Labor Dispute:  Union leaders experienced a rare Fenty public explosion at a National Press Club luncheon.
Labor Dispute: Union leaders experienced a rare Fenty public explosion at a National Press Club luncheon. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

At an Oct. 3 luncheon at the National Press Club, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty gave a keynote address. He talked about his plans to fix up the D.C. schools. By most accounts, it was a decent but forgettable moment. What happened beforehand was not.

In the audience was a group of local labor leaders, including several big shots from unions representing D.C. government employees. After Fenty finished his speech, Dwight R. Bowman, who heads up the local district of the American Federation of Government Employees, walked up to Fenty to shake his hand and exchange pleasantries.

“Unfortunately, the conversation never got to that,” Bowman says.

It’s probably wrong to call it a conversation. Says one eyewitness, “In the blink of an eye, Adrian went ballistic.…He got red; he got aggressive; he got right in Dwight’s face.” The witness called the outburst “scary.”

What set Hizzoner off? Well, the union guys apparently hit one of his soft spots: Bowman apparently implied a little too strongly that Fenty was snubbing Big Labor.

Bowman had wanted to express his union’s support for a proposal the mayor had floated to bring the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority back under city control. But before he got into that, Bowman thought he needed to acknowledge that mayoral relations had been rocky.

Wrong move: Fenty demanded an example of said rockiness. “You don’t think everything is all right?” he asked Bowman, before pressing him for examples.

Bowman mentioned a number of things to Fenty: During the campaign, Bowman says Fenty was invited to a candidate forum that the AFGE had sponsored. The union folks got no advance notice that the candidate was coming. When he did come, he was late. And then he left early, choosing to schmooze outside the debate rather than take questions from the podium. Bowman also mentioned that Fenty had no-showed on an invitation to address the AFGE’s annual legislative conference.

But the touchiest issue several witnesses say was when Bowman brought up the subject of a meeting and how difficult it had been to schedule one.

“Gimme an example of where I haven’t been able to meet with you,” Fenty reportedly demanded.

“I don’t understand why he stepped up close to me and why he was so agitated,” Bowman says. “I’m a pretty straightforward guy. When he asked me a question, I gave him an answer.”

Rumors of Fenty’s short temper with his own employees are well-circulated; it’s just another part of the mythology of a hard-driving, constituents-first boss who demands the utmost from his staffers. In public, however, the Fenty style has always been to exude cool competence.

Another cornerstone of the Fenty image: His willingness to show up at any gathering or meet any group that he can make time for. The idea that Fenty would stand up a group of any size doesn’t jibe with that.

Fenty declined to get into the details of the encounter, but he did not deny that the exchange had been heated. “[Bowman] and I agree we’re going to have a meeting,” he says. That meeting, however, has not been scheduled.

There’s no shortage of reasons for there to be tension between Fenty and the labor community. During the mayoral election campaign, most unions representing government employees—including AFGE—supported former D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp. After taking office, Fenty appointed to the school board Ted Trabue, head of the D.C. Economic Empowerment Coalition and the Empower D.C. political action committee—groups with ties to anti-union construction concerns. Since then, there have been occasional flare-ups—for instance, when Fenty’s general counsel, Peter Nickles, referred to the city’s Department of Disability Services as a “dumping ground” for castoffs from other government agencies in a May Legal Times article.

Plus, to date, Fenty hasn’t shown a lot of regard for the sanctity of public employment. Late last week, Fenty and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee finalized their plan to “right-size” the long-demonized D.C. Public School central-office bureaucracy. The pink slips will be going to nonunion employees, but labor types don’t see the plan boding well for the upcoming contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Bowman points to “a desire on the part of the administration not to deal with those who have a different view.”

There’s also plenty of reason for Fenty not to give a whit about what the unions think. After Rhee and Fenty announced their plan to buy out the DCPS employees over the summer, LL polled several council offices wondering if their phones had lit up with concerned citizens wondering why the mayor was bigfooting public servants at 825 North Capitol. All the offices LL surveyed reported that their constituents were strongly behind Fenty.

The exchange came to an abrupt end, Bowman says: “He just looked at me, turned away, and went to another person.”

As for rapprochement, Bowman has a proposal: He says Fenty’s welcome to appear on “Inside Government,” the union’s Friday morning radio show on WFED-AM.

Says Fenty, “We consider going on all the radio shows.”

Political Potpourri

• Last week, the city settled with Frank Harris Jr., the St. Elizabeths patient who had gouged his eyes out in March 2003.

Harris’ family had sued the city over the incident; the Fenty administration responded by billing Harris for a $2.2 million “offset” to cover medical costs he’d incurred over the years.

While the lawsuit has been settled, the Frank Harris Jr. Offset Justice Amendment Act lives. Introduced by At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, the bill aims to prevent the mayor from ever again sending a bill to a legally insane person like Harris.

Only two councilmembers failed to cosponsor Mendelson’s legislation. One was At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who says her opposition to the bill was just part of her job as the council’s foremost taxpayer watchdog. “I felt we should have some leverage in a settlement,” she says. “What I hoped for happened.”

The other was Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser. In one of her first encounters with LL, Bowser expressed her dismay at being portrayed, as a previous LL had, as a lapdog of the Fenty administration. Such a perception would stem from the fact that Fenty threw his weight behind the effort to elect Bowser as his successor, helping her raise more than $200,000 to ward off a handful of other candidates in last spring’s special election, including a similarly well-financed Michael Brown.

Bowser explains that she did not wish to take an early position on the bill, and she may still vote for the bill as it works its way through the council.

Says Bowser, “If that makes me a lapdog, what does that make Carol?”

• Last month, LL reported that longtime civic activists Dorothy Brizill and Gary Imhoff were facing the city’s Board for the Condemnation of Insanitary Properties. Their Columbia Heights house sports multiple broken windows, an aging roof, and a rotting porch, among myriad other problems. In its Sept. 12 meeting, the board ordered Brizill to come up with a plan to fix up the house within 14 days, lest the city send a crew out to do the work and take a lien on the house for the repair bill.

Brizill says she gave an “oral report” to the board on Sept. 26, and members “seemed pleased and told me they were satisfied with the progress we were making.”

Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, spokesperson for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, says Brizill explained at that meeting that “computer problems” had kept her from sending a written report. There may be some hint as to the delay: The couple’s long-running biweekly e-mail newsletter was out of service for a week last month, and as Imhoff described in the Sept. 27 edition, there’s more than one agency demanding repairs on the 1300 block of Girard Street NW: “It took PEPCO a few days to narrow down the cause of the failure, and when it did it refused to replace its line until we replaced our old fuse board…with a new breaker board.”

Brizill’s case will be on the agenda for the board’s Oct. 24 meeting.

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