D.C. Mayor Wants Control of Schools, Increased Policing
TONY COX, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox, in for Farai Chideya, who is on vacation.
Almost three weeks ago, 36-year-old Adrian Fenty took over as the new mayor of Washington, D.C. On January 11th, the mayor laid out the 200 goals of his new 100-day plan. Top among them are more community policing, and transferring authority over the city schools from the Board of Education to his office. It is an ambitious agenda for an ambitious man.
NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Mayor Fenty and asked if he's encountered resistance to his leadership style.
Mayor ADRIAN FENTY (Washington, D.C.): Running the city more like a business really was kind of the essence of the campaign that we ran. And people, they ate it up because people want to see the same type of efficiency, accountability, elasticity in the government that they see if they were going to spend their money in the private sector.
I mean we are the stewards of the public trust. I think the days when the government, you know, moved at a sloth-like pace are over. And I don't think that's just over in the District of Columbia. It's the same type of message you'd hear in Baltimore under former Mayor O'Malley or in New York under current Mayor Bloomberg.
On the West Coast, you mentioned Villaraigosa and Gavin Newsom in San Francisco. I think there's a newer, more business-minded executive taking over the mayor's offices in these cities.
FARAI CHIDEYA: You recently made a trip to New York City to meet with the mayor and see how Washington, D.C. can learn from New York. So what did you learn?
Mayor FENTY: What we learned were two things. One, the substantive results, outcomes, can improve an urban school setting. If a mayor is willing to lay his political capital on the line and make tough decisions, show tough love and be focused about it for a good period of time, the school system can improve. I think that's a marked difference from what people have been saying about urban school systems for a while, and that's that, you know, we're pretty much stuck with lousy performance. So that was one thing we learned.
And the second thing we learned is that, you know, people expect the mayor to lead, that you know, if you have a tough issue - New York, they had a lot of opposition, but Bloomberg and his schools chancellor haven't shied away from the opposition. They embraced it and welcomed it and done what's best for the city and what's best for the kids who are coming through the school system.
CHIDEYA: And you think that their progress shows that you can make the same in D.C.?
Mayor FENTY: Well, as I said at our city council hearing, you know, if they can make progress in New York with 1,400 schools, we can certainly do the same thing here in the District of Columbia, where we've got about a tenth of the schools, at 140. And I look forward to working with the council and the citizens towards making sure that our school system becomes world-class.
CHIDEYA: Let me break D.C. down with you a little bit. You are a native. I am a native of Baltimore, and I lived in D.C. for a while in the early '90s. Now, when I lived there, the city was grittier, less artsy, and certainly less overpriced.
As you've seen D.C. grow, what you see is African-Americans moving out of some areas like the U-Street Corridor. You see a lot of opportunity and growth, but for the long-time residents of Washington, which has always been a city with kind of one layer of people of privilege and another layer of people who don't have any, how are you going to pull together to make sure that different constituencies, old and new, really have an opportunity in your city?
Mayor FENTY: Well, we'll focus on the objective, because again, I think even residents who've been here in these cities for a while want to see results. And we're going to focus on making sure that we are the most aggressive city, creating affordable housing, the most aggressive city in making sure that we improve our schools, improve health care for our lower-income neighbors.
But I also think in a city like the District of Columbia, they're ready for some good old-fashion outreach, making sure that our government is visible and engaged and result-oriented in the lower-income neighborhoods, as we are in some of the neighbors, as you said, that are kind of being revitalized, if you will.
CHIDEYA: What do you want to do for people who really are at the bottom of the economic rung in Washington, D.C.? You've just talked about schools. You've mentioned affordable housing. Can you tell us a bit more about that, and also about crime?
Mayor FENTY: Well, you know, I think what we've committed to during the campaign was that no matter what neighborhood you lived in, you would have the same access to quality affordable housing, the same access to a community policing based police department, to the same type of infrastructure and public works. In essence, the same government services that anyone in any other part of the city could expect. And then we've got some - we still have some social issues and social challenges in the city. I think that includes, you know, health care, our mental health services, child welfare system, the juvenile justice system. As I said during my inauguration speech, you know, we've got to make sure that this government reserves its best performance for those who need the government the most.
CHIDEYA: How are you hamstrung or are you hamstrung by D.C.'s relationship to the federal government? It doesn't operate in many ways like a typical city because there is a whole complex set of financial links and financial demands that the federal government can make on D.C. Are you intimidated by that? What are you going to do to make that relationship work?
Mayor FENTY: Yeah. Congress is involved in the District of Columbia like no other place, but you wouldn't know it if you were in City Hall. They kind of stay away at arm's length. We pass 99.9 percent of our laws and our budget without any squeak from Congress. That being said, the biggest glaring problem is that we don't have a vote in the national legislature. We don't have two senators and a congressperson like we should. There's a big issue that result from that. We can't impose the residency requirement on our workers. We can't tax income at its source, and that has longtime financial and structural issues and problems.
But again, the day-to-day operations of the government are in the control of the city council and the mayor, and you'll never hear me use it as an excuse why we couldn't do things well. And that's - I think in general my predecessor and my former colleagues on the council have been able to make a lot of improvements. The perception of the city is turning around and we're going to just keep the improvement going.
CHIDEYA: Now, you worked for Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents D.C. in Congress, who doesn't have a vote. And I was thinking of this hilarious Stephen Colbert routine that you probably saw, where she said, you know, we deserve taxation - representation with our taxation. And he said, well, it's the United States of America, you're not a state, are you?
I mean do you ever feel, because D.C. is not a state and your citizens cannot vote for the same offices in terms of getting congressional representation that can vote, that you guys are really hamstrung and behind the ball from the get-go?
Mayor FENTY: Well, I'm not sure if your question is as simple as it sounds, but if your question is, do residents of the District of Columbia deserve to be able to vote for two senators and a congressperson, well, I mean you only need to look to the Declaration of Independence. I mean it says that if you're taxed, then no citizen of the United States of America will ever be taxed without having the opportunity to vote in Congress. Yet in the District of Columbia almost 600,000 residents have that happening right now, and it's happened for 200 years.
CHIDEYA: Are you going to try to push that ball forward? Not that you have the ability to change it yourself, but are you going to become a champion for increased voting rights for the people of D.C.?
Mayor FENTY: Well, the answer to that question is yes. I am joined by the almost 600,000 residents. But I really think at this point it's become much bigger than that. Everywhere we go, and as we have visitors in and from around the country, our people are appalled at this. I mean, you can't go to one state in this union where people don't think that this is a travesty of the U.S. Congress and that this shouldn't be immediately reversed.
I mean, if you tell people in any state, whether it's New Mexico, North Dakota, Montana, that there are American citizens that pay federal taxes that don't have a vote in Congress, do you know how outraged they get at that? It's not just district residents, not just the mayor of the city - it's the entire country that thinks it's an atrocity. So I think it will be changed soon.
CHIDEYA: You know, you are someone who I want to know a little bit more about on a personal level. I admire your fitness. I tried to do a big fitness challenge here, and I was not as successful as I hoped. You're someone who is an athlete, a father, a husband. How is your family dealing with all of this change? What do your kids think about this? And how do you keep up your fitness routine?
Mayor FENTY: Well, the family is great. You know, the good thing about my transition from council member to mayor is I served six years as a council member, so we established a pace by which I could get my job done, stay out in the community, spend time with the family and handle personal issues, including exercise. And you just fit the exercise in, run early in the morning, and on the weekends.
CHIDEYA: Kind of take me into one of those runs. As you are running along the pavement, and you must love running to be someone who is so accomplished, athletically, and you see a city that you now lead, how do you feel as you're moving through that city, alone?
Mayor FENTY: I really don't spend a lot of time reflecting on being the mayor. I'm really just more focused on what work needs to be done in a given hour, day, week or month. And I enjoy every aspect of my job. I enjoy the - meeting people, trying to bring people hope, engaging with the city council, trying to make sure laws get passed, involving myself in the budget process, cajoling or trying to get government employees to do the best job they can.
So if any - if I think about anything during a run or otherwise, it's really just about the work that needs to be done. And of course I've been living in the city my whole life and I'm like a lot of other people. I think the District of Columbia is the best city in the world.
CHIDEYA: So on that note, how do you want to be remembered as a mayor? What legacy do you want to leave this city that you love and that you've lived in?
Mayor FENTY: Any politician or public servant is very similar to any - to people who have jobs in the private sector. I think the goal is to, you know, take the job and the position and the agency or division you're in charge of right now, and then to move it as far as humanly possible in the period of time you have stewardship over it.
And then you pass the baton on to someone else so that they can continue to keep the city moving. And that's exactly what I expect. We're going to move this city as far along as humanly possible towards being a world-class city in every different respect. And then once I've pushed it along far enough, pass it along to someone else to take it the rest of the way.
CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Mayor, thank you so much.
Mayor FENTY: Thank you very much. And I look forward to seeing you out on the running trails.
COX: Thirty-six-year-old Adrian Fenty is the new mayor of Washington, D.C. He spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.