In D.C.'s Mayor, Echoes Of Obama

It's easy to draw comparisons between Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty and President Barack Obama. Like Obama, Fenty is an African-American Democrat, the child of a black father and a white mother. He even has a wife named Michelle. Two years in, Fenty is working hard to forge an image as a can-do risk-taker in a city that sorely needs one.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The inauguration of President Barack Obama put the spotlight on Washington, D.C., and on its dynamic, young mayor, Adrian Fenty. In a few minutes, we'll hear from a Washington Post columnist about the traditionally rocky relationship between the White House and D.C.'s City Hall. But first, Libby Lewis has this profile of the mayor.

LIBBY LEWIS: A bunch of city workers wend their way through D.C.'s troubled Trinidad neighborhood. This is a ritual of Mayor Adrian Fenty's regular walkthroughs in the city to talk to residents and to fix things - potholes, street lights, uncollected garbage and such. On this walkthrough, the streets and alleys are mostly neat and clean. Fenty's tall and sleek. He's in a long, black coat and running gloves emblazoned with the name of his family's local sporting goods shop, Fleet Feet. At the end of the walkthrough, Fenty's talking about plans to build a new sports field for the school nearby. But resident Antoinette Douglas(ph) complains about the kids who hang out on this very block to deal drugs.

Ms. ANTOINETTE DOUGLAS: We got the traffic, drug trafficking. We got all kinds of stuff going over here. What are you doing now?

LEWIS: Fenty responds this way.

Mayor ADRIAN FENTY (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): I know you mean to be a lot more positive than you sound. So let me just try and re-create it in a positive vein here.

LEWIS: Fenty takes Douglas's grievance and puts it in the context of his plans for the future. Douglas listens and nods. You can tell her concern is still there. But it's tempered. She's been heard. Later, I meet the mayor in a noisy Starbucks.

Mayor FENTY: I think for so long, the people's issues have been marginalized or dismissed or divided. But the new way of approaching things in politics is just to get things done. People don't have any time for all of the rhetoric and excuses. So whether you're president or governor or mayor, I mean, you're going to be judged on how you get things done.

LEWIS: It's easy to draw comparisons between President Obama and Mayor Fenty. Both are Democrats. Both are the child of a black father and a white mother. Fenty picks it up.

Mayor FENTY: Both of our wives are named Michelle. All four of us are lawyers.

LEWIS: A week after Obama first came to town, the mayor met him for a chili, half-smoked sausage at Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street. Fenty says they talked about the city, the schools, affordable housing, and voting rights for D.C.

Mayor FENTY: I was so excited for the city that we had a new president who is excited about getting out and about to the neighborhoods and knowing the issues of the city and helping to solve them.

LEWIS: They're both sports nuts. Fenty does triathlons. He's brought that mindset to running a city that for decades, ran more like a tortoise. Columnist Marc Fisher writes about the District of Columbia for the Washington Post.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): All of the images come together in this guy who's about action. He's young, he's dynamic, he's thin, he's biracial, and he's intelligent, and he's all these wonderful things.

LEWIS: You can hear a "but" coming. We'll get to that in a moment. Adrian Fenty swept every ward in the city when he first won office in 2006. He took off like a sprinter. He seized control of the abysmal city school system. He named a new chancellor and a police chief, mostly without consulting city leaders. Marc Fisher again.

Mr. FISHER: He's not very good at playing politics.

LEWIS: His relations with the city council are prickly. He's made some of the labor unions seethe with his school chancellor's hard line on teacher performance, and his own decision to fire city workers he's deemed incompetent. Phil Mendelson's an at-large member of the city council. He thinks the mayor sometimes acts too fast without thinking things through.

Mr. PHIL MENDELSON (Council Member, Washington, D.C., Council): The public likes that decisiveness and take no prisoners, and we're going to get rid of the dead wood. The council is more thoughtful about it. Only time will tell whether the mayor has struck the right balance.

LEWIS: Fenty says he's made some mistakes in his tenure, and he says he makes adjustments when he has. But he also says...

Mayor FENTY: Mayors are elected to make decisions, as are governors and presidents. And ultimately, there's no way in the world that a decision you make is going to please everybody.

LEWIS: Fenty grew up here. He was born two years after Martin Luther King was assassinated and parts of Washington burned in rage. His parents brought up their three sons in the political activism of the times. Phil Fenty is his father.

Mr. PHIL FENTY: We took them to demonstrations. We - when Martin Luther King birthday, we were trying to get that as an issue, we took them to the demonstrations, and they were very, you know, involved in that. So our family sort of grew around those sort of things.

LEWIS: Even when residents don't agree with Fenty on something he's done, like allowing police checkpoints in a neighborhood, they often adore him anyway because he takes care of their neighborhoods. Erin Rebhunt(ph) lives on a street lined with grand, turn-of-the-century rowhouses, not far from the U.S. Capitol. Rebhunt's 4-year-old daughter is on the floor with her building blocks.

(Soundbite of girl playing)

LEWIS: Last year, someone broke into Rebhunt's house while the family was home. Nobody was hurt. But soon after that, a neighbor was nearly killed in a drive-by shooting. Rebhunt joined a neighborhood safety group that convinced the city to install a surveillance camera near the scene of the shooting. The safety group kept meeting, Rebhunt tells me, as we walk through her neighborhood.

Ms. ERIN REBHUNT: Other things came up, like how to make it more of a community, what sort of things we could do. And one of the things was trying to calm traffic.

LEWIS: They decided to push for speed bumps, though the neighborhood had been trying to get them for years. Fenty came to one of their meetings. He brought reps from the city's transportation office to hear the residents' petition. The city workers said they couldn't install speed bumps anytime soon. The mayor listened.

Ms. REBHUNT: And he said, well, I don't understand why we can't just do it. And it was - and then it was done.

LEWIS: Within weeks.

Ms. REBHUNT: It was a really gratifying moment because it was like, yeah, why not?

LEWIS: Speed bumps may not sound like much, but Rebhunt says the experience left her feeling, for the first time, like a real citizen with a voice. Libby Lewis, NPR News, Washington.

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