Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic primary for D.C. mayor

In a conversation with editorial writer Jo-Ann Armao, Mayor Adrian Fenty talks about the challenges of his reelection campaign and his goals of improving D.C. schools, Metro transportation and affordable housing.
Sunday, August 1, 2010

MAYOR ADRIAN M. FENTY swept into office four years ago vowing to take on the District's most daunting problems. The city had made progress during the eight-year mayorship of Anthony A. Williams (D), but the public schools were still the worst in the nation, crime remained high and government struggled to deliver basic services. Mr. Fenty attacked these challenges with his trademark energy and an almost intimidating single-mindedness. He has delivered: The District of Columbia today is a better place to live and work than it was four years ago. It is for that reason that we enthusiastically endorse Mr. Fenty in the Democratic primary for mayor. He should have another four years to entrench the progress he has made.

Mr. Fenty's chief rival in the Sept. 14 primary, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, is a devoted and sober-minded public servant; the other candidates are Ernest E. Johnson, Leo Alexander and Sulaimon Brown. In government and the nonprofit world, Mr. Gray has been a champion for the city's most vulnerable citizens. As chairman of the council for the past four years, he has worked tirelessly to reach out to people and build consensus on key issues.

But Mr. Gray's campaign for mayor seems driven more by animus toward Mr. Fenty, and his style of governing, than by any agenda of his own. Instead of a substantive program, he offers the pledge of "one city." Visitors to his Web site are invited to check back later for his plans in areas such as public safety. On the city's most pressing issue -- reform of the troubled schools -- Mr. Gray is alarmingly vague. He promises a cradle-to-college approach to schooling but offers little hint where the money would come from; he refuses to say whether he would try to retain Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, though he spent much of his tenure as chairman criticizing her.

There is no such ambiguity in Mr. Fenty and his take-charge, do-it-now approach. Four years ago, when we first endorsed Mr. Fenty, we noted that the scale of the problems facing the city required a leader who wouldn't play it safe. Mr. Fenty has not disappointed, displaying the political fortitude to make unpopular but sound decisions, from mandating meters in taxicabs to closing underutilized schools. The courage he showed in fighting for mayoral control of the public schools -- and then standing behind Ms. Rhee unflinchingly -- cannot be overstated. Imagine any other incumbent allowing his schools chief to fire hundreds of underperforming employees just weeks away from an election that will decide his political future.

Most important, that dedication has delivered results: Schools are improving. Test scores are up, student enrollment has stabilized, an innovative teachers contract is being implemented and school buildings have never been in better shape. For thousands of children whose futures depend on the District's schools, it would be tragic to slow down now.

Nor has progress been limited to the schools. The Fenty administration is peopled with top-flight talents who are getting results. Mr. Fenty's appointment of Cathy L. Lanier as police chief was greeted with widespread skepticism, but the success of her crime-fighting strategies has made her a popular neighborhood figure. There have been similar success stories in transportation, AIDS policy, economic development and key social service agencies; even the long-maligned Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is getting good reviews for improved services. Crime is down and the population is up; people want to move back into the city. Notwithstanding claims to the contrary, Mr. Fenty has invested in every part of the District, from his mobilization to rebuild Eastern Market to the unprecedented number of new libraries and recreation centers east of the Anacostia River.

He has made mistakes. Some were just silly, such as his refusal to share baseball tickets with D.C. Council members. His political enemies have overblown others, such as the fuss over the planned donation to the Dominican Republic of a fire truck that turned out to be virtually worthless. However, secrecy about his travels, an almost pathological unwillingness to consult outside his inner circle and the awarding of a few suspect contracts to friends raise unsettling questions about his judgment. Like many others, we've wondered why the mayor would allow stubbornness to endanger the good work being done by his administration. We understand that Mr. Fenty's determination to shake up the status quo was bound to provoke antagonism. But you don't have to be aloof or highhanded to move fast.

Still, Mr. Fenty has taken the city forward in a remarkable way -- and, maybe even more remarkably, his vision for a second term is as clear, sensible and substantive as it was for his first. His top second-term priority is the same as his top first-term priority, and rightly so: improving the city's schools -- and, yes, Ms. Rhee would stay. Meanwhile, Mr. Fenty would seek to continue progress in public safety and services to residents. He is unhappy that he didn't have time in his first term to do more on public housing, and he talks movingly about the need to fix a situation where people languish for years on housing waiting lists. As further evidence of his willingness to wade into rough political waters, Mr. Fenty says that he hopes to work with the governors of Virginia and Maryland to improve Metro management and service. It is the one aspect of city life, Mr. Fenty notes, that has deteriorated during his term.

Washington is fortunate this year to have a choice between two able politicians of integrity. But it is also, in our view, an easy choice. Four years ago, Mr. Fenty laid out a clear and well-thought-out agenda; he then proceeded, to a degree unusual at any level of government, to do precisely what he had said he would do. Those who believe the District is headed in the right direction should maintain that momentum with a vote for Adrian Fenty.

Have a different view? Debate the editorial board here on Friday, July 30.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company