Bloomberg and Fenty: More in common than you might think

By Mike DeBonis
Friday, August 20, 2010; B02

The Big City Mayors Club held a summit meeting Tuesday.

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, amid a kingmaking endorsement tour, rolled into town to offer his imprimatur to fellow mayor-cum-municipal-CEO Adrian M. Fenty.

Fenty basked in the approval of a politico he's sought to emulate from his earliest days. This is the guy who packed an Acela train car full of city officials and toted them up to New York in 2006 to show them what Big City Mayors do, the guy who tore walls out of a Wilson Building office suite to re-create Bloomberg's "bullpen."

"Mayor Bloomberg, along with Mayor [Richard M. Daley] in Chicago, represents, I think, the standard of a well-run, highly responsive, efficient manager running a city government like a private-sector business," Fenty said, minutes after Bloomberg told D.C. residents they're "really lucky to have this guy."

Bloomberg, of course, is just really lucky to still be in office after his last election.

What was meant to be a showcase for two politicians who have hammered bureaucracies into lean, 21st-century machines was also a showcase for two politicos who no longer enjoy the overwhelming popularity they once did.

Like Fenty today, Bloomberg and his war chest faced an underfinanced and underestimated opponent last year, beating Democrat Bill Thompson by less than five points.

The similarities are there for the picking: Fenty and Bloomberg are both viewed as prickly personalities who won political office as outsiders. Thompson was a well-liked political establishment figure who pledged to "represent all New Yorkers," much as Fenty foe Vincent C. Gray is running on his "one city" mantra.

Both Fenty and Bloomberg made early moves to take over city schools, each convinced that they, through force of will, would create progress where so many had failed. Both saw early gains in test scores, but both have the local media questioning the accuracy of their vast educational claims after recent retreats.

Where Mayor Mike alienated the electorate thanks mostly to pushing through an exception to city term limits to grant himself a third term, Fenty's political near-death experience comes thanks to more than one issue. And Bloomberg was a man willing to spend whatever it took, and he could do it out of his own pocket -- more than $100 million. Perhaps most important, he's also more self-possessed, more willing to use his mayoral swagger to cajole, convince and lead.

The city hall reporters on hand Tuesday quietly grumbled about how a flock of national media had shown up to question Bloomberg on the controversial mosque proposed for near the World Trade Center site. But their responses to those queries demonstrated the gulf between the Bloomberg and Fenty versions of big-city mayoring.

Bloomberg delivered an impassioned defense of the project, couched in an appeal to our higher principles, our better selves.

Fenty punted: "I'm going to defer to the mayor on anything specific to New York. But we certainly do support organizations being able to participate in the religious freedom that every other organization has been able to do so here in the city."

Fenty is certainly capable of speaking from the heart. The one time this reporter heard Fenty deliver a speech, an oration worthy of the word, was when he signed the bill legalizing gay marriage.

Fenty had been sphinxlike on the issue as the bill made its way through the D.C. Council. The bill's chief proponent, David A. Catania, fairly had to beg Fenty to hold a signing at all.

When he did, however, it was stirring. He cited his parents' interracial relationship, a rare personal note. "My parents know a little something about marriage equality," Fenty said, adding that D.C. would "set the tone for other jurisdictions to follow in creating an open and inclusive city."

But otherwise, his public events are considered oddly desultory affairs. His statements appeal to results and rationality rather than speaking to his passion or principles.

In a minute-long commercial released this week, the only time Fenty betrays the hint of a smile is in delivering his final line: "Results are non-negotiable!"

One similarity between the two: Bloomberg made reform of public transportation a cornerstone of his reelection campaign. Fenty told The Post's editorial board that he "hopes to work with the governors of Virginia and Maryland to improve Metro management and service."

But the Bloombergian magic Fenty needs to appropriate doesn't involve buses or bullpens -- it's his ability to stay in office.

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