Features

Iron fist of change

"Iron fist of change" Continued...

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

On a February afternoon, Fenty arrives in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood to break ground on a mundane public project, a dog park, which hardly seems important in a city with a bad school system and a high HIV/AIDS rate. But a dog park is part of Fenty's vision, and after posing for pictures with neighbors and their squirming dogs, he tells me, "It's quality of life. Quality of life matters."

At the groundbreaking Fenty doesn't wait for people to approach him: He strides into the crowd and begins greeting each person before most people even realize the mayor is there. He wears his trademark Jay Gatsby cap on his shaved pate. When he gives speeches or answers questions, he is brief, not the stereotypical public figure who rambles in order to control the conversation.

"You better keep up," said one of his staff at the dog park when I paused to take notes while Fenty was heading for his black Smart car. But some D.C. residents don't like the mayor's swiftness to change city institutions, and some local bloggers have labeled him authoritarian. Other residents, citing the District's dismal national standing in education and health issues, say a firm hand is needed.

When he took office, Fenty simply told the city's school board to go away, to dissolve. Schools in Washington then were places where fights that sent students to the hospital broke out regularly. Good teachers rarely stuck around, dropout rates were high, and students would arrive at schools without heat and without textbooks to read. Fenty appointed a new chancellor of the schools, Michelle Rhee, to do whatever she saw fit to make schools better. Rhee has fired principals freely, closed schools, undone tenure for teachers, and otherwise upset the teachers union. This year, students came to schools and had textbooks, and their math and reading proficiency scores have gone up, but fights persist. Top educators around the country are watching her closely to see how the radical approach takes hold.

The mayor has also allowed crime fighting to bypass constitutional rights, said some city council members. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has used her authority to seal troubled neighborhoods, establishing checkpoints where police officers record license plates and question nonresidents entering the area. The strategy seems to have reduced drug use and prostitution but flared indignation among some city residents who find the move draconian. Fenty also started a summer work program for youth in the city that flopped, many youth receiving pay from the city without doing any work.

Many on the city council feel like they are a prop to the mayor and his agenda-something most city residents don't mind, because they like Fenty and they like his drastic measures. "Now we're at best on the periphery," council chair Vincent Gray told the Washingtonian last November. With one less school board, 36 fewer principals, and 21 fewer schools, the mayor is governing a lighter, tighter ship, one steered by his hand.

In addition, Fenty has dissolved two nonprofits overseeing city development and taken the city's development projects in hand himself, promoting "affordable housing" (though residents have given him lower scores on that front) and major commercial developments where nonprofit developers have faltered. The mayor's office has approved over $10 billion worth of development projects along the banks of the Anacostia River, in the southern part of the city, and some residents worry that the mayor may be serving the special interests of private developers.

Fenty also wants to work with local churches and nonprofits willing to be "partners" with the government in actions said to help the city's poor. For example, one ministry of the 60-year-old Church of the Saviour helped residents to find over 800 jobs last year, and another provided 325 units of affordable housing.

As the city's unemployment rate goes up and more people struggle with mortgages, Fenty will need those types of partnerships more and more.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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