Political Hay

Running from Reform

Adrian Fenty may win re-election, but the D.C. mayor is not living up to his promises.

By 9.28.09

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Adrian Fenty may well win re-election as Washington, D.C.'s mayor. But he hasn't exactly lived up to his squeaky clean reform reputation.

A refusal to cut pet programs amid a $666 million budget shortfall in the upcoming budget made him seem less fiscally responsible than the city's motley crew of city councilmembers -- a stupendous feat given that the body includes the notorious (and now probation-serving) Marion Barry.  A $44 million summer jobs program came under scrutiny for its bloated budget and lack of focus while one of its initiatives, the Mayor's Conservation Corps, came under fire after the Washington City Paper's website ran a photo showing four participants smoking marijuana.

Fenty's relationship with the council -- already frosty -- has become even colder amid a series of standoffs petty and otherwise. In April, Fenty withheld tickets to Washington Nationals home games from council-members for a second consecutive year. He only backed down after the council floated a plan to auction off those lavish box seats.

In August, Fenty's integrity took a hit after the mayor -- who makes much of chauffeuring himself around town -- got into a fender-bender. It turns out that Fenty may have violated the spirit (if not the letter) or city regulations by allowing a friend and campaign donor, Keith Lomax, to tool around in city-owned Lincoln Navigators and Smart Cars.  Lomax's landscaping firm, by the way, garnered $11 million in city contracts since Fenty took office.

Such missteps would have been unthinkable in 2006, when the then-35-year-old lawyer swept aside a political establishment whose tolerance of rampant crime, fiscal incompetence and blatant graft that tied the nation's capital with Detroit for the moniker of America's worst-run city.

The son of local sneaker merchants, he immediately won acclaim among Democrat-leaning school reformers for taking control of the District's public school system -- often called the Superfund site of the nation's public education system -- and installing superstar reformer Michelle Rhee to fix it. His penchant for running triathlons also made him seem vigorous amid the flabby blandness of immediate predecessor Anthony Williams and the tiresomely spectacular disgraces of the notorious Marion Barry. Even his Clintonesque prowess for fundraising (including $2 million since taking office) has gained the admiration of pundits such as Washington Examiner's Harry Jaffe, who declared that "[Fenty's] motto could be: Six More Years! And he just might get them."

But mayors aren't measured by bold school initiatives, muscular physiques and fundraising machines alone. As another reform-minded Democrat, Bart Peterson, learned the hard way two years ago, mayors must reduce crime, competently run sprawling city governments, keep taxes low, address quality-of-life concerns and stay out of meaningless sparring matches. For a younger generation of mayors, including Fenty and Newark's Cory Booker, it also means sticking to their reform credentials and conducting business differently than the race-baiting black Democrat political machines they have decried and replaced.

AT LEAST FENTY DOESN'T HAVE to worry about D.C. being the nation's murder capital. A five-year decline (between 2002 and 2007) in the District's homicide rate, along with declines in reported burglaries and aggravated assaults, means life is safer for denizens of Adams-Morgan and Georgetown. Fenty, however, can claim no credit for it. That goes to Williams, who also reduced taxes and pulled the city from insolvency.

As Washington Examiner columnist (and Fenty critic) Jonetta Rose-Barras points out, Fenty has succeeded in "leaving his mark on everything," gaining control over the District's public schools, housing agency and convention center. Whether he can successfully manage city government remains an open question.

Last year, as Fenty successfully proposed an array of tax increases on commercial property transfers, he still found $23 million to dole out to favored groups -- including $10 million to the renovation of the landmark Ford's Theater, and $150,000 for the Cool Capital Challenge, a local environmental campaign. He didn't inspire more confidence in his administrative skill when the summer jobs program -- the nation's second-largest in the nation after New York City -- overspent its budget by $30 million after such missteps as issuing debit cards to youths no longer on the payroll.

Fenty didn't exercise much more in the way of fiscal discipline this year, as he proposed to use temporary funds from the federal stimulus and another round of tax increases to close an even larger budget shortfall -- or deal with billion-dollar deficits facing the city in the following two years. He has spent more time bickering with the city council, which has generally given way to most of his demands. He's also had to shake off questions about moves such as a successful effort by his staff to donate an 11-year-old fire truck to the Dominican Republic enclave of Sosua on behalf of one of the mayor's cronies.

Even Fenty's otherwise laudable overhaul of the District's public education system -- whose 49 percent graduation rate is among the worst in the nation -- has been overshadowed by complaints from fellow school reformers that the mayor has no interest in allowing choice. An unwillingness to stand up to Congressional Democrats and vocally support the District's soon-to-be-shuttered school voucher plan has done him no favors with District parents. Supporters of Washington's public charter schools -- attended by a third of the city's students -- are annoyed with a proposed 27 percent reduction in capital building funds and other Fenty plans to change funding.

Fenty did himself no favors last month when he managed to enroll his own twin sons in one of the city's best traditional public schools, Lafayette Elementary, instead of the school in his own neighborhood, which has been labeled as a failing school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He refused to answer questions about how he managed to send his kids to a school they weren't zoned to attend. "Please respect that my kids' private lives have to be respected," he told reporters.

Certainly Fenty isn't the next Marion Barry. But at this rate, Fenty may neither live up to his reformist billing or to the successful reputations of former mayors such as New York's Rudy Giuliani and Indianapolis's Steve Goldsmith. He may not even outshine Anthony Williams.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.