Adrian Fenty Is Way Off Message The mayor's press strategy isn't just bad—it's non-existent.

You’ll Have to Speak to My Lawyer: Attorney General Peter Nickles does the talking for Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

There’s an icky practice in political journalism known as the “beat sweetener”: A reporter will write nice things about a quasi-important person in the hope of gaining access down the road. You’ll usually see it when either a new administration arrives in power or a new reporter arrives on a beat.

Remember all those saccharine profiles of President Obama’s inner circle about a year and half ago? Here’s how The New York Times Magazine described new White House flack Robert Gibbs: “an affable Alabaman with pit-bullish tendencies.” Gross. But the real problem with these stories is that the goodwill they generate never lasts.

So your newest Loose Lips would like to try something different for his first column—the beat poisoner. Fortunately, some of the key sources on LL’s new beat are prime targets for such an exercise: One of the first things apparent to a new reporter in the Wilson Building is how spectacularly dysfunctional Mayor Adrian Fenty’s press shop is.

LL wouldn’t normally bore his readers with tales of spokesperson shenanigans. But Fenty is facing the very real possibility that in two months he’ll lose the Democratic primary to D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. And many of his troubles involve what political operatives call “atmospherics”—the very stuff a PR professional is supposed to manage.

In the Fenty administration, though, the paid PR professionals are AWOL. Instead, the mayor has let his very own Samwise Gamgee, D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, become the de facto spokesman. “I cringe every time he opens his fucking mouth,” said one Fenty pal, who spoke on condition of anonymity for, well, obvious reasons.

Nickles, who by many accounts is the only living being Fenty truly trusts, has free reign to speak his mind and is more than happy to fire back at a D.C. Council that regularly berates him. He’s called Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh an “angry woman,” Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry a “has-been” and said last week that Gray must be suffering “heat stroke” for calling for Nickles’ resignation.

“I’m a great believer in the free press,” Nickles told LL.

The free press, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to return the favor. Reporters wonder why a pugnacious lawyer—even an eminently quotable one—is essentially running the press shop. “At a certain point, Nickles in an unholstered, dangerous weapon,” said one political journalist, who like most reporters interviewed for this article asked to remain nameless while dissing the mayor’s peeps.

Tony Bullock, the former spokesman for Mayor Anthony Williams, summed up the obvious: “The AG should not be the spokesman for the mayor. That’s just wrong right away.” (Nickles says his public role reflects the fact that Fenty “is very sensitive to the fact that what he says or what somebody says who is perhaps not careful could subject the city to significant liability.”)

It’d be easy enough to blame Nickles for talking out of turn. On the Green Team, though, there’s often no one else talking.

Questions to the mayor’s spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, frequently go unanswered, or are met with little more than short, meaningless replies. Hobson—who earns $120,000 a year on the public payroll—is personally well-liked. But reporters often complain of being ignored. One reporter said it’s hard getting help even on stories that would portray the mayor in a positive light. “It’s like pulling teeth getting information out of them, and when they finally say something it’s usually vague and not useful,” the reporter said.

When LL first started covering D.C. for The Examiner, he asked one of Hobson’s underlings, Kate Stanton, why his questions to Hobson were not being answered. Stanton told LL Hobson was very busy, and that a non-response meant the mayor’s office had no comment.

“At least get back to people,” Bullock sniffs.

So much for city employees. Surely things are running more smoothly on the campaign payroll, where Fenty’s $3 million war chest can buy the best flacks in the business? Actually, until recently, Fenty’s sole campaign spokeswoman was Helen Hare, 22, a political novice who graduated last year from Oberlin College in Ohio, Fenty’s alma mater.

LL tried to chat with Hare about her background, but she wouldn’t comment on the record and begged off the phone for a pending meeting, saying she’d call back in 20 minutes. (She didn’t.)

The campaign recently bolstered its press shop, adding former Washington Business Journal reporter Sean Madigan, who is pretty well regarded among reporters. Fenty re-election chair William Lightfoot says this was all part of the plan: The campaign decided to give “a young person an opportunity” earlier in the process, and then bring in a “seasoned professional” as election day neared. (Madigan had worked as an aide to City Administrator Neil Albert.)

That may not have helped. Your new LL has had limited dealings with the Fenty campaign, but a routine question about what aides planned to do with $6,000 in donations from Marion Barry’s old cocaine supplier was repeatedly ignored a few weeks ago.

And then there’s Fenty himself. Journalists in search of a mayoral message that’s not mediated through a gun-slinging AG, a call-dodging official spokeswoman, or a rookie campaign flack can always catch up with the mayor at ribbon-cuttings, at the end of which he makes himself available for a few minutes. Unfortunately, when it comes to sharing, his answers usually aren’t any more substantive than those of his staff.

“You may get access but you won’t get information,” said NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood, dean of the D.C. political press corps.

It wasn’t always this way. Reporters describe a type of honeymoon period when Fenty first took office; the 2006 version of Hizzoner was open, helpful and accessible. “It started off pretty good,” said one reporter. But flaps over Fenty’s secretive trip to Dubai, his response to the DeOnte Rawlings shooting, and other dust-ups that come with the territory of being a big-city mayor have taken their toll.

“He became mayor and became much more closed, I think to his own detriment in a terrible way,” said a Fenty pal.

Hobson disputes this, and said any gripes from the press stem from unrealistic expectations from Fenty’s time as a councilmember and first-time mayoral candidate. But, Hobson said, “communicating as a candidate and communicating as a councilmember is vastly different then communicating as the mayor.”

Either way, campaign supporters blame Fenty’s poll troubles on a message machine that isn’t working. “If it was, he would be and should be the clear front runner,” said supporter and campaign donor Bruce Klores.

Fenty swears he’ll change. When asked recently on WPGC-FM’s Big Tigger radio show about the perception that “black people just ain’t rolling with Fenty right now and you ain’t necessarily rolling with them,” Fenty responded by blaming the messenger—in this case, himself. “What we haven’t done, and I take full blame for this, is being able to get that record out, to let people know that if we had not been in office all these things wouldn’t have happened, and I think that if we do a better job of that, not just in the next 77 days before the election, but in a second term.”

Meanwhile, LL is still waiting for that call about the controversial donor.

Is Cheh Chicken?

Why doesn’t Mary Cheh just get it over with and endorse Gray? The Democratic councilmember from Ward 3 clearly loathes the Fenty administration, and has been one of its most vocal critics. “It’s almost becoming a lawless administration…they seem to have no limits or restraint on what they are willing to do,” she told The Washington Post last year.

Yet Cheh has so far remained neutral, even distancing herself from the rhyming chants mixing her name and Gray’s name at this year’s Palisades 4th of July parade. The chants came from enthusiasts perched on an old fire truck that had been brought to the parade by the city’s firefighters’ union—which has endorsed both Cheh and Gray. Cheh says the union initially offered to festoon the truck with signs for both candidates, but she turned them down for fear of appearing to have taken sides.

There are obvious political reasons for Cheh to avoid an endorsement. Fenty—and his schools chief, Michelle Rhee—remain popular on her turf.

But so what if she alienates a few Fenty-loving Ward 3 residents? Cheh is unopposed in the all-important Democratic primary. Republican Dave Hedgepeth, her likely general-election opponent, doesn’t look like much of a threat: Last time around, Cheh beat the GOP’s Theresa Conroy by 43 points.

Cheh says she takes all opponents seriously. “Let me tell you, the Republicans have their highest registration in Ward 3, and in addition there are independents. And they said they were going to take a big run at me. I don’t take any of this lightly,” Cheh tells LL. “Do you really think I have coattails like that?”

But then she undercuts her own argument: “The other thing I’ve been saying is, at the moment I’m not taking a public position. It doesn’t mean that I won’t at some point before the election is held.”

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 244, 24 hours a day.

Our Readers Say

Hobson earns $120k a year! WTF. Just imagine what she would be paid if she actually did any work...
Great start, Alan.
And we're off...
Looking forward to more of this.
Great work, Alan. It's been a tough few months for city-politics reporting since DeBonis left but if this peice is any indication, the WCP will again be my first stop for insider news. Keep it up.
Alan: I look forward reading more. Mary Cheh was correct to ask for Peter Nickles resignation last year, and any there is no possible defense for the partiality demonstrated since. Thanks for clearing my first post, as it was intended to be a personal comment. Welcome
LMAO@ the photo. Fenty looking at Nickles like Sweet Polly looking at Underdog, "sigh...my hero..."
Alan:

Bravo! You are in a prime position to see the dying embers of poodle-boy-fenty's "Audacity of Arrogance" administration. I too look forward to more on this topic from you.
He is a Big City Mayor. You cannot expect him or his team to be held accountable. Relax. They will have all the time in the world for you starting September 15.
Welcome to The Game Alan! Good start! LL is key to understanding the underhanded, ignorant, foolish, corrupt, childish, ineffective, and incompetent DC government, and we really value it.
Nice article, hope for more like this. As for Fenty, I'm still undecided. The Fenty folks should learn to speak up. I want to vote for him but they have to make a case, a real case for what they are doing for DC.
@PB... well if you just listened to WPFW, he's STILL not speaking up. On caller told him most voters are comcerned with HOW he is doing things (contracts to conies & threats) and he did what he did for just about every question asked of him... talked until his 30-60 seconds was over but never addressed the question. More of the same with this guy. If it's like this now, what do you think it will be like after he wins?
“'At a certain point, Nickles in an unholstered, dangerous weapon,' said one political journalist."

He's been "an unholstered, dangerous weapon" to everyone who works in the AG's Office (and other DC agencies) - constantly - ever since his strong-arm takeover there.
Peter Nichols is a DC Employee, he should not be talking to elected officials that way period. It is high time for Fenty and Nichols to go, maybe just maybe, they will learn some humility after the loss.
Ok. Let me understand this. You don't like Fenty because he won't give you inside position. And, so, you columnists have decided to embrase the people who will give you something to write about. Even it they are full of shit. Consequently, your unbalanced, half baked, hostile reporting is Fenty's fault. Your lack of journalistic intergrity was caused by Fenty. Just like Fenty made Harry Thomas not pay his parking ticket.

Dude, will you retire now. You are justifying being an asshole in advance. They aren't in disaray. They just don't trust you.

And, I look forward to you doing this to Fenty for another 5 years at least.
Lemme get this straight. You're new to the area and beat, but authoritative on what's going on because you ask other journalists for their impression about people with whom you've only just begun to interact? Is this Loose Lips or Journalism 101 Class? Where's my juicy insider intel, from someone who at least knows the players?! Um, it would be great if Loose Lips was at least a DC beat veteran-- that might help him in his frustrations, because then he wouldn't have to rely on busy colleagues to give him the basic background information he is so obviously missing.
Coincidence that the former City Paper editor, the smartest, wittiest, most libertarian journalist on journalism also referred to the "beat sweetener" one week ago in a column on the NYTimes coverage of Obama's one-man national security enforcer, and then again today with a piece on the USAID chief?
What, has August come early this year, or is Papa Shafer opened his house and salon to a version of Plato's symposium?
“black people just ain’t rolling with Fenty right now and you ain’t necessarily rolling with them,”

Well of course not; Fenty's rolling in a tres chic but technologically obsolete Smart Car if it has 4 wheels and, a couple of $6K carbon-fibre reinforced road and tri-bikes if the vehicle rolls on two wheels. No telling about the off-road mountain bikes stolen from his shed. Fenty reported they were worth just $300 apiece. Not likely. Check out the price of Lance Armstrongs off-road racers. $3-6k, again, what with trick suspensions. The Prince of Pathways rides and lends K-Mart specials? Right. So, the thieves wonder about their great luck in having committed a crime by value, but a misdemeanor by Hizzoner's embarrassed estimate.

And his 'spensive road and tri bikes that were NOT stolen? Maybe kept up on the wall in his house, where every narcisist keeps his road-warrior machines.
I am so glad to see the newest LL. I have been waiting so long. Great first story!
It's about time this racist white rag of a paper started talking about white folks instead black people all the time. Nickles is old time white racist that is pushing blacks out of city jobs and the city itself. The black mayor should be ashamed of himself to allow blacks to be pushed out of city jobs and their neighborhoods at the expense of new white folks.

Look at DYRS killing all these black kids by pushing them out in the neighborhood to rob, steal and kill. DYRS is headed by a white man who has all top white staff with big salaries while the blacks are slaving doing all the work and getting pushed out of city jobs. Like these white DYRS folks really care about black kids when black adults at DYRS are at the bottom of management and being tossed out of their jobs. When is the City Paper going to write about this? Never as long as whites are in charge.
@I.J. wow, you said it all!
Good job for tne first article! About Fenty the first talk head is dead. (: The real puppet master has to come from behind the curtain to get his massage.............(:
Alan- Why are DC reporters, especially investigative journalists not covering the fact that yesterday Vincent Gray was embraced and endorsed by a known racist and bigot: ANC 2C Commissioner Leroy Thorpe? Are they afraid of Leroy? This guy Thorpe has said nasty things about women, whites, gays, latinos, and almost everybody who is not like him in Shaw. He is the most divisive figure in the City. Irony, he is also a DC Government employee. who is protected up the waazoo! because he is friends with Ron Moten. Just recently Leroy Thorpe went to jail for lying to the police, and what happens: at his neighborhood block party yesterday Sat July 17, 2010 Gray shows up to be endorsed. Also Vincent Orange and Chief Lanier. what gives?
I have a poodle. Please don't compare my well bred, intelligent, friendly and very keen specimen with Fenty. Trust me when I say that there is no comparison. Standard poodles are the single most intelligent breed of dogs on the planet. Fenty falls way short of this.
Wake me up if LL distinguishes himself by doing something dramatic....like reporting about Gray's felon donors, aka his homies. Or not. Hey, LL, did you know Gray's big brother and best friend is a disbarred lawyer (in DC and MD) who was convicted of fradulently funneling money (using fake names) to Maryland politicians he lobbied? No?

Have you cross-checked Bereano's gambling clients against the folks Gray steered the DC lottery contract to?

Did you know Bereano's Maryland lawyer (who defended, unsuccessfully, Bereano in disbarment proceedings) also happens to be Gray's lawyer in his no show Md traffic case? Wonder how that happened. Curious timing, Gray retained him as Bereano was getting a "shout out" from Gray's daughter at his campaign kick-off. Just before Bereano maxed out financing Gray's transparent, inclusive, one city, let's get it on, no crony frat bro, holistic campaign.

Nothing to write about, I know. Far easier piling on Fenty.
TH, you are so lame. Really. Just want to point it out.

How about you write an article and submit it to the city paper? Ever think about that?
September 14, 2010, will be a significant day in the District of Columbia. It will be the day that Adrian Malik Fenty and all of his bull shit will be on their way out. Who new four years ago that the future Mayor of DC, would turn out to be such a complete load of shit!


the mural looks beautiful.in the furtue, i'd love to see DCCAH encourage youth to utilize more environmentally friendly materials. all those spray cans are are classified as toxic waste and require a toxic waste pickup. or ya'll are just popping them in the city dump. either way its not wise in 2009. learning about greener products and methods will create more aware artists and citizens. please help us set a good example DCCAH!

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