Where D.C. Mayor Fenty went wrong

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 4, 2010

It started with Linda Singer.

Her appointment as D.C. attorney general in January 2007 was the first decision by incoming Mayor Adrian Fenty to raise eyebrows in grocery stores, beauty parlors, barbershops and churches where black Washingtonians congregate.

Why, it was asked, would Fenty appoint Singer, the head of a national network of nonprofit organizations, to be the city's top lawyer? Despite working and living in the District for 13 years, she had never practiced law or even bothered to join the D.C. bar.

Singer, a 40-year-old white Harvard Law School graduate, was running the well-regarded organization Appleseed when Fenty offered her the job. (Full disclosure: I received D.C. Appleseed's lifetime achievement award in 2008.) Fenty campaign supporters now claim that his appointments have been almost universally top-drawer. There was nothing in Singer's background to warrant her elevation to D.C. attorney general over the large number of more experienced and well-qualified black D.C. lawyers.

The fact that Singer resigned within the year to be replaced by Fenty's general counsel, Peter J. Nickles -- who had preempted her anyway by making key legal decisions for the city -- spoke to her job readiness.

The Singer decision was just a start.

The District is a multiracial and multicultural city that should have top public officials who reflect the city they govern.

Within his first six months as mayor, Fenty replaced African Americans with non-black people in four of the city's most high-profile jobs: city administrator, police chief, fire chief and schools chief, according to a July 3, 2007, Post story. "Among those who hold arguably the 10 most influential positions" The Post reported, "only one . . . is black."

The Post wasn't telling African American residents anything they hadn't already noticed and taken to heart. The questions they asked repeatedly: To whom is Fenty talking? Whom is he listening to? Why is he doing this?

Fenty supporters who wonder why he has fallen so low in the eyes of "his people" (as his wife Michelle tearfully put it after this week's Post-sponsored debate) need to recall the way he went about creating his administration -- and his thinly veiled contempt for people in the community who questioned his decisions, including members of the D.C. Council. That is, until recently, after dismal poll results came in, and he started making nice.

To excuse his behavior and raise his standing among disenchanted African American voters, Fenty now says he was trying to make policy changes so fast that he didn't realize he was making "mistakes."

Would that that were so. He had plenty of warning.

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