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Missteps in Crash's Aftermath Dull Fenty's Luster

By Jonathan Mummolo and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 3, 2009

With shouts of "Praise the Lord!" more than 1,000 worshipers flooded a Baptist church in the District on Tuesday to honor Dennis Hawkins, one of nine people killed in the Red Line train crash last month. But when Pastor A. Michael Black introduced the next speaker listed in the program -- someone from "Executive Office of the Mayor" -- a worried hush swept over the sanctuary.

No one came forward.

A day later, a sort of instant replay occurred at the funeral for crash victim Veronica DuBose when the minister's call for an aide to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to speak was again met with no reply. The aide had apparently left the church.

The deadliest crash in Metro's 33-year history -- one that traumatized the D.C. area and hobbled its transportation network -- has also been politically troublesome for Fenty (D). In the initial hours after the crash, he was criticized for over-managing and mishandling information, in particular when he maintained that there were seven fatalities instead of the nine that other authorities had confirmed.

In the days that followed, the mayor and his staff were noticeably absent from a string of memorials, funerals and wakes. Seven of the nine people who died were D.C. residents. Fenty showed up at services for train operator Jeanice McMillan, but he was an hour late and was wearing a light-colored summer suit that some said was inappropriate.

The absences are all the more stark for a mayor who has built his political career on seemingly being everywhere at all times and has enjoyed a reputation as an energetic, attentive public servant. But that golden image has been tarnished in the past few weeks as he is increasingly being forced to defend his actions before animated critics on the D.C. Council and elsewhere.

In May, the 38-year-old mayor apologized for allowing a friend to drive his city-issued Lincoln Navigator, which is prohibited by city law. Fenty has also deflected criticism about the $75,000 installation of a heater at an outdoor city-owned pool he uses to train for his triathlons. For weeks earlier this year, he was criticized for refusing to hand over Washington Nationals tickets that had been earmarked for the D.C. Council. In February, Fenty took a week-long trip with his family to Dubai, paid for by the government of the United Arab Emirates. He did not disclose the trip until he returned.

The mayor's handling of the Metro crash comes at a time when resentment toward him is an increasing topic of discussion on neighborhood e-mail lists and community activists are grumbling that he's losing touch.

"These are the kinds of things people remember: Where were you?" said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a longtime Fenty supporter who said he has been dismayed by the mayor's actions after the crash. "There is no substitute for hands-on, personally touching a family."

For Black, the pastor at Hawkins's service, the apparent snub at the funeral was a "disgrace" and "distasteful." Black, a pastor in Richmond and a close friend of Hawkins's, said Fenty's office had confirmed that someone would speak at the funeral. "I think it's a lack of respect for the family," he said.

Asked where the mayor was at the time of the various services, spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Fenty had been "on a personal trip with his family." She said there had been misunderstandings with those who thought someone from the mayor's office planned to speak at the funerals. The standard procedure for the services was to deliver a condolence letter, she said.

Hobson declined to comment on the mayor's overall political fortunes. In previous interviews, Fenty has said he knows that he cannot please every constituent all the time, but that every incident is a learning experience. He is up for reelection next year.

Hobson outlined the city's efforts to assist and console all the families, beginning with a call from Fenty and his staff shortly after the accident and the delivery of fruit baskets to their homes. He visited the homes of DuBose, 29, LaVonda "Nikki" King, 23, and 37-year-old Cameron Williams, Hobson said. Staffers have also hand-delivered condolence letters to families on behalf of the mayor, Hobson said.

In addition, staffers have helped families with parking arrangements and other logistics surrounding services. Fenty also wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador to expedite the visa applications of the parents of victim Ana Fernandez so that they could help her six children grieve.

But those largely private efforts aren't enough, community activists and friends of victims said. The city's highest-ranking executive, or one of his representatives, should have been there to share in the communal grief, they said.

"It is always appropriate for a . . . spokesman to speak and offer their condolences in a tragic accident such as this," said Peter Rosenstein, a gay rights advocate who served as chairman of an issue committee for Fenty's 2006 campaign.

Fenty toppled a longtime council member in 2000 by promising more attention to residents. In his 2006 race for mayor, he won every precinct in a competitive Democratic primary after knocking on thousands of doors across the District.

After he was elected, he continued to show up at countless community meetings, often with an entourage to answer concerns. However, longtime supporters say that during the past year he has been less responsive.

"The mayor can't be everywhere, every time, but that is a precedent he has set," Lynch said.

Consternation about what would become a succession of absences began Monday when Fenty did not appear at the memorial service for Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr. and his wife, Ann. More than 1,000 people, including council members and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), filled the D.C. Armory.

Robert Vinson Brannum, an Air Force retiree and past Fenty critic, said he could not believe that the mayor was not there in person to pay his respects to the Wherleys. David Wherley was the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard from July 2003 to June 2008, putting him in direct contact with the mayor and other city officials.

"The mayor needs to realize that he has responsibilities and duties," Brannum said.

"It is not about Adrian Fenty," he added. "It is about the people of the District of Columbia. The mayor's style, persona, is growing thin across the city, regardless of race and economic status."

Jade Brawley, a teacher in the public school where Hawkins worked, asked, "How hard is it to send a spokesman?"

Brawley, 30, of Northeast Washington said she voted for Fenty the first time around -- having been impressed with his aggressive door-to-door campaigning and youthful energy -- but has since lost confidence in him for a number of reasons. She cited his handling of public school issues and the fight with the D.C. Council over Nationals tickets.

The no-show at Hawkins's funeral, she said, was just "the icing on the cake."

Staff writers Annie Gowen and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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