Politics

Blackberry Mayor

Nobody does constituent service better than Adrian Fenty. But as D.C.'s chief executive, he'll need a much bigger repertoire.
by | November 2006

Adrian Fenty ran a stunningly effective campaign for mayor of Washington, D.C., this fall, overcoming better-known rivals to carry every one of the city's 142 precincts in the Democratic primary. The question of whether he can match his political performance once he's in the mayor's office remains open.

Fenty, who is just 35 years old, served five years on the city council. He became legendary for his rapid responses to constituent complaints, zinging back replies from his BlackBerry within minutes and getting agencies to fix problems within days. The D.C. bureaucracy has a history of being lethargic, and Fenty's ability to make it snap into action was an important element in his rise to citywide success. But he was always more of a handyman than a visionary or policy maker, and he will have to win over skeptics who fear he could be overmatched in a job that calls for a different set of skills.

Fenty will present a dramatic contrast in style with outgoing Mayor Anthony Williams, who was often viewed as aloof from constituent concerns and more interested in policy details than in public relations. Williams had come to the city as CFO of a congressional control board charged with taking over the city's chaotic finances. He won two terms as mayor and bequeaths to Fenty a city in unquestionably better shape than he found it.

Williams engendered a culture of professional management welcome in a government long plagued by cronyism. Budgets are not only back in balance but have been made flush by what has been one of the hottest residential real estate markets in the country.

Still, there will be plenty of problems for Fenty to work on. The school district spends more per pupil than any in the nation but remains a dismal failure. The police department has been criticized for ineffective neighborhood services--it declared a "crime emergency" this summer--while emergency medicine and the fire department have also suffered high-profile breakdowns.

Fenty ran on a platform of change and won a resounding victory doing so. But one adaptation he may need to make at the outset is in his style of operating. Some of his council colleagues complained about an attention span that seemed only a little longer than a BlackBerry message. "What I worry about is that he just turns out to be a Chicago ward heeler, delivering constituent services," says Mark Plotkin, a local radio commentator.

No one questions Fenty's intelligence or his work ethic. A big part of his campaign strategy was knocking on seemingly every door in the city. Weeks before actually winning the mayoralty--given the city's partisan makeup, his election on November 7 is merely a formality-- Fenty started announcing cabinet picks.

Regardless of whether Fenty can summon the managerial will to solve the District's biggest problems, at least he's committed to taking them on. It's a hopeful moment, not least because no one is talking about the city slipping back into the corruption and bankruptcy that characterized it only a few years ago.

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