D.C. mayor's blunt style both an asset and a liability

Federal safety official Deborah Hersman, D.C. Council member Jim Graham and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty after June's fatal Metro crash.
Federal safety official Deborah Hersman, D.C. Council member Jim Graham and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty after June's fatal Metro crash. (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart and Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 29, 2009

The mayor's friends and advisers pleaded with him to bend. His refusal, they worried, made him look petty and threatened to undermine his relations with the District's political establishment.

But Adrian M. Fenty wouldn't budge. He held onto the Washington Nationals tickets that were intended for D.C. Council members as part of the city's deal to build a stadium for Major League Baseball. For a month, Fenty (D) refused to distribute them or explain why he wouldn't. When he relinquished the tickets in May, the mayor had made his point, telling confidants that he would cede nothing to his opponents, even on the most trivial of matters.

When he ran for mayor, Fenty came across to many Washingtonians as a grass-roots populist, his ceaseless door-to-door campaigning promising that his administration would be devoted to inclusion, accountability and bureaucratic transparency. Supporters hoped Fenty would be the antidote to Anthony A. Williams, his accomplished but often inscrutable predecessor who seemed aloof to some residents.

But in recent months, a different image of Fenty has emerged, with some erstwhile supporters saying he has been arrogant, combative and secretive in a series of decisions, from delaying disclosure of a family trip to Dubai to handing control of millions of dollars in construction projects to a mayoral friend.

The mayor's office declined requests for a formal interview for this article and asked that questions be directed to Fenty as he left a recent news conference. Told of the criticism from former supporters, Fenty said: "I take it very seriously, I respect everyone's opinion. We've made a lot of tough decisions. That's part of being mayor of a big city."

He said complaints that his administration lacks transparency are "generalizations."

A year before he faces voters in his search for a second term, Fenty has $3 million in his campaign treasury and no formidable opponent. The District's crime rate has dropped, and school test scores have improved. Although the recession has forced many mayors to slash services, Fenty has had to make only minimal cuts.

To his loyalists, including current and former aides, Fenty, 38, is the same as he was when a council member from Ward 4, an energetic loner obsessed with satisfying constituents and uninterested in the niceties of politics.

Supporters say that approach has allowed Fenty to be an action mayor: He forced the taxi industry to change from a zoned to metered fare system. He remade the face of the public schools with a sweeping modernization program. He rehabbed ballfields and opened recreation centers.

Fenty's detractors, including some once-enthusiastic supporters, acknowledge his achievements but question his methods. Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan community leader, went trolling for votes with Fenty during the 2006 campaign, served as a precinct captain and became teary-eyed as he watched the candidate declare victory. Three years later, Weaver said he is disappointed in the mayor's performance and has no plans to help his next campaign.

"We had a vision that he would be transformative, young and energetic, open and transparent," Weaver said. "There would be no backroom deals, and he would take on larger issues that had held the city back."

Weaver said he has been turned off by Fenty's spats with the council, allegations of cronyism and the administration's reluctance to explain policy decisions, such as his schools chancellor's firing of some teachers and principals. "There are still elements of the old machine politics," he said. "It's just got a shinier chassis."

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