Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Winter 2007 Vol. 102 No. 3 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Ready for Action

He’s young, energetic, and he doesn’t waste time. Can Mayor Adrian Fenty realize his vision for D.C.?

It is a familiar drab November morning when Adrian Fenty ’92 makes his return to Oberlin. The sky is gray. The trees are bare. And the newly fallen leaves are covered with a cold drizzle that ruins any prospect for play.

Fenty’s white Town Car pulls up to North Quad between Barrows and the new Science Center. From the front seat emerge two large members of Fenty’s security detail wearing dark suits.

From the driver’s side emerges William Singer ’03, who has worked with Fenty for the past three years. He is carrying a copy of Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, which he has been reading on the plane from Washington, D.C.

From the passenger’s side emerges Fenty. He is wearing a black fedora, dark suit, white shirt, and bright blue tie. He is more GQ than Tappan Square.

“Nice to see you,” Fenty says to a cluster of well-wishers, still in campaign mode after spending much of the past two years running for office.

It has been less than 100 hours since Fenty was elected mayor of Washington, D.C. On this morning he is addressing an Oberlin symposium on the future of American politics, explaining how a skinny kid who sat on the bench as a varsity basketball player just 14 years ago won election to the top municipal job in one of the world’s most consequential cities.

In this room of sleepy students and tweedy academics, it is easy to pick out the mayor-elect. He’s the one in a crisp suit and with a cleanly shaven head.

Fenty distributes a one-page handout titled “Winning Big City Elections.” Like Fenty, the handout is a model of nuts-and-bolts efficiency: start early; have a good fundraising staff; respond to media queries.

If students were expecting a larger-than-life figure to explain the Democratic Party’s recent capture of the political center, the collapse of President Bush’s conservative base, or the state of American politics at the turn of the century, they wouldn’t get it from Fenty. He talks instead of campaigning door-to-door, relentlessly soliciting donors, the virtues of hard work, and paying attention to details as small as the placement of lawn signs.

“You’ve got to exhaust yourself,” he tells the crowd that is proud enough to have pulled itself out of bed on a Saturday morning. “Bobby Kennedy said you can’t make up on the back end a day that you missed on the front end. I thought of that every day in this campaign.”

He shows a brief video put together by the Washington Post of himself going door-to-door to meet voters. He goes over the handout, speaking for little more than eight minutes. He then speaks earnestly with a cluster of students and smiles patiently as his picture is taken. And he is done. By the time other members of the conference have settled in for lunch, Fenty is on his way back to Washington.

Adrian Fenty does not waste time. He was a double major at Oberlin (English and economics), ran cross-country and track, and played basketball his senior year. He was accepted to the Oberlin-in-London program his junior year, but decided against it to focus instead on the LSAT.

He carries two BlackBerries and a cell phone and rarely goes more than a couple of minutes without engaging one. When a flying companion asked how he’d endure a 90-minute flight without the use of his electronic devices, he assured him it was OK to type messages during the flight, and then transmit them as soon as the plane reached ground.

Fenty has displayed that same sense of urgency since graduating from Oberlin in 1992. He returned home to Washington to attend law school at Howard University. He dated his law school classmate, Michelle; married her; and got his law degree, a job on Capitol Hill, and a job as a lawyer for the D.C. City Council. He and Michelle bought a home and had twin boys. He got involved in neighborhood organizations and, five years out of Oberlin, decided to run for City Council.

Fenty captured the seat by knocking off Charlene Drew Jarvis ’62, another Oberlin graduate, who had served on the council for 21 years. From his City Council post, Fenty practically Black-Berried his way to the mayor’s office.

“Adrian is a very focused thinker and a quiet planner,’’ Jarvis said, when asked to name the Oberlin qualities he exhibits. “In the election for mayor he focused first on the techniques of winning the election and mastered those, as did his team. Once elected, it was clear he had also focused on governing.”

Washington political analyst Mark Plotkin used words that might be more widely recognized as Oberlin traits: “His instinct is to be a ’60s-style activist.’’

In a city once renowned for leaving potholes unfilled and streets unplowed, Fenty made a name for himself with constituent service. He gave out his cell phone number, responded to e-mails, and visited every single household in the ward. He began Monday mornings with a 7:30 meeting to go down the list of constituent concerns that had piled up over the weekend. The meeting sometimes lasted until lunch.

“It’s ingrained in me that if you treat people right, if you’re upfront with them, they appreciate it, and they will come back,” he said in a recent radio interview. It is a trait he learned from his parents, who still run the same sports shoe store in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood that they did when he was a kid.

It is hard at times to see Oberlin in Fenty. His musical taste is neither Grateful Dead nor Gershwin

As a candidate for mayor, Fenty was indefatigable. Up daily at 5:20 a.m. to run (he also bikes and swims to train for triathlons), he spent evenings, weekends, and every other spare moment walking door-to-door. By September’s primary, he had personally visited more than half the homes in the city. He also raised $3.8 million, more money than had ever before been raised in a D.C. election and $1 million more than his closest opponent.

In a crowded Democratic primary (which in the heavily Democratic Washington virtually decides the general election), Fenty ended up with 57 percent of the vote. He won in black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. He won each of the city’s eight wards, and, for the first time in history, each of its 142 precincts. He then rolled to an easy landslide in November’s general election.

“That will never be done again, ever,” said Plotkin.

The margin of victory allows him to shrug off the fact that many labor unions, big businesses, and Mayor Anthony Williams supported his main opponent, Linda Cropp. It also creates high expectations that Fenty, only 36 years old, could be a force for years to come.

As mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty faces a daunting task. The capital exhibits a shameful gulf between haves and have-nots, harboring some of the nation’s richest institutions and poorest ghettos.

As the seat of government and home to six major universities, Washington boasts one of the highest percentage of college graduates and high-income earners of any city in the United States. Its powerful institutions attract many of the nation’s leading attorneys, economists, policy experts, journalists, and politicians and make it a mecca for thousands of Oberlin alums.

It is also a city in which one in three kids lives in poverty and more than half the children are raised in low-income families. Washington has the highest infant mortality rate in the nation, and an AIDS rate 10 times the national average. Its school system is abysmal, and student test scores are consistently worse than any state in the country. Crime rates are high in poor neighborhoods, and there are sections of the city where many lifelong residents are afraid to set foot.

With no voting representation in Congress, its local government has been ridiculed since the District of Columbia was granted home rule in 1974. Fenty is only the city’s fifth elected mayor.

It was during his sophomore year at Oberlin that D.C.’s reputation for municipal ineptitude struck a low point from which it is still recovering. Mayor Marion Barry, a charismatic civil rights leader who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested on drug charges in an FBI sting operation.

Fenty, who lived in Afro House at the time [currently Afrikan Heritage House], remembers the newscasts. “I didn’t really study the story closely, but I got the gist of the highs and lows,” he says. “I remember thinking this is not how this city should be managed. This is not how this city should be perceived.”

Yet Fenty is careful not to pass judgment. Barry was popular enough to be re-elected as mayor after he was released from federal prison and continues to serve on the City Council. He endorsed Fenty this summer.

Fenty is unfazed as he talks about the enormous challenges in a city to which he often refers—seemingly redundantly—as “the nation’s capital of the United States of America.”

He will oversee a city with 34,000 employees and an annual budget of $7.5 billion. He will earn an annual salary of $200,000.

His top priority is to fix the schools, and he has embarked on an ambitious plan to take over the school district, as Mayor Bloomberg did in New York. Washington’s dilapidated schools and poor test scores are the top reason Washington has difficulty retaining affluent families, who flee to the highly regarded schools of suburban Maryland and Virginia.

Under Fenty’s plan the school board would be an advisory panel and report to him. He intends to impose the same standards and accountability on the schools that he demands for city services.

“If we don’t fix the schools, everything else is for naught,” he says.

Fenty is one of a crop of young big-city mayors, including Gavin Newsom (age 39) in San Francisco, Cory Booker (age 37) in Newark, and Luke Ravenstahl (age 27) in Pittsburgh, who offer business analogies when they talk about governing.

“It’s like running a corporation,’’ Fenty says. “Everything you do has to be excellent: trash, schools, police, fire. I want to make Washington a true model, a symbol of hope and freedom, a symbol of things that are right in government.”

Mayor Williams made big strides in improving D.C.’s reputation over the past eight years, but was seen by critics as aloof and too friendly with big developers. Fenty, whose relationship with fellow council members was sometimes rocky, is nonetheless regarded as a champion of the neighborhoods.

Fenty has literally torn down the walls around his city hall office, working in the middle of an enormous open space in plain view of other city workers. “When you sit the mayor in the middle of a room and everything he does is open and transparent, everyone else will want to do the same thing,” he says.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s non-voting member in the House, beams when she talks about Fenty, whom she remembers with a full head of hair when he was an Oberlin College intern in her office.

“In the old days the candidates were old and the cities were young. Today, cities are looking for young direction,” Norton says. “He’s what the city needs. We need a young, energetic mayor to move the city.”

High on Fenty’s list is the longstanding issue of voting rights. Washington has no voting members in the House or Senate. Local license plates read: “Taxation Without Representation” in protest.

“Alumni of Oberlin need to know that 600,000 residents of the United States are disenfranchised,” says Fenty, who has already lobbied congressional leaders for a compromise that would give D.C. a voting member in the House (likely a Democrat) in exchange for giving Utah an extra member (likely Republican). The next step is statehood, which would require a constitutional amendment and seems politically unlikely.

“Momentum changes quickly,” Fenty says hopefully. “When I started at Oberlin, apartheid was in South Africa. By the time I left, not only was Nelson Mandela free, but they were talking about him as president. Change can happen quickly.”

While Fenty says he is as liberal as anyone else who has graduated from Oberlin, he is a moderate by most municipal standards —neither the candidate of labor nor of big business.

As a member of City Council, he was an ardent opponent of public financing for the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, for which the city has pledged $611 million. He led efforts to ban smoking in public buildings and was the lone dissenting vote against a 10 p.m. curfew for youth.

It is hard at times to see Oberlin in Fenty. His musical taste is neither Grateful Dead nor Gershwin (he listens to hip hop in the car.) He dresses impeccably. He shuns coffee for vitamin water. And he is perpetually on his BlackBerry. When Fenty turned 36 in December, the Greater Washington Board of Trade gave him a card in the shape of a giant BlackBerry.

Fenty grew up in Washington’s Mount Pleasant, a mixed-race neighborhood a couple miles north of the White House. He attended private Catholic high school, where he was a valedictorian and first became obsessed with politics. His mother is white and his father is black (he sometimes describes his parents as “hippies”), which makes him “comfortable in rooms where he has the darkest or the lightest skin,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Grunwald.

At Oberlin, Fenty says, he was a “normal student, for better or worse.”

He spent a year in Dascomb, a year at Afro House, and two in North Hall. He remains in touch with Politics Professor Paul Dawson, whom he credits with helping solidify his “passion for politics” and for keeping him focused and “to the point.”

“I remember him editing my papers, and he’d draw these big lines through huge swaths of my prose: ‘Fenty—you don’t need that stuff in there,’” he recalls. He was never involved in Oberlin student government and had no intention of running for office.

“I was always interested in politics. But I assumed it would be behind-the-scenes. In Oberlin I thought about being a lawyer, either on [Capitol] Hill or some legislative body.”

“Why Oberlin College?” C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb asked Fenty during an interview broadcast last fall.

“It came down to Columbia and Oberlin,” Fenty responded. “And I was born and raised in a city and decided I wanted to be in a rural place for a while, and it was just one of the best colleges in the country. I thought I’d get a great education there, and that’s exactly what happened.”

His affection for the place is clear as he makes his security detail stop on West College Street on the way out of town to pick up a pair of Oberlin sweatshirts for his 6-year-old boys.

Asked how Oberlin shapes his thinking, Fenty says, “The goal of politics and public service is to help people. Helping people in need and bringing that philosophy to the highest position in the nation’s capital of the United States of America—that’s part of the Oberlin tradition.”

Marc Sandalow is the Washington Bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle.