Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

Is Adrian Fenty a jerk?: An inquiry

September 13, 2010 - 01:51 PM
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Perhaps the mayor is pondering the question of the season. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

In a Washington Post piece on Mayor Adrian Fenty last month, columnist Robert McCartney showcased a knack for euphemism: “Fenty is in trouble because he is widely seen as a self-absorbed autocrat who is unresponsive to citizens.”

Other commentators have opted for greater word economy when assessing the mayor. Back in February, Petula Dvorak, a colleague of McCartney’s, accused Fenty of “acting like a jerk.” Washington Post reporter Mike DeBonis, then writing in the Washington City Paper, called “Fenty the Jerk” the “leitmotif” of D.C. politics in 2009. That same publication issued a midsummer cover story titled “Is Adrian Fenty a Jerk?” It’s an aspersion that gets tossed around a fair amount on the street as well.

The jerk parade draws its inspiration from a whole file of Fenty incidents, including some in which he shunned the press; others in which he shunned regular folks; and yet others where he shunned famous people. Pile on that the general Fenty approach to governance — i.e., get it done fast, don’t worry about ruffling feathers — and a firm narrative begins to take root.

It’s a narrative that gives fits to the Facts Machine. The Facts Machine, as its name might suggest, doesn’t enjoy character evaluations. It subsists on hard data, like budget figures, committee votes, affidavits, departmental investigations, IG findings, and executive summaries.

Notwithstanding its specialty in empirical stuff, the Facts Machine feels obligated to evaluate the widespread contention that Adrian Fenty is a jerk. That’s because it’s an issue on which this mayoral campaign, now in its final gasp, pivots. This conventional wisdom needs a patdown, and the Facts Machine proposes to accomplish it by infusing this most unscientific of terms with a bit of rigor.

To determine whether Fenty is a jerk, the Facts Machine is defining “jerk” in the following way:

“A person regarded as disagreeable, contemptible, etc., esp. as the result of foolish or mean behavior.”

That definition comes to us from Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition. The fact that we’re even discussing this shows that Fenty is “regarded as disagreeable [and] contemptible.” So let’s just consider that part done.

All that’s left is to determine if the mayor engages in “foolish or mean behavior.” That evaluation starts with the most fundamental question relating to a public official: accessibility.


We contacted more than 50 advocacy, business or nonprofit groups in the District, and we eventually talked extensively with about 20 of them about their ability to meet with the mayor. Only a few described meeting the mayor on a regular basis, and many seemed frustrated in their efforts to get an audience. The groups generally fell into three categories:

• Those who were able to meet with lower-level administrators

Groups who were content with simply meeting with one of the mayor’s aides were able to do so.

"We just don't have to go to that level,” said Emily Durso, the president of the Hotel Association of Washington, D.C. “We are able to deal with the agencies if we need them. He hasn't heard from us and we haven't asked.”

This arrangement was less acceptable to other groups. Barbara Lang, the president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, is supporting Gray in this year’s mayor race.

“I've never met with the mayor since he's been mayor,” Lang said. “I have met with, certainly, his top lieutenants, the deputy mayor for economic development, the city administrator and several other directors ... I do think that we have something that we can offer and give him some feedback from right here on the ground.”

• Those who can never meet with the mayor

Once you have made the mayor’s enemies list, getting a meeting with him is a pipe dream. Take the District’s unions, which have slammed the mayor for laying off school teachers, privatizing the city’s day care system and overhauling taxi fares.

“The word 'organized labor,' to the mayor, is a curse word,” said John L. Rayner, the president of Ironworkers Local Union No. 5.

Among the groups that said the mayor regularly refuses to meet with them or ignores them: the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2741, and the Fraternal Order of Police. Unions were split between supporting Fenty and supporting then-D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp in 2006, and many feel betrayed by the mayor.

"Getting a meeting with the mayor and city administrators is impossible. That's it. There's nothing much to say,” said Ben Butler, the president of AFGE Local 2741. “He is the most arrogant individual I’ve ever met.”

Activist groups fall into this category as well. ONE DC’s executive director said the mayor treats the group as a “nuisance.” DC Jobs with Justice and Empower DC had similar experiences. Marina Streznewski of the DC Jobs Council compared getting a meeting with Fenty to seeking a meeting with the Wizard of Oz.

• Those who protested outside the mayor’s house and earned a meeting with him

Eric Sheptock, homeless activist, has twice helped lead protests that ended up on the mayor’s front lawn. And twice, the mayor has agreed to meet with Sheptock and other homeless men.

“That’s kind of stupid,” Sheptock said. “He’s encouraging people to go to his house.”


Sheptock certainly thinks so.

It is common in the Judeo-Christian tradition to wear dark colors when attending a memorial or funeral event. It is common in the traditions of American urban politics for politicians to show up to the funerals of people who perish in public tragedies. It is common courtesy to show up on time for previously scheduled events.

In the aftermath of the tragic Metro crash last year, Fenty behaved quite uncommonly in his failure to consistently do any of the above.

And the mayor isn’t above getting into petty squabbles. From stonewalling information about trips abroad to refusing to meet with civil rights icons to not equitably distributing baseball tickets, the mayor has shown a talent for generating negative headlines that simple steps could have avoided.

The mayor has matured over the last four years. During an interview with Mark Plotkin on WTOP’s The Politics Program Friday, Fenty had a simple answer when Plotkin asked him if he would refuse to hand out baseball tickets a second time: “No.” Then why’d you do it the first time? “Because people make mistakes.”

Indeed, a fool wouldn’t learn from his mistakes. Fenty, who has been on his Apology Tour Extravaganza©, says he’s learned from them. But unless he gets a second term, there’s no way to know for certain.

Perhaps the best argument against the mayor being a fool are the results he’s gotten. A fool couldn’t have led the police department to its lowest murder rate in 40 years, and he couldn’t have managed the construction of new parks and schools across the city. So it’s not that surprising how supporters of the mayor respond when they’re asked if the mayor’s a jerk.

“I think the most important thing is how he’s governed the city,” said Bill Lightfoot, the mayor’s campaign chairman.


Well, he certainly isn’t nice. Even his wife acknowledges Fenty is socially awkward, and he’s more likely to be typing on one of his three Blackberries than making small talk. And blowing up at employees isn’t particularly classy. But Fenty campaign spokesman Sean Madigan insists his boss can be a great guy to work for, pointing out that he’ll single out low-level staffers for praise at press conferences.

"When people work hard, he recognizes that," Madigan said. "I'll say, he's probably the hardest charging boss I've ever had by a mile and he expects us to keep the pace and I think taxpayers are better off."

The mayor has also been able to keep his cool when constantly being reminded that a significant portion of his constituents seem to hate everything about him. In the past year, he’s been booed at a high school graduation, a celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and at various straw polls and forums across the city. He was heckled at the funeral service for go-go legend Lil’ Benny.

Fenty can (at least publicly) keep his emotions in check, even when every else seems to have lost control of theirs.


Fenty's personal persona is different from who he is as mayor. But what matters to voters is how he acts in office. Yes, Fenty can be a nice guy to his friends and family. But nice mayors don’t blow off meeting requests, they don’t make people feel unappreciated — if anything they should become experts in the opposite.

Fenty says he’ll change if elected to a second term and has appeared to be sincerely contrite about his actions and attitude during this term. However, we’re not judging him on how he will act, only on how he has already behaved. That’s why we’ll we find that the Fenty-as-jerk narrative is Mostly On Point.

At this point, even Adrian Fenty seems inclined to agree with us.

Mostly On Point

— with @slarimer, @erikwemple


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  1. hpmoon hpmoon

    Paul Moon

    Sep 13, 2010 - 02:33:59 PM

    Right. Was having trouble figuring out the category of journalism that is "The Facts Machine." This clarifies it as the "Opinion" section. Sort of a Politico annex. Got it.

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