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There’s an icky practice in political journalism known as the “beat sweetener”: A reporter will write nice things about a quasi-important person in the hope of gaining access down the road. You’ll usually see it when either a new administration arrives in power or a new reporter arrives on a beat.
Remember all those saccharine profiles of President Obama’s inner circle about a year and half ago? Here’s how The New York Times Magazine described new White House flack Robert Gibbs: “an affable Alabaman with pit-bullish tendencies.” Gross. But the real problem with these stories is that the goodwill they generate never lasts.
So your newest Loose Lips would like to try something different for his first column—the beat poisoner. Fortunately, some of the key sources on LL’s new beat are prime targets for such an exercise: One of the first things apparent to a new reporter in the Wilson Building is how spectacularly dysfunctional Mayor Adrian Fenty’s press shop is.
LL wouldn’t normally bore his readers with tales of spokesperson shenanigans. But Fenty is facing the very real possibility that in two months he’ll lose the Democratic primary to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. And many of his troubles involve what political operatives call “atmospherics”—the very stuff a PR professional is supposed to manage.
In the Fenty administration, though, the paid PR professionals are AWOL. Instead, the mayor has let his very own Samwise Gamgee, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, become the de facto spokesman. “I cringe every time he opens his fucking mouth,” said one Fenty pal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for, well, obvious reasons.
Nickles, who by many accounts is the only living being Fenty truly trusts, has free reign to speak his mind and is more than happy to fire back at a D.C. Council that regularly berates him. He’s called Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh an “angry woman,” Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry a “has-been” and said last week that Gray must be suffering “heat stroke” for calling for Nickles’ resignation.
“I’m a great believer in the free press,” Nickles told LL.
The free press, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to return the favor. Reporters wonder why a pugnacious lawyer—even an eminently quotable one—is essentially running the press shop. “At a certain point, Nickles in an unholstered, dangerous weapon,” said one political journalist, who like most reporters interviewed for this article asked to remain nameless while dissing the mayor’s peeps.
Tony Bullock, the former spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams, summed up the obvious: “The AG should not be the spokesman for the mayor. That’s just wrong right away.” (Nickles says his public role reflects the fact that Fenty “is very sensitive to the fact that what he says or what somebody says who is perhaps not careful could subject the city to significant liability.”)
It’d be easy enough to blame Nickles for talking out of turn. On the Green Team, though, there’s often no one else talking.
Questions to the mayor’s spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, frequently go unanswered, or are met with little more than short, meaningless replies. Hobson—who earns $120,000 a year on the public payroll—is personally well-liked. But reporters often complain of being ignored. One reporter said it’s hard getting help even on stories that would portray the mayor in a positive light. “It’s like pulling teeth getting information out of them, and when they finally say something it’s usually vague and not useful,” the reporter said.
When LL first started covering D.C. for The Examiner, he asked one of Hobson’s underlings, Kate Stanton, why his questions to Hobson were not being answered. Stanton told LL Hobson was very busy, and that a non-response meant the mayor’s office had no comment.
“At least get back to people,” Bullock sniffs.
So much for city employees. Surely things are running more smoothly on the campaign payroll, where Fenty’s $3 million war chest can buy the best flacks in the business? Actually, until recently, Fenty’s sole campaign spokeswoman was Helen Hare, 22, a political novice who graduated last year from Oberlin College in Ohio, Fenty’s alma mater.
LL tried to chat with Hare about her background, but she wouldn’t comment on the record and begged off the phone for a pending meeting, saying she’d call back in 20 minutes. (She didn’t.)
The campaign recently bolstered its press shop, adding former Washington Business Journal reporter Sean Madigan, who is pretty well regarded among reporters. Fenty re-election chair William Lightfoot says this was all part of the plan: The campaign decided to give “a young person an opportunity” earlier in the process, and then bring in a “seasoned professional” as election day neared. (Madigan had worked as an aide to City Administrator Neil Albert.)
That may not have helped. Your new LL has had limited dealings with the Fenty campaign, but a routine question about what aides planned to do with $6,000 in donations from Marion Barry’s old cocaine supplier was repeatedly ignored a few weeks ago.
And then there’s Fenty himself. Journalists in search of a mayoral message that’s not mediated through a gun-slinging AG, a call-dodging official spokeswoman, or a rookie campaign flack can always catch up with the mayor at ribbon-cuttings, at the end of which he makes himself available for a few minutes. Unfortunately, when it comes to sharing, his answers usually aren’t any more substantive than those of his staff.
“You may get access but you won’t get information,” said NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood, dean of the D.C. political press corps.
It wasn’t always this way. Reporters describe a type of honeymoon period when Fenty first took office; the 2006 version of Hizzoner was open, helpful and accessible. “It started off pretty good,” said one reporter. But flaps over Fenty’s secretive trip to Dubai, his response to the DeOnte Rawlings shooting, and other dust-ups that come with the territory of being a big-city mayor have taken their toll.
“He became mayor and became much more closed, I think to his own detriment in a terrible way,” said a Fenty pal.
Hobson disputes this, and said any gripes from the press stem from unrealistic expectations from Fenty’s time as a councilmember and first-time mayoral candidate. But, Hobson said, “communicating as a candidate and communicating as a councilmember is vastly different then communicating as the mayor.”
Either way, campaign supporters blame Fenty’s poll troubles on a message machine that isn’t working. “If it was, he would be and should be the clear front runner,” said supporter and campaign donor Bruce Klores.
Fenty swears he’ll change. When asked recently on WPGC-FM’s Big Tigger radio show about the perception that “black people just ain’t rolling with Fenty right now and you ain’t necessarily rolling with them,” Fenty responded by blaming the messenger—in this case, himself. “What we haven’t done, and I take full blame for this, is being able to get that record out, to let people know that if we had not been in office all these things wouldn’t have happened, and I think that if we do a better job of that, not just in the next 77 days before the election, but in a second term.”
Meanwhile, LL is still waiting for that call about the controversial donor.
Is Cheh Chicken?
Why doesn’t Mary Cheh just get it over with and endorse Gray? The Democratic councilmember from Ward 3 clearly loathes the Fenty administration, and has been one of its most vocal critics. “It’s almost becoming a lawless administration…they seem to have no limits or restraint on what they are willing to do,” she told The Washington Post last year.
Yet Cheh has so far remained neutral, even distancing herself from the rhyming chants mixing her name and Gray’s name at this year’s Palisades 4th of July parade. The chants came from enthusiasts perched on an old fire truck that had been brought to the parade by the city’s firefighters’ union—which has endorsed both Cheh and Gray. Cheh says the union initially offered to festoon the truck with signs for both candidates, but she turned them down for fear of appearing to have taken sides.
There are obvious political reasons for Cheh to avoid an endorsement. Fenty—and his schools chief, Michelle Rhee—remain popular on her turf.
But so what if she alienates a few Fenty-loving Ward 3 residents? Cheh is unopposed in the all-important Democratic primary. Republican Dave Hedgepeth, her likely general-election opponent, doesn’t look like much of a threat: Last time around, Cheh beat the GOP’s Theresa Conroy by 43 points.
Cheh says she takes all opponents seriously. “Let me tell you, the Republicans have their highest registration in Ward 3, and in addition there are independents. And they said they were going to take a big run at me. I don’t take any of this lightly,” Cheh tells LL. “Do you really think I have coattails like that?”
But then she undercuts her own argument: “The other thing I’ve been saying is, at the moment I’m not taking a public position. It doesn’t mean that I won’t at some point before the election is held.”
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