Tight Makes Right: Fenty?s close-knit inner circle has helped him avoid political drama.
Tight Makes Right: Fenty?s close-knit inner circle has helped him avoid political drama. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Being Adrian M. Fenty means never having to say you’re sorry.

In his first 24 months as the District’s chief executive, Fenty and his team have made a few apology-worthy mistakes. They plagiarized a schools document, they botched the response to a police shooting, and they managed the summer jobs program like a bunch of interns.

But can anyone remember the guy in charge actually apologizing?

LL did the research: Fenty did apologize once, to the family of murdered journalist David Rosenbaum, for massive governmental screw-ups that solidly predated his term as mayor.

When it comes to matters for which he actually carries responsibility, the closest thing to a mea culpa that’s ever escaped Fenty’s mouth followed revelations that his deputy mayor for education, Victor Reinoso, had copied language from another school district in putting together a strategic plan for D.C. Public Schools. Even then the s-word wasn’t to be found in media accounts: “Regret,” sure. “Made a mistake,” uh-huh. But “sorry”? Nope. In fact, a Washington Post story notes Reinoso apologized to Fenty, but Fenty never actually apologized to anyone.

The police shooting provides a veritable case study in the politics of regretlessness. The episode involved a city police officer shooting 14-year-old DeOnté Rawlings in the head under a murky set of circumstances. In the immediate aftermath, Fenty made waves by refusing to apologize for hanging the cops involved out to dry. Now, more than a year later, there’s no apology for the city’s failure to disclose the results of its investigation into the shooting.

Fenty’s no-apologies strategy is one dimension of the relentless style that’s made him, in his first two years, a formidable force across the District. Consider this comparison: Anthony A. Williams, Fenty’s weaker-kneed predecessor, had to render at least three high-profile apologies in the first 30 months of his tenure.

Williams generated a lot of reasons to say he was sorry. In one of the great boneheaded moves in District political history, he proposed moving the University of the District of Columbia from its upper Northwest campus into Anacostia or some other east-of-the-river locale, sparking a race-tinged firestorm and, eventually, Big Apology No. 1.

Big Apology No. 2 came after revelations that Williams had entered in consulting contracts with Arthur Andersen, a monthslong story that resulted in fines levied by the city. He was also reprimanded for using city resources to stump for a ballot referendum on whether to change the makeup of the school board. And shortly into his third year, Williams’ second chief of staff and most trusted aide, Abdusalam Omer, was caught in an embarrassing fundraising scandal, leading to Big Apology No. 3.

That’s not to say Williams didn’t accomplish remarkable feats in his early years in office—taking big steps toward getting rid of the control board and vastly improving basic city services, to name a couple, but he found himself sidetracked by political flare-ups his successor has largely avoided. Fenty’s finely honed sense of politics has helped him blitz through his policy agenda—most strikingly, his takeover of the public schools, which Williams long pondered but never had the muscle to make happen.

Hell, even Fenty’s scandals burnish his take-no-prisoners, get-it-done reputation. Take the signature failure of his administration thus far: The mess surrounding last summer’s youth employment program. After thousands of kids either weren’t paid or weren’t paid the right amount over the course of weeks, Fenty ordered an investigation into what happened.

The verdict: We were just driving ourselves too hard, the internal inquest essentially concluded. Our only failure was dreaming too big.

How much of Fenty’s governing style has been inspired by Williams’ early difficulties is up for debate. As a council staffer and then a councilmember, Fenty watched firsthand as Williams took a beating from the legislative branch. Some observers see in Fenty’s hard-nosed approach to interbranch relations—refusals to send executive witnesses to council hearings, for instance—more than a little bit of obsession with not getting “Tony’d” by the council.

Both Fenty and Williams have had their run-ins with the council, invariably over a lack of consultation—neither has spent much time personally glad-handing legislators. But where Williams’ problems seemed to emerge from his legendary aloofness, Fenty’s problems come off as the machinations of an arrogant BMOC. Can you imagine Fenty saying this, as Williams did in late 1999: “I strenuously object to any notion that I don’t reach out to the council.…I go to enormous lengths to reach out to them, consult with them, make sure they’re on board. I’ve made announcements with them and supported them…even when they haven’t done a damn thing for me.”

Nope. The standard Fenty response to an issue like that is something along the lines of: “I completely support the Council and their role in the governing the District of Columbia,” making nice in public while scheming behind the scenes.

Besides media strategy, insiders point to one huge difference between Fenty and Williams: Mayor Triathlon’s tightknit, stable cadre of advisers, compared with Mayor Bow Tie’s rotating cast of dozens. In two and a half years, Williams saw three chiefs of staff, a handful of community outreach aides, and more schedulers than you could count.

Fenty’s inner circle has stayed remarkably stable and drama-free over 24 months. The advisers closest to Hizzoner—City Administrator Dan Tangherlini and Attorney General Peter J. Nickles—have only gotten closer. Over the summer, Fenty changed chiefs of staff, but he managed to do it in such a way as to snuff out most whispers of palace intrigue—sending Tene Dolphin to clean up the summer jobs mess while promoting communications chief Carrie S. Kohns (formerly Brooks). This week, top policy aide JoAnne Ginsberg departs—without immediate plans to start a new job—but LL has heard only the vaguest of whispers about any dissatisfaction with Ginsberg’s performance as Fenty’s chief lobbyist.

Neil Richardson and Merritt Drucker did break with administration protocol; after leaving his post of deputy chief of staff, Richardson aired his grievances about Fenty’s governing style to local media, as did, to a lesser extent, constituent-services director Drucker. Easy to call those exceptions that prove the rule: Both had been Williams aides before joining Fenty’s team.

And outside the mayoral bullpen, among the agency heads, there’s a sense that everyone’s on the same page to a degree unheard of in Williamsworld. “I used to joke, we spent half the time making policy and spend the rest getting them to implement it,” says Gregory McCarthy, long one of Williams’ closest aides. “I don’t see that now.”

And that may be out of fear if nothing else. Says another former Williams aide, Tony Bullock, “Anthony Williams was very, very loyal to his administrators and his staff—sometimes more than he should have been. Adrian Fenty seems impatient with anyone who messes up. If you mess up, you leave…and I don’t think the public has a problem with that.”

But the differences between Fenty and Williams go much deeper than organizational discipline. Yes, Fenty likes the spotlight and the personal aspect of politicking much more than Williams ever did—pressing the flesh across the city and calling multiple press conferences every day, whether reporters show up or not. But his real distinction as a politician is in how he wields his power. Where Williams was content to let things work themselves out, Fenty makes a point to reward his friends and punish his enemies in ways Williams never would have imagined.

WTOP political commentator Mark Plotkin likes to point out how fond Fenty is of the locution “big city mayor.” As in, “that’s what big-city mayors do” or “one of the best ways to figure out how to be a big-city mayor is by talking to other big-city mayors.” It’s a phrase that conjures up names like Daley and LaGuardia, and an almost imperial attitude toward executive power.

McCarthy says of his former boss, “His first instinct wasn’t always to use the power of his office. Mayor Fenty clearly understands the power that comes with being mayor.…the focus he can bring to any issue. He’s marshaled that very, very well.”

Plotkin puts it this way: “I think Fenty just rules with an iron hand.”

It informs Fenty’s decision to take over essentially nonfunctioning independent bodies such as the National Capital Revitalization Corp. and the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. Or his moves to take control of the Children and Youth Investment Trust and the UDC and convention center boards.

Or his ignoring, two years later, key supporters of 2006 challenger Linda Cropp, like the local Democratic party apparatus or the Chamber of Commerce crowd (developers excepted).

The result of all this big-city mayoring? Fenty has set himself up for an easy 2010 coronation. Midway through Williams’ term, at least two councilmembers—Jack Evans and Kevin Chavous—had openly pondered mayoral runs, even though Williams announced his re-election push less than two years into his first term. That was early evidence of inattention to politics that foreshadowed his careless and needless ejection from the 2002 primary ballot for petition fraud.

No such early evidence exists for Fenty, who announced his re-election push this fall amid utter silence from any possible contenders. Plenty of tongues have wagged over the prospect of Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray challenging Fenty, or possibly at-large member Kwame R. Brown, but there is little sense that either would have a real shot—especially after they get a look at Fenty’s first fundraising report at the end of the month, which is likely to show an early war chest well into the six figures, if not seven.

Says Bullock, “I can’t see how he would lose. Something really unfortunate would have to happen to him. Something Blagojevich-like.”

Political Potpourri

• By the time you read this, the D.C. Council’s committee assignments will be complete, but due to early holiday deadlines, LL can’t weigh in on those here.

But there is one development he can report on: At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania has claimed Carol Schwartz’s fab fourth-floor corner digs down at the John A. Wilson Building. The spot is prized not only for its big windows with sweet views of the Willard Hotel and Pershing Park, but its exclusive private bathroom. (Only Gray has similar amenities.)

The offices are assigned by seniority, meaning Evans had to pass on the office before Catania could claim it. Last month, he told LL he “couldn’t imagine” vacating his current first-floor space. But apparently an upgrade in confines grew on him—as well, perhaps, as the prospect of claiming a trophy of sorts. Catania, after all, had backed Schwartz’s Republican primary challenger, Patrick Mara, in a bid to unseat the four-term incumbent.

Now there’s this question: Has Catania jinxed himself should he choose to pursue another term?

The last three occupants of the office—Schwartz, Harold Brazil, and Charlene Drew Jarvis—all suffered humiliating electoral defeats while enjoying the plush confines.

• For the annual Wilson Building gift exchange this holiday season, many councilmembers opted for the classics: Catania went for his usual Godiva chocolates. Evans doled out classic works of literature. Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander chose personalized holiday ornaments.

Others took it to another level. To wit, At-Large Councilmember Kwame R. Brown, who distributed to his colleagues custom bottles of hot sauce.

The label features a photo of Brown together with the president-elect, along with the inscription: obama-brown: the year we made history!!! The sauce is produced by local outfit Uncle Brutha’s—it’s Fire Sauce No. 10—but it carries a custom label that reads, in part: a change to uncle brutha’s™ is a change to the best!…as an advocate for change in this historic election, uncle brutha’s™ wants to show its support for councilmember kwame brown and senator barack obama, and help them bring a ‘brand new flavor’ to washington, d.c.

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