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Adrian Fenty was no Mike Bloomberg

I moved to Adrian Fenty's Washington from Mike Bloomberg's New York just a month after Fenty was inaugurated in 2007. There was a lot of excitement about the city's new mayor. He was young (the youngest ever), aggressive and promised to do things a new way. And Fenty adopted many of the ways of Bloomberg, for whom I worked as a policy adviser in his first run in 2001. The bullpen set up of his office. The singular focus on education. And a customer-service approach to dispensing city services through a 311 system. But time and again over the last four years I've been reminded that Fenty is no Bloomberg.

The one area where Fenty emulated Bloomberg with great success was in school reform. Both men secured mayoral control of schools. Both men selected no-nonsense schools chancellors and then backed them 100 percent as they took unpopular steps to shake up the bureaucracy, so that it worked for the benefit of the children not the adults. But after reading the autopsy on why he lost, I couldn't help thinking that Fenty learned all the wrong lessons from his mentor.

Bloomberg was able to get things done not by fiat or simply because he thought he was doing the right thing. He worked his relationship with the City Council and key constituencies. He didn't just let results speak for themselves. He spoke about them often and made sure the press was there to report on them. Most importantly, he listened to staff and advisers when they felt things were going off the rails.

Sure, Bloomberg did plenty of things that weren't popular. When he became mayor, he made it clear that the press wouldn't know his every movement on weekends as they did with his I'm-in-control-here predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. Finding out whether Bloomberg was at his house in Bermuda or London or Florida became a sport for the New York press corps. By contrast, Fenty took more than a few unexplained trips on someone else's dime and couldn't understand what the fuss was about. Bloomberg ended smoking in bars and restaurants over the objections of smokers, restaurant and bar owners and anyone else who didn't like his embrace of the Nanny State. More seriously, Bloomberg took office four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and had to take politically painful but economically necessary steps to plug a $5 billion budget gap. By Nov., 2002, he jacked up property taxes by 18.5 percent to close a projected $6 billion gap in the coming years.

Through it all Bloomberg exhibited his characteristic crankiness. But he articulated clearly why he was doing what he was doing. Because he has his own plane and doesn't have to worry about the nightmare of commercial air travel, he can be back in New York City within two hours if need be. When it came to tax increases, Bloomberg was blunt during the city's fiscal woes. He argued that the city couldn't cut its way out of its deficit. The deep service cuts that crippled the city during the 1970s were not an option. Revenue needed to be raised. So, if New Yorkers wanted cops on the streets and trash picked up, they better just suck it up, 'cause we have no real choice.

There was another thing Bloomberg had going for him: a multi-billion-dollar bank account that buttressed his "I don't need this job" independence. Fenty's problem was that he seemed not to want the job. Unfortunately, as he learned Tuesday night, no matter how much good you've done, if voters sense that you couldn't care less what kind of job you're doing or what they think, they'll send you packing.

By Jonathan Capehart  | September 15, 2010; 5:49 PM ET
Categories:  Capehart  | Tags:  Jonathan Capehart  
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Jonathan --

Thanks so much for sharing that article. I couldn't agree with you more. What I think is also worth mentioning is the incessant cronyism that existed within the administration.

I had the pleasure of passing by the Fenty HQ last night, and couldn't help but notice all the entitled cronies that were in the room. Sinclair Skinner, Omar Karim and the oafish Keith Lomax. (famously known for borrowing and crashing the Mayor's government vehicle.) The most refreshing outcome of this election, is that people like Lomax and the aforementioned crew will have to find work on their own merit....good riddance to those entitled, talentless bottom feeders.

Posted by: bart1979 | September 15, 2010 9:51 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, as a mere citizen without routine contact with the mayor, I don't have your perspective. But I also don't have the impression of disdain you cite.

I saw someone who worked hard and showed up at a lot of community events and tragedies. He didn't wade in and weep with the citizens, as Barry did, but he also didn't go to the Super Bowl in the middle of a blizzard.

As for entitled cronies, bart, I do wonder who we'll see now. You don't think our new mayor doesn't have some political debts to pay? I don't doubt that it will be worse rather than beter.

Posted by: thmas | September 15, 2010 10:41 PM | Report abuse

Interesting, thmas, that you are certain that Gray will have more cronies than Fenty. Is that based on anything other than the race of many of Gray's voters?

Posted by: uh_huhh | September 16, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

Jonathan- thanks for this piece. It echos much of what I have said in my Blade columns and blog comments over the past few months. I have said that I think one of Fenty's biggest problems was that he was adopted and mentored by Bloomberg and began to think he was the same and that what would work in NY would also work in DC. Fenty forgot we are still a small town in many ways.

Posted by: peterdc | September 16, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

One thing Fenty did lean from Bloomberg was how to artificially inflate test scores to make "reform" look better. Of course, that came crashing down in New YorK this summer when the adults stepped in. How long before we learn that the alleged "improvement" in DC under Fenty/Rhee was ginned-up too?

Posted by: mcstowy | September 16, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Rhee said, "Yesterday's election results were devastating, devastating," Well it’s not about YOU chancellor Rhee. By the way, Rhee you never burn your bridges!

If Mayor Gray retains Chancellor Rhee, it would be devastating to his administration. Chancellor Rhee and Mayor Fenty were held accountable for their arrogant and condescending behavior toward the people of District of Columbia. Chancellor Rhee is incompetent and she end up as one the most polarizing figures in our city. She had no vision, just a narrow goal of improving test scores. Rhee’s legacy will be known for firing, threatening and intimidating principals, teachers and staff members. Rhee never had a plan evidenced by only 10 schools meeting the national standards. The people have spoken and this Rhee experiment is over. Rhee must be fired!

Posted by: hello101 | September 16, 2010 3:24 PM | Report abuse

He hasn't done a lot of good, contrary to your opinion. He ignored rules and regulations and did the heck whatever he wanted. Yes, it's true that your darling Bloomberg could get away with bad acts like that because he's already got a wad of cash. However, Adrian had only ego. More importantly, democracy itself, not just the legislative part of it, is like making sausage. Bloody and messy, yes. But you'd darn well better be ready to watch the process from start to finish and be willing as a citizen to be personally involved. Otherwise, at the end, not only will you be covered with blood and mess, if you haven't been present and participating at all levels, you might end up eating mess as well, while somebody tells you it's sausage. Democracy isn't neat, simple or easy. But unless there is significant citizen contribution at every level, there'll be mess for dinner sooner or later, and you can take THAT to the bank.

What folks like Rhee, Bloomberg, Fenty and a whole new crop of government elected officials and appointees have known is that if you talk trash, do it loudly and move fast you can pull the wool over a whole lot of peoples' eyes while you shift the playing field totally to the elite, and the rest of the population has nothing left.

Posted by: honestynpolitics | September 16, 2010 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks a lot for this piece

Posted by: thaidot | September 18, 2010 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Thanks a lot for this piece

Posted by: thaidot | September 18, 2010 10:05 PM | Report abuse

The MAIN reason for Fenty's lost was the incompetent, inexperienced an arrogant Chancellor Rhee. She brought nothing new to DCPS. Folks like Peter Nickles and Ron Moten were also factors with their condescending behavior toward the people of District of Columbia.

Posted by: hello101 | September 19, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

Two things. First, Mayor Williams created the customer-service approach to dispensing city services through a 311 system during his term.

Secondly, based on your assessment of Bloomberg, it may be that Fenty should have learned that no matter how much good you've done, if you go out of your way to make many voters and the press your enemy, they'll send you packing.

Posted by: alwayswonderswhy | September 19, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse

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