Monday, Jan. 14, 2 p.m. ET

Mayor Fenty's First Year

During D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's first year he established the building blocks for his administration, while simultaneously responding to many unexpected challenges.
David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer David Nakamura was online Monday, Jan. 14 at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the results of a poll about Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty's first year in office.

A transcript follows.


David Nakamura: Hi all, hope you were able to read the results of our poll, which shows Mayor Fenty still enjoys fairly broad support, including an overall approval rating of 72 percent. One of the most interesting findings, however, is that while 56 percent of DC residents appear to think the city is headed in the right direction, that figure varies greatly when the poll was crosstabbed by race. In fact, 74 percent of whites, but just 45 percent of blacks think so. This racial divide has persisted for years and is not unique to Mayor Fenty.


SE, D.C.: Though I do not like the results of your survey, I do not doubt the numbers. However, what your survey cannot discern is people in tune with issues versus those that are merely aware of them. As one in touch with the school situation, I am fed up with Fenty and Rhee. Quite honestly, from the day they hired her, I have been skeptical of this effort. I am not against DCPS reform, but DCPS reform needs a seasoned effort. these folks are making major errors and gaffes, all the way back to copying another state's plans verbatim. It's like Fenty had the perfect opportunity to bring folks together, and he is in essence dividing us all over again.

David Nakamura: This is a good question in that our poll sampled 1,000 randomly selected adult residents of D.C. It is clear that not all of them are in touch with local issues; 2 out of 10 did not know which ward they lived in. Having covered the mayor's office for a year now, I would generally say that activists have mixed reactions to the mayor and much stronger reactions than lay people. They have been angered at times by what they see as Fenty's penchant for making decisions with little direct input from stakeholders. Today, for instance, parents are speaking out against the school closings plan at the Council hearing. And Thursday, parents will have another chance at the 23 community meetings/hearings the Fenty administration is holding. School closings are always controversial and there is going to be pain involved whenever a community school is shuttered. That said, I don't see Fenty-Rhee changing their minds. Rhee got a 59 percent approval rating in the poll.


D.C.: Pardon my ignorance, but besides trying to fix the school system, what has Fenty accomplished? It just seems like it's been status quo.

David Nakamura: I'm not Fenty's publicist, but I think he would point to his installation of a new police chief, Cathy Lanier, and new fire chief, Dennis Rubin, as showing that he intends to push those agencies to rethink how they do business. Rubin is charged with fixing the broken emergency management services department, which was in the news last year after the city botched the response to the mugging of a New York Times reporter, among other cases. Fenty also took greater control of the city's planning agencies, dismantling the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. and the National Capitol Revitalization Corp. He has set himself up to make his markn known over the next three years by consolidating his authority, but the harder work is still to come.


Washington, D.C.: The recent Washington Post report detailing a study that ranked D.C. Schools as dead last in the nation seems to have quieted Michelle Rhee's critics almost instantly. Do you think this reaction has legs or do you think people will be complaining about her aggressive actions in a few weeks?

David Nakamura: It's no secret that the city's schools are among the worst in the nation. The study you mention should have the caveat that the city's schools ranked worst among the 51 "states," but, since DC is not a state, but just a single urban system, that is a tad unfair to compare them to other states, which have a mix of school systems and student populations. But I think that school activists and parents will continue to have concerns as the Fenty-Rhee team moves forward. Change is never easy, especially in such a broken system. Whether it's school closings or personnel firings, the moves the administration makes are sure to anger some.


Washington, D.C.: I see Fenty as just more of the same kind of governing mediocrity. He turns out to have been a faux populist and that is disappointing to someone who's lived in the city 25 years, makes less than $75,000 and cannot afford any type of decent housing. It's just the same old developer-centric policies that I'm seeing. Nothing creative, no action even on the affordable housing initiative. And then come to find out The Post LOVES HIM. Loves.

David Nakamura: Fenty's marks on affordable housing were the lowest in the poll: only 27 percent approved of his work in that area. As for "the Post" loving him, our editorial page has mostly been supportive of him in the first year; but remember that the news pages are independent of the editorial page. And the editorial page hit him just today on his decision to hold 23 public hearings on Thursday night to hear from the community on school closings, instead of one big hearing, where you'd think it would be easier for the mayor to be in attendance.


Petworth, D.C.: Mr. Nakamura -- Given that the mayor notified you of Ms. Rhee's selection before he even notified the Chairman of the D.C. Council, why shouldn't readers be worried that you and your colleagues might be trading increased access for decreased objectivity.

I am worried that the Scooter Libby-style coziness with journalists may not merely be a federal government phenomenon.

David Nakamura: I am not at liberty to discuss how or when I learned of the administration's hiring of Rhee. What I can say is that if you look at the week of coverage after she was hired, we ran a front page story that basically quoted council members and activists hammering Fenty for not including them in the selection of her. I wrote a story examining the work of the consultants Rhee later hired, which suggested that they had had disappointing results in other cities. And remember that we wrote a front-page story in the spring showing how Fenty's school improvement plans were mostly copied from another school district's plans.


DC United Fan: Do you think there would be any backlash against the Mayor if DC United left the District?

David Nakamura: Fenty voted against a public subsidy for the baseball stadium and my sense is that while the administration would like to have D.C. United stay in the city, Fenty is not going to give up too much to keep them here. What is "too much"? Well, we know it is what team owner Victor MacFarlane proposed earlier -- giving him control of 110-plus acres of city land at Poplar Point and allowing him to build 8 million square feet of development. IN the next two weeks, Fenty will announce his selection of a master developer for Poplar Point -- three companies remain in the competition-- and MacFarlane is said to be waiting to try to buy into the project no matter who wins. But MacFarlane is also talking with Prince George's/Maryland about a new facility at Greenbelt if the Poplar deal falls through.

As for a backlash -- I will say soccer is not nearly as popular as football or basketball in his city - and I say that as a longtime soccer fan.


2 out of 10 did not know which ward they lived in !!!: Northwest, right?

David Nakamura: Ha. I assume the 20 percent were federal workers who rent. But I could be wrong.


"but DCPS reform needs a seasoned effort"?: How much longer must the same people be allowed to "improve" the D.C. schools? People who like the status quo usually have a vested interest in things staying the way they are.

David Nakamura: That's why Fenty hired a new superintendent/chancellor and the first thing she did was ask for the power to fire employees in the central office who fail to perform. They hope that power leads to increased accountability. But you're right -- the schools' bureaucracy is huge -- more than 10,000 employees -- and it won't be easy to change the culture of malaise. There are very hard-working and talented employees throughout the system, but many others who are just going through the motions.


Washington, D.C.: I personally feel Fenty is doing a good job mostly because of his "get it done" approach to the schools. When D.C. students graduate high school knowing how to read, do math, and reason clearly, THEN he and Rhee can start the time-consuming process of trying to accommodate every single interest group. Right now these schools are in a crisis and a crisis mindset is necessary.

David Nakamura: No matter how ones feels about Fenty, you'd have to give him some credit for staking his reputation on the schools by making the takeover his top priority. Many mayors have thought education reform is a bad horse to ride; though that may be changing as people like NYC's Bloomberg and others try to tackle schools head-on.


Washington, D.C.: This Rhee "critic" was not drastically quieted upon the news that DC's school system is the worst in the nation. I persist (stupid me) in doubting that someone who never spent more than 6 weeks in the city can come in and change things around. Trust me, she will be on the first plane out once her red-tape-delayed-DCPS check clears her account.

David Nakamura: Rhee has said she intends to stay as long as Fenty is willing to keep her and that will be key if they intend to fix anything because results are slow to come by. One of the chief criticisms of the system is the lack of consistent leadership; Fenty added to that problem when he fired Clifford Janey as superintendent. On the other hand, the mayor had to have confidence in his schools chief and he has that confidence in Rhee. We'll see if that lasts.

_______________________ Fenty's favorability ratings are considerably stronger than the previous mayors; the same is true for the city council. Considering the recent tax office scandal and a number of other problems uncovered in the past year in city government and services, what do you think is the source of this growing optimism about D.C. government?

David Nakamura: Well, let's put that in context. For one, Fenty's 72 percent approval after his first year is actually lower than was Mayor Williams' rating after a year: 77 percent in 2000. Williams's ratings slid during each subsequent Post poll to a low of 54 percent in July 2006. But generally I think people truly believe the city has turned a corner from the dark financially unstable days of the mid-1990s and perhaps that is what you see in the poll. Then again, reminders of the bad old times have surfaced with that tax office scandal and the city's lackluster effort on behalf of the four girls found dead in Southeast last week-- allegedly killed by their mother.


Washington, D.C.: How does the mayor intend to fix the problem of overcrowding in the D.C. jail?

David Nakamura: After being pushed by a court and by activists, the administration agreed last fall to a cap on inmates except under "exigent circumstances." Fenty's acting Attorney General Peter Nickles has been placed in charge of overseeing improvements to the jail.


Logan Circle, D.C.: It was interesting to read Neil Richardson's quote about Poplar Point and Fenty stalling the process to claim credit. I also heard from a council staffer that MacFarlane and Fenty did not get along and that contributed to the delay. It seems as though the process for picking the developer may be coming to an end soon.

Any insights into the timing, the developers and if Victor MacFarlane and D.C. United will be included?


David Nakamura: Richardson, Fenty's former deputy chief of staff who quit out of frustration with his boss two weeks ago, claimed the mayor was stalling about putting a soccer stadium at Poplar Point because he didn't want Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry to get credit. (Barry has backed the stadium idea.)

As I said earlier, the administration expects to pick a master developer within the next two weeks. The three firms that remain are: Clark Realty Capital (same parent outfit that is building the Nationals' stadium); Forest City; and a joint bid from Archstone Smith/Madison Marquette. ... The public seems to like Clark's designs the best, but the administration is picking based on financial capability and portfolio of previous projects to be sure the developer can handle such a major project.


David Nakamura: Thanks for joining us today, everyone, and for the great questions. Have to run to do more reporting on the deaths of those four girls in Southeast last week.


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