Fenty’s First Fumble

Low Key to the City: Cheh walked through press gauntlet to attend subdued swearing-in.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

When the D.C. Council was conducting business behind closed doors, reporters around town had one solid strategy: Call Fenty.

Brutal homicide in broad daylight? Call Fenty. Gang violence? Call Fenty. Quote on deteriorating schools? Call Fenty.

So it seemed strange that an old hand at manipulating the press like Mayor Adrian Fenty would try to limit press access to his first official act as executive.

Fenty faced a quandary when news broke that Jan. 2 would be an official day of mourning for President Gerald R. Ford Jr. The then mayor-elect had scheduled a big swearing-in ceremony for the convention center that day—an event complete with speechifying, big entourages, and fancy clothes.

Out of respect for Ford, Fenty bumped the big show to Jan. 3.

But the imperatives of representative government require that the mayor and council be sworn in by noon Jan. 2. So Fenty opted for what was termed a private swearing-in at D.C. Court of Appeals.

Fenty staff explained that private meant the press was not invited to record the orderly transition of government. Initially, the closest the Fenty brain trust came to inviting the press was a discussion of allowing a single media representative in the room. A single independent media representative, that is: D.C. cable Channel 16 and Fenty’s official photographer would be there to record everything.

And the Fenty faithful gave a nationalistic justification for the private affair. A quick-and-dirty swearing-in, went the thinking, would be the best way to respect President Ford, whose remains would be rolling by two blocks away a little more than an hour after the ceremony.

Other reasons for the secrecy were not so honorable. If the press were kept out of the real swearing-in, it might actually have some interest in the Jan. 3 stage show, which would include a made-for-TV unofficial swearing-in and speeches from the new political class.

To keep public attention to the actual swearing-in on Jan. 2 to a minimum, new councilmembers were encouraged to use the judges’ parking garage, which provided access to an elevator that would take the duly-elected directly up to the 6th floor—safely out of view of the public. They were encouraged to arrive alone. Once in the courtroom, members would be quickly sworn in by Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington.

At least that was the plan.

It took only a few hours for details of Fenty’s private ceremony to leak. The arrangement elicited howls from a press corps that has listened to countless Fenty sermons on the merits of transparency.

The people being sworn in, too, noticed something amiss. “What’s with all the secrecy?” asked At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson in a conversation with LL. Mendelson, who noted that he was asked to show up for the swearing-in alone, said that Fenty had championed public access to council meetings. “Wasn’t he the guy who refused to vote against the [proposed] Open Meetings Act?” he asks. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham was also bewildered: “I was definitely told it was private,” he says. Graham went to the swearing-in accompanied only by staff member Ted Loza.

Ward 5 Councilmember Harry “Tommy” Thomas Jr. couldn’t abide the request for an intimate gathering. “There are too many folks who helped me get here for that,” he says. “That one is the real thing, not some show. I want my people to be there.”

That’s when Fenty’s low-key affair crumbled. By the end of last week, the Fenty camp was spreading word that press could crash the ceremony after all. Media reps, however, would be forbidden to enter with cameras or recording devices; members of official entourages were allowed to do so.

Only one councilmember heeded Fenty’s official directive to the council. At-Large Councilmember David Catania arrived entourage-free. “I was told this was going to be a very low-key affair,” he said. When he was called to take the oath, he had to appeal to the rabble for assistance. “I’m sorry, I didn’t bring a person—or a Bible either,” he quipped. Mendelson stepped up with the Bible, and Council Chair Vincent Gray served as official Good Book holder.

Thomas’ 20-person-strong entourage filled two rows of courtroom benches.

In the end, Thomas, Graham, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and Mendelson all entered the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse the same way the public does: through the front door. And Fenty’s efforts to keep things mellow only stoked press interest in the event. The councilmembers and their families arriving at the private ceremony ended up running a gauntlet of four television cameras and at least one still photographer in front of the courthouse.

The Fenty faithful claim the event went pretty much as they expected, despite having to make a few midcourse corrections. “It’s always good to be flexible and willing to change if you need to,” says Fenty spokesperson Carrie Brooks. “We didn’t plan any of this. In the end, I think we struck the exact right balance.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

• Fenty was officially sworn in as mayor around 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 2.

But he was sneaking around the mayor’s domain in cyberspace well before he legally took office. Specifically, Fenty’s head-and-shoulder shot first appeared above the words “Mayor, Adrian M. Fenty,” on the dc.gov Web site on the evening of Jan. 1.

You wouldn’t have found it on the home page, where Anthony A. Williams was still firmly ensconced in his Mayor’s Corner. But there was Fenty’s smiling and svelte-looking head-and-shoulders shot on the banner above the online form for getting a duplicate driver’s license.

By appearing on only one Web site banner, Fenty afforded LL a very small window to toggle back and forth between the Williams and Fenty heads simply by hitting the “back” and “forward” buttons on his Web browser. That made for an easy comparison.

Fenty has opted for an erect, front-facing shot and a huge smile. Williams was more of a half-profile and sly-grin guy. He clearly never bothered to update the picture—a reminder of the time before someone convinced Williams that the clean head was much better for him than the “barely holding on to the hair I’ve still got” look.

So isn’t the early Fenty Web appearance unconstitutional or something like that? “That wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Fenty City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. “All that was going to change over at noon [on Jan. 2]. It must have been a test run or something.”

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