Adrian Fenty, Former D.C. Mayor, Has No Regrets One Year Out Of Office
It wasn't long ago that Adrian Fenty was Washington, D.C.,'s wonder boy, a star in Chocolate City politics whose aggressive, take-charge approach earned him national recognition. In 2007 when he became the city's youngest mayor at the age of 36, he was also the first candidate in history to win each of the district's 142 precincts. Pundits lumped him with Barack Obama, Newark Mayor Corey Booker and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, all new-school black politicians who rose to prominence as reform-minded problem solvers.
When Fenty took over, he wasted no time in shaking things up: He tapped Michelle Rhee, then a largely unknown Teach For America alum, to be the chancellor for the city's public schools, and gave her a free hand to run them. The Fenty administration promptly shut down schools that they deemed to be underperforming and fired hundreds of teachers. Fenty hired a new police chief, Cathy Lanier, the first woman in that post, and they introduced new policing methods. Student test scores inched higher, crime went down, and murders hit a record low.
But in the wake of those school closures and teacher firings, Fenty seemed to project an image of indifference, and the city's black voters began to abandon him. Supporters and advisers alike chided him as uncompromising and dismissive of their advice. His popularity plummeted, and Fenty refused to hire pollsters to take the city’s temperature. In September 2010, Fenty lost by seven points to then-City Council Chair Vincent Gray in the Democratic primary. It was a swift, decisive end to a once-bright political career.
A year after the sudden end to his mayoralty, Fenty remains defiant, in no mood to second-guess his decisions. "My only regret is that I wasn't more uncompromising," he said in a candid, wide-ranging interview with The Huffington Post's Black Voices. "We didn't compromise on what we believed in. To the extent people were upset, it was because we were pushing the envelope."
Since leaving office, Fenty, a lawyer by trade, has become a part-time professor at Oberlin, his alma mater; an advisor to various agencies and companies; and a fixture on the public speaking circuit. He has more time for his family and friends these days -- and he now has just one BlackBerry instead of three.
"When I lost the election, I was 39," he said. "I just looked at it all 'glass half-full.' One, there are so many things to do in life and I'm very interested in doing them all. Two, I had an opportunity to be the mayor for the city I was born and raised in. For four years, it was a fantastic experience. I would have loved to have served more time in order to get more done, but I'm not sure if personally I would have gotten any more out of it."
The 2010 vote was seen by many as a referendum on Rhee, his polarizing schools chief, and also as evidence of the widening gap in priorities between long-time, mostly black residents and the district's gentrifiers. Fenty handily won predominantly white districts, while decisively losing black ones.
"The election got very emotional," he said. "It was not, at the end, a discussion that was about performance and results."
Insiders have said the losing formula had less to do with principles and more to do with arrogance. "His campaign's failing resulted from a combination of tenor, hubris, pride and political malpractice," a Fenty strategist told the Washington Post.
Fenty allowed that he had expected to win re-election, but that losing for what he described as "the right reasons" and for "standing on our principles" was fine by him.
"It wasn't an administration that was blamed for crime going up, or not focused on education, or the budget being imbalanced, or not hiring good people. We weren't criticized for any of that," he said. "We were criticized for things that were important to people but in the grand scheme of things aren't as important as whether the government works."
Fenty was asked whether he could have done a better job of horse-trading and accepting concessions -- if he could've played the political game more shrewdly -- in order to move the ball for his pet policies and keep his seat. He balked at that question. "What is [playing] a little bit of the game?" he asked. Fenty said compromising would have jeopardized the reforms his administration wanted to implement.
But they were also jeopardized by his loss. Shortly after the primary, Rhee, who shares Fenty's unapologetic style and had bumped heads with Gray in the past, characterized the outcome as "devastating for the schoolchildren of Washington, D.C.," and stepped down from the chancellorship. That meant even more instability for the district's public schools: Rhee was the school's seventh chancellor in a decade. After Rhee left, the improved student test scores came under fresh scrutiny due to allegations of widespread cheating.
Fenty said the concerns over cheating were isolated to one school, and that many of his policies -- including a new teachers' contract, which prioritized performance over seniority in case of layoffs and allowed teachers to be paid more if they hit certain targets -- are still in place, and would remain as important models for school districts around the country.
"I wasn't under any illusion that what we were doing was popular. I knew it was unpopular, and maybe even very unpopular," he conceded. "In my mind, politicians are elected to do the right thing; in fact if it's unpopular, they should do it anyway."
Fenty called for the end of teachers' unions in order to save a failing American educational system that he said is "too broken," "too messed up" and “needs to be fixed too fast" for officials to have to navigate prohibitive union rules.
Fixing schools and boosting student performance "will happen materially faster if you get rid of all the workplace rules and regulations that prohibit management from making the decisions that are necessary," he said. "If every principal could hire whatever teacher they wanted to, and be able to judge that teacher and hold them accountable, that is the best thing they could ever do for students. It's up to the teachers and the principals to [decide] how best respond to students."
Fenty made waves earlier this year when he sided with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin in his push to end collective bargaining for public employees there.
Fenty's anti-union stance is a break from Democratic orthodoxy, especially for the son of a mother who was both a public school teacher and teachers' union shop steward. Fenty said his retired parents, whom he described as old-school lefties, have no problem with his current stance toward organized labor. "No, they absolutely agree with me. It's a different time."
Toward the end of his term, with ill feelings over his school cuts fomenting discontent among blacks, his engagement with those communities was called into question when a spasm of violence rocked the city. The mayor was vacationing with his family when four people were killed and five others were wounded in single episode, the bloodiest in years.
He showed up at the scene the next day to a cascade of boos from the crowd of onlookers. The media jumped all over the story.
“To be honest with you, in the beginning of my term, it probably wouldn't have been an issue," Fenty said.
He said the boos didn't bother him. "You develop very tough skin, maybe too tough."
"You can learn more from being harder on yourself, but I just refuse," he said. "I think, 'What could I have done differently in this particular instance? We have a homicide rate lower than at any point since 1964.' So I couldn't have done anything else in terms of law enforcement. Could I have done anything different as a politician? Maybe I could have come home earlier the next day but at that point the die had been cast."
Mayors of D.C. don't have natural next steps to higher office, and Fenty said that the relatively low political ceiling emboldened him; he never had to worry about positioning himself politically for the future.
"The only way I'm different now is that I'm more convinced that that's the way to go," he said. "Which probably is another reason why I would never run again, because I would do it exactly the same. I'm convinced hiring the right people and going a hundred miles an hours is the only way to run a government and get things done."