Some Question Value of Fenty's Devotion to Visibility

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

It was a busy day in the District.

The city was filing a Supreme Court brief in its gun-control case, National Public Radio was planning to relocate its headquarters and congressional leaders were touring the Washington Nationals' stadium.

Within hours, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty held news conferences at a government office in Northwest Washington, a commercial building in Northeast and the ballpark in Southeast.

The next day, he was at it again, this time holding a briefing so reporters could watch him plant cherry trees.

Big news or small, Fenty (D) will show up somewhere to talk about it. His goal is to hold at least one news conference a day, and, since Jan. 1, he has staged more than 60 media briefings. They have included curbside updates in the wake of breaking news and more choreographed neighborhood-based announcements with invited audiences.

The public seems to love it. Everywhere Fenty goes, people say they appreciate having the mayor at their fingertips, in their neighborhoods. But his critics, primarily political rivals and activists, say Fenty's style is manipulation by a brash, young mayor who wants to create the image of a dynamic leader, an executive in motion. Government by press conference, his critics call it.

Fenty calls it doing his job, getting the word out and moving the city forward. His communications approach is part of a governing strategy he developed before taking office, during a tour to meet mayors of other big cities. After speaking with New York's Michael R. Bloomberg (I), Chicago's Richard M. Daley (D) and San Francisco's Gavin Newsom (D), Fenty said he was impressed with their willingness to get around town and be available to reporters. It is not uncommon for those mayors to have multiple briefings each week.

Fenty has honed an aggressive strategy of his own. The Fenty playbook goes something like this: Hold briefings in neighborhoods or city buildings, the better to mingle with residents and employees. Stick to the script, rarely go off-message. And keep tight reins on deputies, who must attend when summoned but are discouraged from announcing news on their own.

"I'm not sure that volume makes up for quality presentation," said Mary Levy, who monitors D.C. school reform for the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. "I go for detail, and one is not going to get detail at a mayoral press conference. It looks to me like spin. It's a way of controlling the communications."

Fenty scoffs at such criticism. A key role for a mayor is to let residents know what their government is doing for them, he said.

"We're trying to make sure we accomplish as much as humanly possible and notify people about it," Fenty said after announcing the opening of a Best Buy store in Columbia Heights. It marked his third appearance in two weeks at the new mall, where he had already announced Target's opening and, days later, participated in a ribbon-cutting.

Spokeswoman Carrie Brooks said Fenty's initial game plan was to make at least one public appearance each day to which media would be invited. Over time, however, Fenty decided to be more proactive and make a daily announcement, Brooks said. Last month, the mayor added two publicists to the communications office, bringing the staff to five.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company