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Why I can’t support Fenty for a 2nd term
I got involved in District of Columbia politics in 1978. I served as coordinator of local government for the mayor’s office in New York and always understood that government at the local level — closest to the people — is crucial. I have worked on national campaigns but my passion is for local government and how it impacts our lives each day.
I volunteered and chaired or co-chaired the issue campaigns for mayoral candidates Charlene Drew Jarvis, Carol Schwartz, Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty but have never held a paid D.C. job and don’t have any clients who benefit from the city. That is what makes it difficult for some candidates that I support. I say what I believe and don’t hesitate to tell them when I think they are doing something wrong.
Although I admire much of what Mayor Fenty has accomplished in his first term, what follows are my reasons for not supporting him for a second term.
This decision wasn’t made lightly. Having known Adrian Fenty and his family for a number of years and having worked with him when he was a Council member to bring together experts on issues to help him develop position papers made it a difficult decision. I have gotten to know his wife Michelle, his children and his parents and have spent holidays with them at the home of mutual friends and have the deepest respect for them. This decision isn’t made with any personal animosity but rather for political reasons.
Either Fenty changed when he became mayor or many of us badly misread him when he was a candidate. He now appears to be someone who doesn’t really care about people — an autocrat, unwilling to deal with any criticism or discussion of differences of opinion. Staff who disagree with him are fired, while others outside the administration who don’t agree don’t get their calls returned. The mayor continues to speak in campaign sound bites when he should be confronting complicated issues in depth. He deals with the lives of city workers in what appears to be a cavalier manner and won’t deal with constituents in a real give and take. Watching him govern the city it seems that his mantra is often act first and think later.
Since this piece is appearing in the Blade first, it highlights some concerns I have with the mayor on LGBT issues. But for those taking the time to continue reading online they will see my reasons cover a much broader palate of issues. We in the LGBT community get involved in and care about many issues. They include education, crime, the economy, everyone’s civil and human rights and the basic quality of life for those living in the District. We are an integral part of the total community and part of the diversity that makes our city so great.
I helped to craft Fenty’s platform. I had the assistance of many people across the District who passionately felt that we needed change. I think we got change and in some areas it was really great. But in others, candidate Fenty appears to have uttered the words people wanted to hear but didn’t really take them to heart. Candidate Fenty promised to keep the full core of the Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit intact, Mayor Fenty didn’t. While there are some good things about Chief Cathy Lanier’s desire to expand the unit across the District, it was done, as are so many things in the Fenty administration, without real consultation with the community.
Candidate Fenty promised support for marriage equality but Mayor Fenty never spoke up for it. He didn’t testify for it or allow his director of the Office of GLBT Affairs to do so. Compare that to the advocacy of mayors like Gavin Newsom and now even Michael Bloomberg and it really comes up short. He did sign a veto-proof bill and held a signing ceremony to be in on the celebration.
Candidate Fenty promised to fight against hate crimes. Mayor Fenty never even managed to get the words hate crimes out of his mouth. He refused to meet with the community at-large even though these crimes have been increasing. Candidate Fenty promised to hold a GLBT Economic Summit. Mayor Fenty refused to make this an event of the mayor’s office and has never found time to attend one. Candidate Fenty promised to take the message of fighting HIV/AIDS to the community, including the faith community. Mayor Fenty has never spoken to a faith-based group about HIV/AIDS. Candidate Fenty came to numerous LGBT community events. Mayor Fenty never does. He walks in the Pride parade and shakes hands at the High Heel Race. But he won’t ever face the community and discuss our issues with us. Candidate Fenty said he would fight bias. Mayor Fenty’s administration issued a certificate of appreciation to the executive director of PFOX, an anti-gay group. He did later apologize and blamed it on a low level staffer but has refused to withdraw it.
Fenty is clearly not the mayor the LGBT community thought they would get. But then if you listen to the heartbeat of the city, he is not the mayor many other communities thought he would be either. When was the last time a mayor of the District of Columbia got booed at a high school graduation? But that is exactly what happened when he was the speaker at the Dunbar graduation. Candidate Fenty was hailed as a savior of the community, Mayor Fenty is viewed very differently.
In both my public and private conversations over the past three and a half years I have given Adrian Fenty kudos for the things he has accomplished. There is no regret for having chaired his issues committee in 2006 and the hours spent volunteering, or the vote cast for him for his first term. There has been progress and some agencies are working better, schools have been upgraded and student test scores are beginning to improve.
Yet it seems that for each good thing that the mayor does, we find something just a little off balance or skewed with how it was accomplished. Many District residents, like me, are coming to the conclusion that there is a better way to move forward and that the time has come for us to thank Mayor Fenty for what he has accomplished but accept that we need to move forward with a more inclusive voice in the mayor’s office. We need someone who can rally the people and work to bring our city together.
I have looked at how the mayor has responded to a number of issues and my unhappiness with his response went into my reasoning and the decision that I will not vote for Adrian Fenty for a second term. It is a conclusion reached after much soul searching and looking closely at where this city I love has come from, and knowing the potential that exists for it to move forward with the right leadership. I have no second thoughts when I say that I believe Adrian Fenty has not earned a second term and that another four years of this administration would not be best for the people of the District of Columbia.
Finance & budgets
Mayor Fenty has continued the work started by Anthony Williams to modernize District government. His first city administrator, Dan Tangherlini, worked in the Williams administration as did his first Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, Neil Albert. Albert is now city administrator. What is unclear is how this mayor and the administration have adjusted to the change in the District’s finances. Until this year, the finances of the District seemed to be holding up better than those in surrounding jurisdictions but that is now changing.
The Fenty administration appears to be on a track that will bring the District back to the era of overspending. Budgets are being put together with gimmicks and we are borrowing from the future. The mayor has gone back on his no-new-tax pledge and has called for a raft of new taxes and fees including a $3 an hour parking meter fee. In the budget he proposed for this year he raided the rainy day fund to pay for programs knowing that it would leave the city open to potentially lower bond ratings. The economy has caught up with the District and the mayor is playing politics with the budget to put off dealing with reality until after the election. He clearly is not prepared to make the tough decisions needed to keep us from going back to the situation that brought us the Control Board.
Recent events make me seriously question the mayor’s budgeting skills. How could he have announced a new teacher contract and not know from where the money would come to pay for it? How could he seriously present a budget to the City Council that didn’t have money for additional workforce development when the unemployment rate in some areas east of the river is nearly 30 percent? How could he suggest taking money from the new bag tax, the one the public was told was specifically for the cleanup of the Anacostia River, and use it for basic street cleaning? How could the mayor, who is a health fanatic, suggest that we tax every program from gyms to yoga instruction that people use to get healthy? This is also the mayor who overspent the budget on summer jobs programs for youth by nearly $20 million partly because his budget director forgot to include the planned increase in the minimum wage in the budgeting process.
Open government & transparency
One of the reasons I supported candidate Fenty was his willingness to go door-to-door, talking to people about their issues. Many of us took this as an indication that he cared about and respected people. His openness and skill at working with the press and the public were seen as positive indications that he would run an open and transparent government. But either Adrian Fenty changed or many of us were misled.
Recently Tom Sherwood, the venerable Channel 4 reporter who has covered City Hall for decades, reminded me that Mayor Fenty has not held one news conference since he became Mayor. NOT ONE! Rather the mayor walks around the city from one ribbon cutting to the next, many for projects that were actually begun before he became mayor. He holds numerous photo opportunities, but refuses to answer any tough questions. Questions about how his cronies get the contracts for the facilities, whether there is money in the budget to keep them up and staff them; questions about school reform both on policy and practice, or any questions on the myriad of issues that a mayor is responsible for. Sherwood has suggested that Fenty doesn’t hold news conferences because he isn’t smart enough to answer the questions he would be asked. His recent actions at a public forum of reading the answer to a question off a Blackberry handed to him by an aide wasn’t encouraging. I don’t know about how smart the mayor is, but I do know that he has not answered the tough questions and is unwilling to work with anyone who has a real difference of opinion with him.
I have tried often to figure out what changed when candidate Fenty became Mayor Fenty. One conclusion I have reached is that the worst thing that happened to Adrian Fenty was having Michael Bloomberg praise him publicly and become somewhat of a mentor. While I am an admirer of Mayor Bloomberg and his accomplishments, and I am sure that anyone would find it very flattering to be praised by the billionaire mayor of New York, it appears that Mayor Fenty began to see himself as another Bloomberg. What is missing from this equation is that contrary to Bloomberg, who built a career and a billion dollar empire before becoming mayor, Fenty hadn’t really built or done much of anything. We voted for him because of his youth, vigor and the promise he showed for the future, not because of any great accomplishments.
One discussion I remember having with the mayor-elect just before he took office should have prepared me for what was coming. Fenty told me he was going to copy Bloomberg and have a bullpen built in the Wilson Building. I asked him if he was going to do what Bloomberg did and have bagels and juice for the staff in the morning and lunch brought in. He looked at me like I was living on Mars because of course he didn’t have the personal wealth to do that. His campaign staff also didn’t get the kind of bonuses that Bloomberg gave to his campaign staff. Today we know how that has worked out. There has been a large turnover in the mayor’s personal staff and the only food or drink in the bullpen today is the cooler with Vitamin water next to the mayor’s desk.
Mayor Fenty also adopted Bloomberg’s attitude about not telling people where he was going on weekends or for vacations. But while Bloomberg has his own jet, homes around the world and has personally paid the hotel and airfare of his security team when he takes them along, our mayor took money from foreign governments, borrowed homes from friends and supporters for vacations, and the city has paid for the travel of any security team that went with him.
Education is the mayor’s signature accomplishment, and the one he has always said he will base his re-election campaign on. The mayor has focused much of his three and a half years in office and much of the budget on education reform. The mayor deserves credit for moving forward on reform and there has been progress. Schools that needed to be closed have been closed and others have been rebuilt or refurbished. Children’s test scores are beginning to improve. But I believe, as do others, that if we are to continue to move forward on reform we need to look closer at the internals of school reform and whether we can continue to move forward in the same often high-handed way without consultation with parents, teachers or administrators.
I am not calling for the removal of Chancellor Michelle Rhee. I think some of the way the chancellor has worked is a direct reflection of how the mayor works. She deals with teachers, parents and others in the same way the mayor deals with the Council and constituents. The mayor sets the tone and the chancellor has followed. I think continuity is crucial and that Rhee can be successful on a continuing basis. But if we elect a mayor with a different style of governing I think Rhee will follow suit. I think in the long run that she will find that moving education reform forward from here will be easier for her if she does. Education reform is based on policy, not personality, and continuing it requires bringing parents, teachers and the community along for the ride. I think Chancellor Rhee can still do that and do it successfully.
I think we need to look closely at the details within the overall test scores and see what progress we have actually made in closing the achievement gap. Though it took three years to negotiate a union contract we now have one and we need to move beyond the animosity that was created. We can do that and we need to do that for the sake of our children. I don’t think that Fenty can do that.
We also need to begin to recognize and give credit to all those who have participated in moving our education system forward. It was the City Council that approved education reform even though it was a very difficult vote. It was former Superintendent Clifford Janey who instituted the curriculum and standards our children are now making progress under.
It was apparent that for the first two years of reform most people held their tongues and didn’t criticize because there was a recognition that we needed some drastic measures to move our schools forward. But now we must heed the call for transparency in both school budgets and policies because it has become a drumbeat. The next mayor will need to be responsive to that, as will the chancellor, and not just continue to disregard it as the current mayor is doing.
The next mayor must also look at education in a broader perspective than Mayor Fenty has. As President Obama has said we cannot just focus on one thing when so many need fixing. A mayor may want to make one thing his signature issue but he can’t neglect everything else. In the area of education Mayor Fenty has done just that. He has neglected the University of the District of Columbia and it is despite him, not because of him, that they have made tremendous progress. They have begun a community college and put the university back on the path to success. The mayor tried to pack the Board of Trustees with unqualified candidates and then tried to stop the hiring of a new president forgetting that the university, under the rules of its accrediting body, must have independence.
The District must also look closely at early childhood education and even education and health programs for those from birth to three. Too often our children come to school at age five so far behind that just catching them up is a massive undertaking. We can do better than that.
We need to look at the special education programs of the District. Candidate Fenty promised change and money to bring programs into DCPS that would eventually cut the costs of special education. He hasn’t focused on those programs and as of today we still spend nearly $275 million a year on special education programs, some on sending our children to private institutions around the nation.
The LGBT community
There is more to being a mayor than attending ribbon cuttings and making glib statements. The mayor of a big city like Washington, D.C., the capital of the free world, has a bully pulpit that few others have. The mayor has the ability to rally people to a cause by working to change hearts and minds. This is an area in which I believe Adrian Fenty has been a total failure. I am not sure whether this is a lack of ability, a lack of interest or simply not something he agrees with.
Candidate Fenty was great on LGBT issues. I know that because I drafted his platform and positions on these issues. He spoke up on them when he campaigned. But the reality is that when he became mayor he was nowhere to be seen. The only time he showed up and spoke out was for the effort to secure the Gay Games for D.C. Maybe this piqued the interest of the athlete in him.
But the litany of issues on which the mayor was missing in action is long. In the fight for marriage equality the mayor was nowhere to be found. He didn’t testify at the Council in favor of it, didn’t allow his appointed director of the Office of GLBT Affairs to do so, and never spoke in favor of it while the fight for it raged on. The mayor merely repeated that he would sign the bill if it came to his desk, which he did. But by that time it was a veto-proof bill. The mayor then held a signing ceremony and did a photo opportunity at the first weddings but didn’t even take the 30 minutes to attend any of them.
The mayor emasculated the mayor’s advisory committee on GLBT Affairs by appointing only those who he thought wouldn’t speak out. He even appointed a chair for the committee who was the partner of a city employee who couldn’t challenge him without putting his partner’s job in jeopardy.
There are many other issues that call into question the sincerity of the mayor’s support for the LGBT community. They include his refusal to enter into discussions on appropriate health education for students, not finding time once in three years to attend the GLBT economic summits, his refusal to meet with the community on hate crimes or to even admit that this was a serious issue for the community. He even reneged on a campaign promise to keep the core of the GLLU at full complement.
In another instance when the Council Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Domestic Partnership Judicial Determination of Parentage Act of 2008, which clearly established the relationship of a child to both of its parents in a domestic partnership and strengthened families and increased the legal protection of children, his administration worked against it. Shortly before the hearing on the bill Tonya A. Sapp, his director of Legislative Affairs for the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), sent a letter to the committee stating that the bill’s language changing ”mother” and ”father” to the gender-neutral ”parents” might ”place the District out of compliance with federal law.” In the memo Sapp treated parentage as exclusively biological, which is not even the law for heterosexual couples.
In another instance, the Fenty administration issued a notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which was published in the District of Columbia Register on July 11, 2008 concerning intent by the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) and the D.C. Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to amend Chapter 8 of Title 4 of DCMR governing the “Gender Identity or Expression” provision of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA). Two of the proposed new subsections essentially exempted the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) from having to obey the Human Rights Act as it applies to transgender detainees and prisoners. This rulemaking was sent to the Commission on Human Rights on which the Mayor’s Director of the Office of GLBT Affairs sits. He had to recuse himself from voting on the issue. This event showed clearly how inappropriate his appointment to that commission was, but also that the mayor wouldn’t chance having a representative on the commission that would speak up for the community.
While the mayor of the District of Columbia may not have a direct impact on how Congress acts on issues like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, the LGBT community in the District surely can expect that the mayor who asked for our votes will stand up and be counted and speak out on a consistent basis in support of the rights of his constituents.
The most recent incident that would lead to questioning how serious the mayor is when it comes to supporting the community was when it was found that the mayor’s office had issued a certificate of appreciation to the executive director of the virulently anti-gay group PFOX. The mayor did apologize for that by blaming it on low-level staff. There was outrage in much of the community over this and six Council members told the mayor that his statement wasn’t enough. They said that issuance of the certificate was an embarrassment to the District and it needed to be recalled. The mayor has refused to do that.
The question many in the LGBT community have a right to ask is whether the mayor believes showing up and walking in a Pride parade and attending the High Heel Race each year is really support.
The District has one of, if not the highest, incidence of HIV/AIDS in the nation and yet the mayor refuses to take a personal role in fighting this epidemic. Candidate Fenty promised to hold an HIV/AIDS summit because he recognized we have an epidemic in the District that had reached crisis proportions. The summit was held, but now three and a half years later there has never been a follow-up and the community at large has not been invited back to work on this issue. In fact the mayor seemed surprised at the numbers released by Appleseed on how prevalent HIV/AIDS was in the District even though he ran on a platform that called it an epidemic.
The mayor has yet to keep his campaign promise to talk to every community group and every faith-based group about what they can do to help stem this epidemic. Again it is the bully pulpit the mayor refuses to use in a constructive way.
These are just some of my reasons for not voting to give Adrian Fenty a second term. There are others. Harry Jaffe of the Examiner and Mike DeBonis, formerly of the Washington City Paper and now at the Washington Post have both publicly called Fenty a “jerk.” Others have used less flattering terms. I see him as arrogant and aloof. He no longer appears to care about people, or even make the pretense of doing so. He appears more concerned with the perks of office, running triathlons, going to Georgetown dinner parties, and taking vacations in homes he borrows from donors than he does in doing the nitty-gritty work required of a big city mayor. He makes a big deal about driving a smart car and uses it in parades; remember this car was purchased for him by the city — as a second vehicle. He still has the SUV and uses that when it’s convenient.
I worked hard to elect Adrian Fenty and as I indicated, I think that there are positive things that have happened during his time in office. I did have my arguments with him during the campaign. They were issue-oriented, and campaign debates. He even stormed out of a restaurant after one argument. I have seen this attitude rear its head again in his dealing with staff. He has threatened staff with firing publicly and has fired any staff member who had the temerity to venture an opinion that contradicts his.
There are so many other small issues that taken together seem to show a man who is not willing to compromise or work with others in any way. The baseball ticket fiasco; standing up the late Dorothy Height and Maya Angelou when they asked for a meeting over the mayor’s trying to throw the Wish List out of the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center; refusing to attend major conferences that come to D.C. because it interferes with his athletic schedule; refusing to let administration agencies join with the Council on public events; firing the chair of the D.C. Housing Authority Board when he questioned the terms of contracts destined for a Fenty crony; and trying to stop the UDC Board of Trustees from appointing a president so he could try to install his own candidate even after having his unqualified candidates to the Board of Trustees turned down by the Council.
Now in his campaign for a second term, Mayor Fenty talks about leadership when he participates in forums. He calls anyone who questions him a critic as if that were something bad.
Leadership in the long run requires bringing people together. It often requires some compromise and seeing an issue though to a positive end. It requires that you convince people to come around to your side on an issue and to even make them feel good about it. Those are things this mayor hasn’t been able to do. Can he buy this election with the fundraising he has done? Maybe, but that isn’t leadership.
The mayor considers building new libraries at the same time we are laying off library staff and cutting the hours of use in existing ones leadership. I see it more as poor judgment and possible pandering to a constituency. The mayor sees building new recreation centers while not knowing where the money will come from to keep the facility in working order, or staffing it appropriately, as leadership. I consider it poor management and budgeting.
The mayor apparently sees spending money as a way to buy votes when in actuality we are facing a budget that is unbalanced without gimmicks. Leadership is not hiding from the community the true seriousness of our economic condition. Leadership is not taking the money from the bag tax meant to cleanup the Anacostia River and using it for basic street cleaning. Leadership isn’t hiding from the reality of the future because it is an election year.
What Mayor Fenty knows but apparently conveniently likes to forget is that contrary to the federal budget, the District must balance its budget. As the Washington Post recently editorialized, and I paraphrase, “If we continue down this path, balance our budget with slight of hand and gimmicks, and borrow from our future, we will end up where we were in 1996 with a nearly bankrupt city.” I don’t see that as leadership, but rather a lack of leadership.
I have often questioned whether this is the same man I thought would be a great mayor — the man that I believed would bring real change to the District of Columbia, end cronyism and begin to bring our city together. After three and a half years it appears that cronyism is alive and flourishing only with a different set of cronies. Tom Sherwood joked at the last GLBT Economic Summit that if you want a job or contract with the Fenty administration you had better join the right fraternity.
Our city is further apart both economically and racially. We are the two cities that Anthony Williams spoke about and wanted to try to bring together. We have an overall unemployment over 11 percent and unemployment in some parts east of the river at nearly 30 percent.
We are a city that too often still sees issues from a racial perspective and we have a mayor who refuses to even talk about the racial divide. One thing I have learned over my lifetime is that if you don’t, or can’t, talk about an issue, you can’t begin to solve it.
For these reasons I will not vote to give Mayor Adrian Fenty a second term. I have not yet formally endorsed another candidate but will shortly and those who know me know that when I support someone I will do so wholeheartedly just as I did when I supported Adrian Fenty for a first term.
After being involved in politics for too many years to mention I have come to accept that there are no perfect candidates. But I do believe that there is someone who will be better able to lead us through the next four years.
Peter Rosenstein is a D.C.-based LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.
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