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Fulfilling a commitment

Fenty practices ‘retail politics’ to serve ward

(Published November 19, 2001)

By PATRICE DICKENS

Staff Writer


Councilman Adrian Fenty takes notes about a constituent’s concerns after a recent neighborhood meeting he sponsored in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood.

Adrian Fenty steps from behind his desk. Armed with a toothbrush in one hand and a tube of toothpaste in his back pants pocket, he heads to the bathroom to prepare for the next events on his schedule.

He must attend a community meeting and a dinner-tribute celebration, which begins right after the meeting ends. Standing by his receptionist’s desk, he looks at the conflicting events, pondering how he is going to make it on time to the second event.

Finally he accepts reality -- he will not make it to the dinner-tribute on time.

"We’ve got to do a much better job with the schedule or it’s going to bite us in the face," he said to his office manager, with a hint of disappointment in his voice.

"Tell her (the person on the phone) I will be there by 8:15 p.m.," he said, as he rushes out of the office.

Fenty, serving the first year of his term as Ward 4 councilman, maintains a hectic schedule -- staff meetings, town hall meetings, public appearances, council meetings, and the list goes on.

But his busy schedule also means that he is visible in Ward 4 neighborhoods -- something that Fenty accused his predecessor, longtime councilwoman Charlene Drew Jarvis, of not being when he campaigned against her and won.

During recent interviews, residents compared their new councilman, who devotes full time to his elected duties, favorably to their former councilwoman, who did double duty as a university president toward the end of her final term.

"Fenty is a wonderful man. He is a breath of fresh air to the council," said Sara Green, the Takoma neighborhood’s advisory neighborhood commissioner.

Green, a Ward 4 resident for more than 20 years, said she was initially a Jarvis support but later began to feel that the councilwoman favored developers’ concerns over those of constituents.

"There was an appalling lack of connection to Ward 4," Green said.

Carrie Leary, a Ward 4 resident for over 41 years, said she didn’t vote for Fenty in the September 2000 Democratic Primary in which Fenty unseated the 20-year veteran councilwoman.

"I didn’t vote for Fenty because I am a ‘show-me’ person," she said. "But now that I have seen the things that he’s gotten done that weren’t done before, I think I will vote for him in the next election."

Even Jarvis now gives Fenty the highest accolades – and perhaps hints at her own hindsight judgment of a reason for her defeat.

"I think Fenty is appropriately very diligent in his work on the council," Jarvis said. "He is paying a lot of attention to constituents, which is critical for an incumbent."

Fenty – who, like Jarvis, is a D.C. native – said he decided to run after he got tired of the lack of constituent services in the ward, as well as complaints from other Ward 4 residents.

"I decided to run because I couldn’t have lived with myself if no one had given a real challenge to someone who I didn’t think was really getting out there and advocating for the ward," he said.

That criticism of Jarvis is something that Fenty now clearly feels he must live up to. A day-to-day approach to constituent service is what Fenty is practicing in the neighborhoods. He runs his office like a small business, using experience he gained from working at his parents’ Adams Morgan sporting goods store, Fleet Feet.

For Fenty, the basic tenet that holds true in retailing also holds true in government and politics: In the retail business, the customer is always right; in Fenty’s office, his Ward 4 constituents are always correct.

"Retail politics is what I am trying to do here," Fenty said during a recent interview. "But in retail you have to understand one thing before you can understand anything else, and that is the customer is always correct. So, the way retail politics works is that the constituents are always right.

"And if you take that frame of mind, I think you will be more apt to listen to people. You will be more apt to go to community meetings. You will be more apt to respond quickly to letters and do everything possible, including setting up a Web site or doing a newsletter, to make sure that people have all the information that they need.

"That is fundamentally what I think being a representative is all about," he said.

The rules that govern Fenty’s office are simple, according to his chief of staff, Sean Gough: make sure you treat every constituent equally, call them back and get their request done.

"Every call is important, even if it’s a question that does not make any sense. When people call our office, we’re usually their last resort. They are frustrated, so we don’t pass them on to the next frustration," Gough said. "We do the best we can to help them."

ANC Commissioner Green cited the plight of one constituent who fought with city officials for three years to try to get a dead tree in front of her home cut down because insects from the rotting tree were invading her home. When Fenty took office, one of his staff members took a city arborist to the woman’s home to show him the tree, which is now in the process of being removed, Green said.

Judy Lew, a Manor Park resident, said she has "called [Fenty’s] office numerous times and they have always gotten back to me either by phone or e-mail."

Ward 4 residents are able to contact their councilman by e-mail and Fenty guarantees a personal response. Weekly town hall meetings address specific concerns in the ward’s various neighborhoods. A Web site – at www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us/Fenty -- features contact information, a list of neighborhood services, updates on ward activities and other government information.

Gough said residents often are unaware of the council’s legislative actions, so Fenty provides an e-mail summary after every legislative session to residents who have contacted his office via e-mail. He also takes copies of the summaries to community meetings.

"He works very hard to get the information out to the community," Gough said.

Prior to being elected to the council, Fenty served as a legislative aide for two years to the council’s Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation under Councilman Kevin P. Chavous, D-Ward 7. Fenty, 30, was also an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Petworth and president of the 16th Street Neighborhood Association.

However, he got his first taste of politics at a young age. His parents – Jan and Phil – were politically active in the 1960s and exposed their son and his two brothers to politics.

Fenty said he remembers attending a downtown Washington demonstration aimed at making civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday.

"I recall Stevie Wonder being there," he said. "Lots of people getting together for a common cause, and that feeling of community -- I have seen it duplicated at other rallies [today]."

Growing up in Mount Pleasant, Fenty characterized himself as being like any other child – happy, and he loved to play with toys. He attended Bancroft Elementary, Alice Deal Junior High School, Wilson Senior High School but transferred to Catholic school to graduate from Mackin High.

As he grew older he developed a love for government policy and set his sights on a career as a legislative lawyer. He said he loved math, English and social studies, but hated science.

"I wasn’t good at it and I knew I would never go into it because it was just never interesting to me," he said.

Fenty’s mother described her son as a good student in high school. Fenty gave his own academic performance a more mixed assessment: "If the year was going well, I did well," he said. "If it wasn’t, I didn’t."

But it was during his sophomore and junior years at Oberlin College that Fenty’s interest in policy really began to shine, his mother said. Fenty developed an interest in public speaking, participated in oratory contests and interned in the Capitol Hill office of then-Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, who chaired the Senate’s Labor subcommittee.

"I got to see what a legislative lawyer really did," Fenty said.

Through the internship he also learned a thing or two about constituent services that also prepared him for his current position as a councilman.

"There were no secretaries. We did the grunt work, and every letter that came into that office got answered," he recalled.

Hard working and determined, Fenty attributes these characteristics to the example set for him by his parents and grandfather.

"My mom and dad, they have a store and they work seven days a week. That’s all they do," he said. His grandfather, a native of Barbados in the West Indies, worked two jobs.

Attorney Benjamin Soto, a close friend and fraternity brother of Fenty, attributes the councilman’s determination to skills he picked up as a long-distance runner in high school. Running is still very much a part of Fenty’s life. He runs six days a week, sometimes logging 50 or 60 miles a week, he said. Recently he even participated in the annual Marine Corps Marathon, which he completed in approximately four hours.

Fenty said he also enjoys basketball and is a member of the Washington Metropolitan Basketball League, in which he plays at least once a week. Soto said Fenty is so competitive that in order to win the championship in August, Fenty was able to get professional help by luring New Jersey Nets point guard Sherman Douglas, a native Washingtonian, onto his team.

Fenty -- average in height, slim and bald -- has a serious personality but also harbors a sense of humor, according to his staff.

"When it comes down to business and getting things done, he is very serious, but he has made me laugh a couple of times," Gough said.

Jason Washington, Fenty’s legal analyst, said Fenty is skilled at adapting to the situation at hand.

"When he is around the people, he has a mood that depends on the mood of the meeting," Washington said. "If the meeting is sullen and very serious, he is a serious man. But if it’s very light hearted, he is down-to-earth and joking with the residents.

"I see all sides of him – joking, serious. He is a very loving man, especially around his family," Washington said. Fenty is the father of twins, Matthew and Andrew, who were born shortly before he began his campaign for office.

Gough said Fenty sets a performance standard that pushes his staff to be their best at all times because the boss always puts forth his best effort. As a result, staffers who even appear to slack on the job will know it, Gough said.

Gough recalls his boss’s recent disagreement with him when a combination of circumstances made Gough miss a deadline for delivering a congratulatory letter from Fenty for a teacher’s retirement party. The letter was to be delivered to a person in Silver Spring, who would then drive the letter to the party in Baltimore.

The incident occurred on a holiday, when Gough had personal plans and was therefore not enthusiastic about driving the late letter to Baltimore himself to compensate for the delay. Fenty was angry, Gough said.

"He heard it in my voice that I wasn’t trying to go out there," Gough said. But he noted that going that extra mile to provide community service is the promise Fenty made to get elected.

While Fenty’s visibility in the community has been welcomed, it also has sparked concern from some residents for Fenty’s young staff members.

"A lot of people joke with me because they see me out six or seven days a week and they say my boss is a slave driver," said Washington. "They say, ‘Jason, please tell your boss you need to go out and get a date,’" the 24-year-old said.

Washington said that the job currently isn’t as "glamorous" as he thought it would be, although he acknowledges that he is fulfilling a commitment he made during Fenty’s campaign.

"I didn’t know that a phone could ring this much," he said, shaking his head.

"But it’s a system we all bought into when he was running -- that we had to get constituent services done and we had to be visible to the residents. So no matter how many bags you see under my eyes, I guess we are going to proceed in that manner," he said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator