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Adrian Fenty & Brian Lamb, Together for the First Time

If you missed Brian Lamb's "Q&A" program on C-SPAN Sunday, you missed America's most original and innovative interviewer getting inside the head of Washington's new mayor, a man who is not always smooth of tongue but often refreshingly frank and direct in his public utterings.

Lamb is the rare political interviewer who understands that the personal and the political ought not be divided. His rapidfire, non-linear style tests his guests, not only in their knowledge of their topic but in their ability to connect their public persona with their background and core beliefs.

Lamb got Fenty talking about his parents:

FENTY: I like to tell people that my parents are hippies. They moved to the District of Columbia in the late '60s from Buffalo, New York. They got involved in all the social issues of the day, from the Vietnam war to the poor people's movement. And they were social activists here locally. They got involved with the statehood movement to try and make sure the District of Columbia became a state. And I think all that became engrained in me. At some point along the way, they actually opened up a small sporting good business which they still own today and still operate.

LAMB: Your Mom's white; your Dad's black. What kind of life has that meant for you in this area?

FENTY: Well, you know, my parents are, you know, just - they're my parents, and they're great. In this area - the District of Columbia is very diverse, very progressive, a very welcoming environment. And I think the country in general is moving that way. I think people are most - more focused on issues and decisions than they are around race as they used to be. But still, it's an issue, and growing up in a biracial family I think gave me a perspective. Even in my own family, as I've told people throughout the campaign, there was a little friction when my Mom married my Dad.

And it's been very healthy to me to see people grow and mature, and that friction evaporated over time and people realized that human beings are just human beings. And I tell people that I think kind of my tolerance and the racial tolerance I have individually, my just optimism about bringing people together, seeing my own family do that around my mother and father's marriage that has lasted, you know, some 40 years now....My Dad, again, born in Buffalo, New York, but his father's from Barbados and from Panama. He's the epitome of a - of a - of a person who's soft-spoken and who leads by example. My Mom was born in Buffalo, but from Italian heritage. She's the epitome of a mother who wears everything on her sleeve.

Here's a question I'd never heard the mayor-elect address:

LAMB: Why Oberlin College?

FENTY: Oberlin - it came down to Columbia and Oberlin. And I was born and raised in a city and I decided I wanted to be in a rural place for awhile, and it was just one of the best colleges in the country and I got a great - I thought I'd get a great education there, and that's exactly what happened. Nothing like a good, solid liberal arts education to prepare you for law school.

Lamb asked Fenty about his opposition to city funding of the baseball stadium, and Fenty defended his position that the team should have paid for the ballpark itself. But interestingly, Fenty, who had just visited San Francisco, has come around to seeing the powerful economic development engine that a downtown stadium can be:

At the end of the day, I'm a huge baseball fan, a huge fan of the Washington Nationals, as are my kids and we're going to look forward to just rooting for them for many years, and a huge fan of what - the economic development that will come around the stadium. I was just in San Francisco within the last two weeks, looked at how that stadium has transformed that area. I just thought that as the team paid for the stadium in San Francisco, we should have done that here in the District of Columbia, but we'll make sure it's a great project. We'll make sure it's great for the city.

Fenty gave his usual energized but somewhat vague talk about how to improve the schools by changing the governance structure, and he was generally praising of the Metropolitan Police Department, but added this:

I've got to really come in and show the type of active, big-city community policing that you would expect in a place like Chicago where you've got beat officers everywhere, where you layer that with officers who are driving through the neighborhoods and using technology better.

Lamb has little patience for pat rhetoric, so when Fenty started listing the usual reasons for the city's woeful schools and shocking crime level, the interviewer stepped it up:

LAMB: Truth or myth that ...

FENTY: Yes?

LAMB: ... D.C. school system per child gets more money than any place in the United States?

FENTY: It's certainly more than any urban ...

LAMB: ... 15,000 a kid?

FENTY: It's more than 13,000, and let me just give you two examples which show you how - you know, how staggering this is. Chicago spends $5,500 per student, so that's less than half. And Miami is $6,500 per student. I use both of those jurisdictions because they are seen as two of the jurisdictions where reform is happening a lot more quickly than it is here in the District of Columbia.... The mayor, Richard Daley, has gotten a lot more control in Chicago. We've got to do that. We can't spend 13,000 per child. It's on average with kind of the suburbs in the District of Columbia, but it - we need to be able to show more results for it. $13,000 per child - I mean you could send your kid to private - send all the kids to a private school for that.... I say our school system should work for everybody who needs it.

LAMB: You've been in these schools, I assume.

FENTY: Yes.

LAMB: What's wrong? I mean the teachers get enough money?

FENTY: Well, to be honest with you, it all comes down to something very simple. We probably have - we probably have enough money in the system, but the money is not being spent wisely enough. Probably a lot of overhead in central administration, we have a huge special education budget here in the District of Columbia which is more a reflection of us not being able to have special education resources in the classroom than it is for that being a high priority. So we need to bring all of that into line.

You know, our system is devoid of just the basics - arts, language, music, AP classes, talented and gifted programs, vocational education, special education. We'll do those things....

LAMB: What's the problem in your opinion? Why so much drugs?

FENTY: I just think that that's - there will always be this problem in the District of Columbia unless you have the police department cracking down on it. When I ...

LAMB: Are they - are they doing that now?

FENTY: ... it's gotten better, but a long way to go. When I was in Chicago and when I was talking to their number two - their chief of staff saying, "Listen, what we do is we just snuff out any drugs when they - when they make themselves visible." You know, I'm sure that there're still some problems in Chicago, but that's the mentality we have to have. Whether you're using technology, officers on the street, or just, as you said, redeploying some of the large amount of officers we have, which sometimes get too overly focused on downtown events, into the neighborhoods. So that's a big priority for the District of Columbia.

But again, a lot of it is addressing it on the front end. You know, if your kids are educated, if they're becoming productive members of our community, if the families are being strengthened, then there's less of an attraction - there's less of a demand. You can shut down the supply all you want, but I think you've also got to work on shutting down the demand, and getting kids involved in healthy activities is the biggest way to do that.

Later, Fenty talked about just how to do that, how to crack the toughest nut of all, the cycle of dysfunction that lies behind the schools' inability to make a difference:

"What they do in other cities is they extend the day. In Miami, they've got these things called "parent academies" where parents are taught after school. They're taught to make sure kids do their homework. They're even taught to demand more out of the principals and the teachers.

Let me just talk about one of our top 50 schools, and it's actually a charter school here in the city. It's called KIPP Academy - one of the top 50 schools in the country.... The first day they have the parents sign a pledge that they will stay involved in their kid's education, so they're driving home this accountability from the first day. If the parent doesn't sign it, then the kids don't even get in the school. And on the reverse side, they make every teacher give that parent a cell phone number, so if anything is wrong they can get in touch with the teacher. It sounds a little bit Draconian. It sounds a little bit like, "Wow, does a teacher really have to do all that?"

Finally, in a bit of Lamb's patented non-sequitur questioning style, Fenty was asked:

LAMB: Have you ever smoked?

FENTY: Have I ever smoked? I don't smoke. I'm a - I'm a runner.

LAMB: You know why I'm asking.

FENTY: Yes.

LAMB: Because you led the whole effort in the District ...

FENTY: I never smoke. I don't drink coffee.

LAMB: ... to stop smoke - why don't you drink coffee?

FENTY: I just got to just go on my - go on vitamin water.

LAMB: Go back to the smoking.

FENTY: Yes?

LAMB: What's going to happen in the District when it comes to the rights of people to smoke in public places?

FENTY: It's going to be like other jurisdictions I think. You know, there's a huge debate - we passed a law to prevent smoking in indoor work places, and it was the right thing to do. In other jurisdictions, there's always been a little bit of concern amongst small businesses, and there should be, that if you - if you do this, it's going to hurt their sales, especially restaurants and hotels.

But I think we're going to have the same result as Los Angeles and Boston and New York and other places that have gone smoke-free. If anything, business stays stable. But in some places, they've been able to demonstrate that it actually grows. And I firmly believe that if New York City, you know, with all of the restaurants and hotels they have, can go smoke-free, we can do it here in the District of Columbia and that will - that law will take effect in January, and it's long overdue.

By Marc Fisher |  November 17, 2006; 7:09 AM ET
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Comments

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Thanks for posting the interview, Marc. I love the sense of hopeful newness Adrian brings.

Good cabinate decisions, eh?

Posted by: Mark | November 17, 2006 9:09 AM

It's interesting that Fenty has picked up on the District's special-ed spending. What an improvement it would be if that system could be reformed to work for the children rather than the lawyers.

Posted by: Tom T. | November 17, 2006 11:01 AM

I'm always amazed when people here in DC agitate for more money in the schools. If we put more money into the school system here, it would explode, showering the city streets with sacks of cash. $13,000 per student - it's obscene and more like a citywide scam than an educational system. The people in the system are the problem, not the money or the system itself. And frankly, the school system in DC is so small compared to other big cities, there really is NO excuse for the lack of meaningful progress. Instead of waiting for some corrupt administrator to do something arrestable, just fire the ones who don't get results. Having no one in charge might be better than a den of thieves.

Posted by: Joe C. | November 17, 2006 11:53 AM

Thanks for the article. Most of us would never have seen the interview or that side of Fenty. In terms of the schools, its refreshing to see someone of the stature of a Mayor identifying "parents" as a required part of the solution addressing a failed school system. Yes, unqualified teachers and "retired on the job" principals are part of the problem; decaying buildings and a lack of school supplies are part of the problem; as are a disfunctional school bureaucracy and a corrupt teachers union part of the problem. But it goes back to the so called adults who do not have the parenting skills (or maybe the interest) needed to raise their children.
I wish Fenty success in his efforts to reform a failed school system. Parent academies which are used in Miami and school pledges like those from the KIPP Academy in DC are worth exploring. Go to it Fenty!! Hoping you are successful.

Posted by: DC Resident | November 17, 2006 1:04 PM

Why do people have a right to smoke? The US Surgeon General has proven that one particle of cigarette smoke is enough to kill a non-smoker. People don't have a right to introduce the poisons in cigarette smoke into the drinking water, why are they allowed to add it to the air?

Posted by: Anonymous | November 17, 2006 1:17 PM

Thank you for posting this, Marc. I don't agree with all of Fenty's positions, but I'm pleased with his optimism and energy, and really hope he can apply his skills wisely to improve our schools. I'm also happy to hear a public official finally acknowledge that DCPS offers almost nothing in the way of arts, music, foreign languages, etc. It's truly a shame. Although I realize that improving the most disadvantaged schools should be the top priority, we also need to recognize that the middle class will never start using the DC public schools en masse until they offer something more than reading, math, and discipline all day long.

Posted by: glover pk | November 17, 2006 1:46 PM

What recommendations do you have, Marc, as to how people interested in helping schools and students might volunteer? Are there particular programs you recommend? Am interested in possibilities that might involve working w/ adults, as well as those that would involve working w/ kids.

Posted by: Julie | November 17, 2006 3:48 PM

And a Yeah! to Oberlin as the gateway to law school

Posted by: 44074 | November 17, 2006 4:55 PM

I didn't see the whole interview, but the little I saw was interesting. I understand where Mr. Fenty get's his liberalism or progessive thinking from, his parents. I don't always agree with him on everything, but I think, he's making a good decision to get rid of Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. The morale is at an all time low in MPD, and the Fourth District is lacking leadership. Hopefully, Mayor elect Fenty will get rid of the Commander, the Captains, and Administrative Lt. at the Fourth District, because we need to see some new leadership. I don't think, education is as important to many District residents, because many are single or childless. Public safety is very important to all District residents and taxpayers, and I am glad, Mayor elect Fenty is paying attention to community policing in our neighborhoods.

Posted by: Black DC Ward 4 Native | November 18, 2006 2:19 AM

Black DC Ward 4 Native:

I agree with you about Ramsey.

But why is it necessary for you to put your race in your name?

Posted by: Hillman | November 20, 2006 9:14 AM

Hillman, I wanted people to know, I am a black man, because most of the comments made on many Post blogs are not by blacks. I just wanted to give my thought from a black prospective. Sometimes black people are absent from important discussions like this one. I hope, I didn't offend you? I think, Cathy Lanier will make an excellent Police Chief. She has great social and communication skills. I think, Mayor Elect Fenty made a great selection selecting Police Chief Lanier, and many residents of Ward 4 admire her.

Posted by: DC Black Ward 4 Native | November 21, 2006 12:37 AM

Black DC Ward 4 Native: Thanks for your views. Honestly.

I'm a white guy who is with a West African black lady, and has a young child. Of course I've got my biases. I think there's a good argument for why the schools (and the larger poverty culture) need to be addressed, and that is: We won't have a stable society or tax base without whatever passes nowadays for a middle class. DINKs, YUPPIES, Empty Nesters, etc, they're all important- very important- but they constitute only a middling percentage of the aggregate area demographic. More importantly, together they are the least stable (most likely to pass, move on) part. If I'm permitted to generalize, they are not as stable as a family with kids. Building a city demographic on them therefor would be expected to increase neighborhood transience and instability.

As a tangent, people need to realize that the structural deficit DC schools have is quite different than any spending per pupil number.

Posted by: Mark | November 22, 2006 6:39 PM

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