Mayor's Birthday Bash Short On Splash

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 8, 2007

To celebrate his 37th birthday, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wanted a celebration befitting a populist mayor thanking his faithful electorate.

Fenty (D) reserved a 5,000-person ballroom at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, ordered up huge plates of hors d'oeuvres, hired go-go legend Chuck Brown to provide the music and invited 10,000 city residents, sending printed invitations and reminding them with robo-calls.

But when the doors opened Thursday night, partygoers were met with all the atmosphere of a bad high school dance.

Throughout the evening, the ballroom remained less than one-fifth full, with hundreds of empty seats lined up row after row. Those who did show up mostly sat around wondering what to do as three gigantic television screens hanging from the ceiling played a slideshow of Fenty photos.

"What's going on?" wondered Bessie Crosson, a Ward 4 resident. She was sitting alone at a table for 10 in one of several sparsely populated areas roped off for senior citizens. "I came for the party, but I don't see a lot of people."

To be fair, the weather was miserable, and the Redskins were playing. But last year, during the swell of excitement over Fenty's landslide election, the mayor's birthday bash at the St. Colleta special education school was shoulder-to-shoulder; his inaugural ball in January was so crowded -- 15,000 guests -- that people complained they couldn't sit down and the food ran out.

A year later, might the mayor not be quite the draw he used to be?

No, said George Worrell, who coordinated the party with $200,000 in private donations left over from Fenty's inauguration. Worrell said the mayor wanted to be sure they did not run out of space and food this year.

"We didn't want to run out this time," Worell said. So they planned large -- perhaps too large.

Among those who showed up were six of the 13 members of the D.C. Council, a sprinkling of business leaders and city agency directors, a few hundred senior citizens, some students, civic activists, some of the mayor's fraternity brothers, and Fenty's wife, parents and twin sons.

Fenty worked the room, signing autographs and taking pictures with partygoers. After the Duke Ellington School of the Arts choir had warmed up the crowd, Fenty took the stage and said: "It isn't always that you get an opportunity to come together at an event strictly to have a good time. . . . I can't thank the citizens of the District of Columbia enough. Give yourselves a round of applause."

It wasn't until Brown and his band finally took the mic -- with 15 minutes left in the two-hour party -- that people seemed to loosen up. The students rushed the dance floor and snapped pictures with their cellphones. At one point, Brown dragged Fenty on-stage to sing, though the mayor shifted awkwardly with his hands in his pants pockets.

Still, most of the crowd remained at the sparsely populated tables or milled around in the back of the hall. Robert Corbitt, a business consultant from Ward 4, who was sitting alone said his wife had refused to come because she expected a repeat of the inaugural ball, when she had to stand for hours in high heels.

"I came out to see people, be social, but there's not as many people this time," said Corbitt. But he saw the bright side. "Until you've seen Chuck Brown play live, you haven't gotten a real flavor of this city."

Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company