Missteps in Crash's Aftermath Dull Fenty's Luster

Samuel Johnson Jr., who was a friend and co-worker of Dennis Hawkins at Whittier Education Center, discusses his memories and thoughts of Mr. Hawkins, who was one of the nine victims that died in the Metrorail crash on June 22, 2009. Video by Matthew Hashiguchi/The Washington Post
By Jonathan Mummolo and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 3, 2009

With shouts of "Praise the Lord!" more than 1,000 worshipers flooded a Baptist church in the District on Tuesday to honor Dennis Hawkins, one of nine people killed in the Red Line train crash last month. But when Pastor A. Michael Black introduced the next speaker listed in the program -- someone from "Executive Office of the Mayor" -- a worried hush swept over the sanctuary.

No one came forward.

A day later, a sort of instant replay occurred at the funeral for crash victim Veronica DuBose when the minister's call for an aide to D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to speak was again met with no reply. The aide had apparently left the church.

The deadliest crash in Metro's 33-year history -- one that traumatized the D.C. area and hobbled its transportation network -- has also been politically troublesome for Fenty (D). In the initial hours after the crash, he was criticized for over-managing and mishandling information, in particular when he maintained that there were seven fatalities instead of the nine that other authorities had confirmed.

In the days that followed, the mayor and his staff were noticeably absent from a string of memorials, funerals and wakes. Seven of the nine people who died were D.C. residents. Fenty showed up at services for train operator Jeanice McMillan, but he was an hour late and was wearing a light-colored summer suit that some said was inappropriate.

The absences are all the more stark for a mayor who has built his political career on seemingly being everywhere at all times and has enjoyed a reputation as an energetic, attentive public servant. But that golden image has been tarnished in the past few weeks as he is increasingly being forced to defend his actions before animated critics on the D.C. Council and elsewhere.

In May, the 38-year-old mayor apologized for allowing a friend to drive his city-issued Lincoln Navigator, which is prohibited by city law. Fenty has also deflected criticism about the $75,000 installation of a heater at an outdoor city-owned pool he uses to train for his triathlons. For weeks earlier this year, he was criticized for refusing to hand over Washington Nationals tickets that had been earmarked for the D.C. Council. In February, Fenty took a week-long trip with his family to Dubai, paid for by the government of the United Arab Emirates. He did not disclose the trip until he returned.

The mayor's handling of the Metro crash comes at a time when resentment toward him is an increasing topic of discussion on neighborhood e-mail lists and community activists are grumbling that he's losing touch.

"These are the kinds of things people remember: Where were you?" said Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and a longtime Fenty supporter who said he has been dismayed by the mayor's actions after the crash. "There is no substitute for hands-on, personally touching a family."

For Black, the pastor at Hawkins's service, the apparent snub at the funeral was a "disgrace" and "distasteful." Black, a pastor in Richmond and a close friend of Hawkins's, said Fenty's office had confirmed that someone would speak at the funeral. "I think it's a lack of respect for the family," he said.

Asked where the mayor was at the time of the various services, spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said Fenty had been "on a personal trip with his family." She said there had been misunderstandings with those who thought someone from the mayor's office planned to speak at the funerals. The standard procedure for the services was to deliver a condolence letter, she said.

Hobson declined to comment on the mayor's overall political fortunes. In previous interviews, Fenty has said he knows that he cannot please every constituent all the time, but that every incident is a learning experience. He is up for reelection next year.

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