D.C. Mayor's Race

Nickles thrives in role as protector and enforcer

By Mike DeBonis and Nikita Stewart
Friday, September 10, 2010

When a young Adrian M. Fenty and his brothers were forbidden by their parents to consume meat, salt and sugar, they could count on family friend Peter Nickles to loosen that nutritional regime.

Nickles, like the indulgent uncle, had Sugar Pops cereal.

Their bond has only grown through the years. When Fenty embarked on a law career, his father asked Nickles to "watch out" for him. As an adult, when Fenty needed legal advice, Nickles represented him. And when Fenty became mayor, he turned to Nickles to be his general counsel and, later, attorney general.

Nickles, 71, has become Fenty's protector and enforcer. No other official so enjoys the trust of the 39-year-old mayor, which, combined with the authority of his office, has made him the most powerful unelected official in District government, eclipsing Fenty's deputy mayors and city administrators.

He has been called everything from Fenty's godfather to "consigliere" to "vice mayor," a gibe that he is the Richard B. Cheney to Fenty's George W. Bush. His supporters say he has harnessed the bureaucracy to bring needed change to the city. Critics say he has interpreted laws and policies in Fenty's favor and mishandled some cases. Both question whether he has contributed to the mayor's poor approval rating.

Though not as prominent as Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, he has also become an issue in Fenty's reelection campaign. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Fenty's chief opponent in Tuesday's Democratic primary, called for Nickles's firing in July after a series of escalating conflicts. In turn, Nickles, who made a successful career of suing the city, has raised questions about Gray's leadership as director of the Department of Human Services in the 1990s. His tenure has been so controversial that the D.C. Council pushed a long-sought referendum for an elected attorney general onto November's general election ballot.

"I think Peter Nickles is destructive," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), a Gray supporter who often criticizes Nickles and Fenty. "You don't have to antagonize everyone to do it [the job]. But that's what he does."

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he has appreciated Nickles as "a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners litigator," crediting him with helping to save United Medical Center in Southeast Washington and defending the council's gay-marriage legislation.

But he sees the other side. "He has become the de facto spokesman for the mayor, which some have viewed as politicizing the position," said Catania, who has not made a mayoral endorsement. "Some have raised the concern that there's a conflict between what's in the mayor's interests and what's in the city's interest."

Says Nickles, "I am completely apolitical."

A stellar resume

When he introduced himself to council members after Fenty's mayoral election, Nickles impressed many with his stellar resume - Princeton, Harvard Law, 35 years as a Covington & Burling partner, the D.C. Bar Association's pro bono attorney of the year - the last given for his known work suing the city on behalf of neglected mental patients, prison inmates and others.

Less known was Nickles's close relationship with Fenty, one that began when his parents met Nickles while vacationing in Maine in 1970 - while Jan Fenty was pregnant with the future mayor.

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