Street NW, a couple of blocks from city hall. She drives a black Jeep that has a special city license plate numbered "10." "My husband said, 'I'm giving you number 10.' He says I'm a perfect 10," she says, laughing.

Her legal specialty is so complex her own sister can't explain what she does for a living. "She does something that only eight lawyers in the world do," says Athena Cross, 32, a pharmaceutical representative in Brooklyn, N.Y., exaggerating a bit.

Perkins Coie managing partner John Devaney says more than eight lawyers do what Fenty does, but still, "There are just a limited number."

She is a global technology transactional attorney. Translation: Technology is patented, and different countries have different laws; "my job is to write the contracts designed so that they can build systems that can talk to each other," she said. One deal she negotiated was worth $100 million.

Michelle Fenty was earning corporate dollars when Adrian Fenty got started in politics, becoming aide to then-D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7). Today his salary is $200,000 a year; she declines to say what she makes because she is not a public official.

Fenty negotiated a four-day week at her firm to spend more time with her sons as her husband campaigned. It is a schedule that she has kept since he became mayor and is busier than ever.

The boys get home at 7 p.m. after tennis practice each weekday. "I call Adrian and see if he's coming home for dinner," Fenty said. Sometimes he makes it home. Often, he doesn't.

Andrew and Matthew dash to the phone to ask him questions their mother can't answer, such as which channel is showing the game.

"He pretty much has them on Saturdays and Sundays," Fenty says. He takes them to street festivals and other family events where he makes official appearances, and to sporting events.

That's when she goes to yoga, an hour every Saturday. She closes her eyes, hums and relaxes at Brookland Visitor's Center. It is a quiet, private hour that is a contrast with her new life, one she cannot quite control.

Even with the children, the first lady says she now feels obligated to spend nights out at embassy dinners, lunches planning benefits and weekends hosting them. Groups constantly ask her to make appearances and speeches. On Thursday, she was the keynote speaker for the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy benefit.

Fenty does not complain about her new hectic life, but her sister says she can see the toll. "It's been, right now with him as mayor, it's been overwhelming," Cross said. "She likes to have a very private life. . . . In the beginning with Adrian being a council member, it was very different."

There were no charities, few black-tie affairs and no one watching her every move. "Even I'm, like, wow," Cross said. "There are, like, police posted in front of the home."

Giving and Seeking Support

Fenty grew up with two sisters in a three-bedroom apartment in working-class south London, the daughters of Jamaican immigrants. Charlie was a contractor who dabbled as a reggae singer; Annett was an auxiliary nurse.

With three girls, Annett Cross remembers braiding a lot of hair, ice skating and playing board games. "As a little girl, Michelle was a very bright kid," said Cross, 58, who now lives in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood. "She was always writing on walls. If she found a blank space, she would write. She didn't play with a lot of toys."

Their neighborhood of flats was diverse, with Jamaicans, whites and Indians. Michelle ran track, loved Maxi Priest and lip-synced to Shalimar. "Michelle was always doing the right thing all the time," Athena Cross said. "She's very studious. That was always her priority."

When the family eventually moved to New York to join her father's parents, Michelle entered John Jay College of Criminal Justice and decided on a legal career. She chose Howard University School of Law because Howard is a historically black college. "I had never lived around all black people. I wanted to know what that was like," she said. "I just wanted to know what it felt like to not be a minority."

What she found was that people are pretty much the same, no matter their color or ethnicity. "I realized that it wasn't that big of a deal," Fenty said.

She met Adrian Malik Fenty at Howard.

She was a third-year law student, while he was in his first year. He had grown up in Mount Pleasant, with parents Phil and Jan, who still own the Fleet Feet sports shop in Adams Morgan.

"I had probably seen her walking the halls for some time," Adrian Fenty said of Michelle. "I asked her to be my mentor. . . . It was love at first sight."

Michelle Fenty laughs. "He'll say it was love at first sight, but it wasn't."

They shared a love of family, of hard work.

He bought her diamond ring in the jewelry district of New York's Canal Street and proposed in New York. They married in February 1997. They considered a big wedding, but "I'm much too practical for that," Michelle Fenty said. "All the fuss and the expense. We went all the way to Alexandria, Virginia. Old Town."

No, not in a courthouse. "It was much more glamorous. It was in an attorney's office," she said, joking.

Adrian Fenty had always been a political observer, had helped with campaigns and was an activist in the 16th Street Neighborhood Association, but Michelle Fenty did not foresee what would happen two years later. He became a candidate himself, outsmarting longtime D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, representing Ward 4. After one term, he wanted to be mayor.

He says that each time he decided to take a bigger step in politics, he talked to his wife. "There was a conversation," he said.

And Fenty stood by his decisions. Her mother and sister describe her as a loyal spouse. "She knows she has to do what she has to do," her mother said. "She's going to support Adrian in whatever he does."

Michelle Fenty visited Cora Barry on a recent afternoon at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, a community center that has become a haven for inner-city youths. The tennis center was Barry's biggest accomplishment as first lady.

Barry gave Fenty a tour of the classrooms and courts and then led her to a pavilion for tea with two tennis champions. A table was elegantly decorated with a cloth of lavender and purple flowers. Scones and biscotti were served.

"You're English. It's teatime," Barry said. "I'm not much of a tea person, so you'll have to show me how to do it."

Fenty said, "I just like the plain English tea."

"I don't even like tea," said the matter-of-fact Barry.

"That's okay. You don't have to. It's an acquired taste," Fenty said politely as she added sugar and milk.

As the women talked, workers snapped photographs. Fenty's bodyguard stood quietly a few feet away, a reminder that she was not just having afternoon tea. This was official first lady business.

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