Color of Cabinet Has Fenty on the Defensive

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, center, with his pick for schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, beside him. She is set to become the city's first non-black schools chief in 40 years.
D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, center, with his pick for schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, beside him. She is set to become the city's first non-black schools chief in 40 years. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By David Nakamura, Yolanda Woodlee and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Michelle A. Rhee thought she knew the type of candidate Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wanted when he sought her recommendation two months ago for a chancellor to lead the D.C. public schools.

"I said, 'I assume you want an African American?' " Rhee recalled asking a mayoral aide. Just the best person for the job, she was told.

Fenty ultimately decided that the right person was Rhee, a Korean American who is poised to become the city's first non-black schools chief in nearly 40 years. Yesterday, parents and educators praised Rhee during her confirmation hearing, but her appointment surprised many residents.

Since taking office six months ago, Fenty (D) has replaced African Americans with non-black people in four of the city's highest-profile jobs: city administrator, police chief, fire chief and schools chief. Among those who hold arguably the 10 most influential positions, five are white, three are of Asian descent and one is Latino. Only one -- Neil O. Albert, the deputy mayor for planning and economic development -- is black.

In a city that is 57 percent black and has a predominantly black government workforce, the mayor's choices have not escaped criticism.

In dozens of interviews, residents, particularly African Americans, said they are concerned that Fenty's choices have created a Cabinet that does not reflect the city it governs. They also said he has made many of his appointments in virtual isolation, consulting few city leaders or residents.

"How can there be a scarcity of blacks for positions in the city with the most qualified black people in the world?" asked Carlos M. O'Kieffe Sr., 63, a black Ward 4 resident who voted for Fenty. "If you can't find qualified black people in Washington, D.C. . . . it makes me wonder: How hard did he really search?"

At the same time, many say they will give Fenty time to improve schools, make the city safer and solve a social class divide.

"You let the king make his appointments," said Albert "Butch" Hopkins, the black president of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. "If they work out, everything is fine."

As to the racial makeup of his inner circle, Fenty points out that he has appointed black directors to lead critical city agencies, including transportation, public works and the sports commission. Of 48 appointees, 21 are black.

"I look at my entire Cabinet and I absolutely see people who are African American. I see Asians. I see Latinos, Indian Americans, Caucasians," Fenty said. "I think that's what people would want to see in cabinets. They want to see themselves in it. I've tried very hard to do so."


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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