Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Iron fist of change

Poverty | D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty is gaining even more power as he bends the ear of a like-minded president

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C.-The nation's capital is a city accustomed to centralized power, not only because of federal authority but through a history of heavyweight mayors like Marion Barry, mayor for four terms beginning in 1979. "He may not be perfect, but he's perfect for D.C.," went a campaign slogan for Barry, convicted of cocaine use in 1990.

Why do the District's 600,000 residents repeatedly vote into office men with iron fists? Maybe because high crime rates, an atrocious education system, and one of the highest rates of AIDS in the country make people desperate for reform, and fast.

Enter Adrian Fenty, the young, athletic mayor who has assumed far more power than his years might confer on him. Fenty was 34 years old when he decided to run for mayor of Washington in 2005. He faced veteran opposition from his own Democratic party, the chair of the D.C. city council who had held office on the council while Fenty was still in elementary school. But Fenty knocked on doors, and two months before his election he had visited more than half the homes in the District of Columbia. His volunteers had knocked on every single door. In the primary he thrashed the council chair, Linda Cropp, and won the mayor's race with 89 percent of the vote, becoming Washington's youngest mayor ever.

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Since his election in 2006 Fenty has used his strong popularity to pull the arms of city government directly under his control, taking charge of the failing school system and city development projects. In the process he has alienated his own city council, the teachers union, and some residents who think he is being autocratic. But Fenty's influence may expand further because of his close connection to Barack Obama.

The two have overt similarities: Fenty, like Obama, has been married to only one woman (her name is also Michelle), and he has three children, one newly born. Like Obama, he sends his school-aged children to private schools. And like Obama, he started his career as a lawyer, then stumbled into politics.

They also have differences: Unlike Obama, who was raised by his single mother, Fenty grew up with both his mother and father. Fenty is the biracial son of Philip and Jan Fenty, owners of a local running store, Fleet Feet, and he himself trains for triathlons in the early morning about three times a week. Unlike Obama, he's never been a smoker, and he doesn't even drink coffee-all in the name of staying healthy for the races he runs. And unlike Obama, he supports legalizing same-sex marriage.

The two ate half-smoke hot dogs together at the city's Ben's Chili Bowl in January, turning it into a must-see tourist destination, and the Obamas and Fentys are sporadically spotted out in the city, socializing. Fenty endorsed Obama in July 2007, early in the election process, when Obama drew thin crowds and had no bodyguards. The mayor went on to campaign for him around the country.

When Fenty recently faced a $400 million-plus budget shortfall, he pushed for aid to the District in Obama's economic stimulus bill and got it: $227 million for the school system and $612 million for other city projects, though details of allocated resources that may affect the city aren't entirely clear. Spending on the federal government level brings money in for the city, and the stimulus provides $650 million for the construction of a new Department of Homeland Security headquarters in southwest Washington. The president told a gathering of mayors in Washington that the stimulus is designed to do more for cities than "anything Washington has done in generations."

As the District becomes a central hub for financial disbursement with bailouts and stimulus funds, and billions of dollars in new programs on the horizon, the local economy and tax coffers are growing from lobbying firms expanding and new ones opening their doors and their wallets. Since Obama announced his plans for a stimulus in November, over 90 new lobbyists have registered to push their issues on the Hill, according to The Washington Post.

Citizens of the District also hope that the city will get voting rights in Congress with Obama's help, something he has supported. The legislation is divisive mainly on party lines; it would give the solidly Democratic District a seat in the House of Representatives. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he doesn't support it because it's unconstitutional-the District is not a state. Last time the legislation came to the Senate, it fell three votes short of overcoming a filibuster and passing, but now that Democrats have more seats, the bill has a greater likelihood of becoming law (a vote was pending at press time).


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