News & Politics

I’m Not Marion Barry!

But Does That Make Tony Williams a Good Mayor?

A black Lincoln Navigator driven by a cop in a suit pulls up in front of Ben's Chili Bowl one Tuesday shortly after noon. The sidewalk in front of "the Bowl," a venerable DC eatery on U Street, teems with the lunch crowd. Mayor Anthony Williams, sitting in the back right leather seat, switches off his BlackBerry computer and surveys the scene through tinted windows. He can see construction cranes in the lot next to the Metro station. New condominiums are rising toward 14th Street, where the first brick went through the first drugstore window to start the 1968 riots. The neighborhood evokes the New Washington, the city of change that Tony Williams has helped to create in his five years as mayor.

The cop riding shotgun gets out first. He scopes out the scene and opens the door for Williams. The mayor steps out, walks around the SUV, buttoning his gray suit jacket, and makes his way through the people on the sidewalk and into the restaurant. No one seems to take note. It's an immaculate reception.

Ben's is one of the friendliest, most intimate joints in town. You have to brush people to walk down the gauntlet of booths to the left and counter seats on the right. Williams makes his way to the last seat at the end of the counter. There is no fanfare for the city's chief executive. Not one slap on the back or shake of the hand. No one says hello.


"I'm surprised more people don't come up and complain," he jokes in the self-deprecating humor that he dons as a shield.

Does it bother him?

"It surprises me," he says.

Later the mayor says, "I have given up. I really don't give a damn anymore about charisma, lack of charisma, and all this in terms of glad-handing people. I don't think people expect that of me anymore. I spent a whole summer trying to deal with that s—.

"I want people to respect me, and I'm going to serve the people as their public servant. I love this job. I actually love the people. I think the people who get to know me know that, but I don't worry about it."

Why is it that Tony Williams seems disconnected from and unappreciated in the city he governs? Though he's helped bring Washington back from being a broken city to being an exciting and fiscally sound metropolitan center, the mayor seems strangely alone except on Capitol Hill and at the White House, where he is seen as a hero. He gets more respect when he travels away to meetings and conferences than he does in the District. Perhaps that's why he spends so much time out of town, 90 days last year, according to WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood.

"He gets no credit in DC for the way the city has improved," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's congressional delegate.

At Ben's Chili Bowl, Williams slides onto a stool and orders his regular meal: two turkey dogs, vegetarian chili with onions. I ask if he will run for a third term in 2006.

"I don't think so," he says. "My wife would divorce me. But I'm not going to announce it. That would make me a lame duck for too long."

To avoid that impression, Williams told the Washington Post in January that he was considering running for a third term.

Midway through his second term, Williams finds himself at a crossroads. Despite a rising Hispanic population, the District remains two cities–one largely white and prosperous and moving east into traditional black neighborhoods; the other poor and black and beset by the intractable array of urban maladies, especially east of the Anacostia River. Many people who work with the mayor see him as increasingly distant; others believe he is girding to confront the city's perennial problems: education, safety, and health.

If in fact he doesn't run for a third term, Williams has three years to leave his mark on DC and create a lasting impression as either the intelligent, innovative man who put the city back on its feet or the political caretaker who passed through on his way to something else and is best remembered for not being Marion Barry.

Susan Brooks was passing through the nation's capital in 1989 on her way to a meeting in New York. She took in the city's monuments and nightlife, and she decided to come back and settle down.

"Washington is a perfect place for me," says Brooks, a "recovering lawyer" who runs her own marketing and Web-design firm, the Jake Group. She lives in Cleveland Park. "The city is very livable, the downtown becomes more alive every year, it's brimming with cultural attractions, it's full of people who are interested in many things. It feels like home to me now."

Brooks, 41, is a Louisiana native with an instinctual sense of politics. She remembers the image of DC under former mayor Marion Barry as a racially polarized city witha dysfunctional government. She has watched the city change in the 15 years she's been here: "It couldn't have happened without Tony Williams as mayor. He's responsible for it in symbolic terms."

The mayor wants to attract more people like Susan Brooks to Washington. He has set a goal of bringing 100,000 new residents to town, and if the pattern persists, most will be, like Brooks, single professionals. Census reports show that the Washington-Baltimore region has become one of the most attractive areas in the nation to young professionals with college degrees.

Jobs might draw people to the region, but many young professionals are choosing the District because they see it as a hot town. That was not its image when Tony Williams was elected. The city was emerging from de facto receivership under the control of a federally appointed board.

"One of his greatest strengths is that he has brought about a sense of hope, a sense that things could change for the better," says DC Council chair Linda Cropp. "Whether people like him or not, that's the reality."

Even people who don't like Williams acknowledge that he has made fundamental improvements to what Eleanor Holmes Norton calls "a city that was shell-shocked."

When Tony Williams was elected mayor in 1998, five social-service agencies were in receivership or under court-ordered management. All are back under the city's control, though some are still troubled. In the 1990s DC's bond rating was at an all-time low, making it expensive for the city to borrow funds. Following a decade of deficits and questionable accounting practices, Williams balanced five budgets in a row, and the financial markets gave him a vote of confidence by raising the bond rating from "stable" to "positive."

Changes of the "bricks and mortar" variety are on positive display across the city, especially in the eastern parts of downtown between Connecticut Avenue and North Capitol Street.

The center city is starting to take on the look and feel of the "living downtown" that planners began drawing up more than a dozen years ago. Apartments are rising along Seventh Street, which has gone from down-at-the-heels to upscale as part of the new Penn Quarter neighborhood. New restaurants and clubs bring people out day and night. The theater district begins there with the Shakespeare Theatre and stretches up 14th Street to the Source Theatre.

Says council member Adrian Fenty, "No way in the world can you separate the new DC from Anthony Williams, whether they are linked at the hip or not. He deserves credit."

Five years ago, Massachusetts Avenue between Seventh Street and Capitol Hill was a wasteland of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. Now condominiums are being built along the avenue, and the reconstruction will soon connect downtown with Union Station and Capitol Hill.

The development boom has surged beyond downtown. The 14th Street riot corridor is now a yuppie and buppie hamlet replete with a large upscale grocery store. Shaw, the traditional black middle-class community, is turning wealthy and white. Just ten years ago, the streets around Ben's Chili Bowl were the lair of drug dealers; now condominiums on those same street corners are going for $800,000, and the drug traders have been replaced by couples–African-American and white–dining in hip new restaurants.

Columbia Heights is next. The Tivoli Theater, once the largest movie house in the city, has been boarded up for decades; now it is under reconstruction as the hub of a new neighborhood that could become the center of the city's growing Latin American community. At the project's unveiling last summer, Williams got a warm reception, even from one of his critics. Said Lawrence Guyot, a veteran activist who was an ally of the young Marion Barry in the civil-rights movement, "The mayor was dominant, instrumental, and decisive in making this project become reality."

Although Williams gets credit for the city's redevelopment, many of the projects, especially those around Metro stops, were conceived during the Barry era. Williams has benefited from a real-estate boom spurred by low interest rates. And the influx of new residents to the city is part of a nationwide migration back to urban areas.

But it was Williams who attracted millions of dollars to build affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents. His count is 30,000 new residential units across the city. He persuaded a couple of big retailers to locate in Brookland, one of the city's neglected neighborhoods. He oversaw the completion of an impressive youth-learning and tennis center in the largely poor and black area east of the Anacostia River–the first new DC recreation center in two decades.

Even in the toughest parts of Southeast, across the Anacostia River and along the Prince George's County line, many dilapidated low-income-housing complexes are being scraped away and replaced by new garden apartments for middle-class residents.

When it comes to bricks and mortar, Tony Williams will leave a solid legacy all over the city.

When it comes to flesh-and-blood issues–the softer side of government that has to do with making it work for those most in need–Williams's record is mixed. His legacy is likely to be one of high hopes and failed initiatives.

"The farther you are from the center of the city and the government, the better you feel about the city," says Adrian Fenty. "But as you get closer to the services and the dealing with the government, the worse it looks."

Williams has tried but failed to improve public safety, health, and education. These are problems for most urban areas, but the bar is high for Tony Williams for two reasons: Washington is a relatively small city of 570,000, and Williams raised expectations with promises of management prowess.

"Because he was expected to rebuild the government," says Eleanor Holmes Norton, "he's held to much higher standards."

Beyond downtown, Northwest, and Capitol Hill, life for many Washingtonians has gotten worse during his tenure.

Take crime. Streets in some neighborhoods are as safe as any in the nation, but there are neighborhoods where cops rarely venture from their cars. In 2003 the District had more homicides per capita than any other big city in the country, police statistics show. It ranked third–right behind Detroit and Baltimore–for violent crime, including homicides, assaults, robberies, and rapes.

When a young football star was gunned down outside Anacostia High School this fall, the mayor held a meeting with parents. "We're working on after-school programs," he said, "working with coaches, along with alliances, lots of things. And we want to continue doing them, extend them, get traction on the action plan."

"Action plans" and "best practices" are the argot of the Williams regime. They might lead to improvements in trash collection, but policing is best practiced by the greatest number of hard-core street cops detailed to the roughest neighborhoods.

In largely prosperous and white Ward 3, Williams goes to churches to announce redeployments and drops in violent crimes; in Ward 8, which is predominantly poor and African-American, streets go unpatrolled, and death by gunfire is routine. On the day in City Hall when the mayor touted a drop in crime, a gunman killed an adversary on the other side of town and hit a six-year-old in the stomach with a stray bullet.

The number of homicides has hovered around 250 per year since police chief Charles Ramsey took over in 1998, but the mayor has extended the chief's contract for another five years and raised his salary from $150,000 to $175,000. He also sought to increase Ramsey's pension to $60,000 a year. The city council narrowly approved the raise but refused to vote on the pension package.

"The chief has to be held accountable for steps that leadership can take to control crime," says council judiciary-committee chair Kathy Patterson. "We have not seen sound, competent management of the force."

A persistent criticism of Tony Williams has to do with his lack of focus. Take his relationship with the public schools.

Williams vowed to fix the schools when he ran for mayor, but five years later the system is in disarray. Children in many parts of the city still try to learn in dilapidated buildings. Books still don't arrive on time. Test scores are far below the national average. The central administration still cannot count teachers, pupils, administrators, or money. The school system keeps busting its budget and asking for more funds. Williams is at war with the elected school board.

How does Williams grade himself on the schools?

"A 'C,' " he says, "maybe."

Williams is stretched out on a leather chair in his office on the top floor in the new section added to the back of the John Wilson Building. The suite has the temporary feel of a rented corporate office. But for a flat-screen TV, the walls of the spacious waiting room are bare. The surfaces are metal and glass. Rather than having the bustle of most mayoral offices, it is free of people and sound.

The first thing Williams tried to fix was the school system's fractured governance. By charter, the schools were run by an independent, elected school board that hired and fired the superintendent. The board proposed a budget; the mayor and council okayed the funds. Shortly after taking office in 1999, Williams proposed an appointed school board that would give him much more control. Critics attacked it. Williams backed down and accepted a hybrid: half appointed, half elected.

"I don't think the hybrid thing has worked out as well as I would have liked," he says.

It hasn't worked in part because Williams seems to have lost interest. Meetings with the board became testy, and he met with it less and less. His wife, Diane Simmons Williams, persuaded him to back her friend Peggy Cooper Cafritz for school-board president. Cafritz turned out to be a divisive leader. When two of Williams's most respected appointees, Charles Lawrence and Roger Wilkins, asked to meet with him, Williams was too busy. When they resigned, he took many months to replace them.

As the school board floundered, Williams shocked the city's Democratic establishment by embracing a school-voucher program seen by liberals and teachers' unions as heresy. The plan would provide federally funded grants of up to $7,500 to at least 1,700 low-income District students to attend parochial or private schools. At this writing, the proposal has not made it through Congress.

The mayor followed one shock with another: He said in the fall that he wanted to go back to his original plan, abolish the hybrid school board, and make it an appointed board. Or make the schools a city agency. Either way, he wanted control.

In short order the school superintendent quit and the elected board mounted a counterattack. Williams stopped talking about the schools and started a travel schedule that included trips to Alaska, Belgium, and France.

The city council, which would have to okay such a change, was left wondering where the mayor was headed next. Williams held a few brainstorming sessions with the council, but the meetings seemed to further muddy the situation.

"For him to propose taking over the schools is hypocritical," says Ward 5 council member Vincent Orange. "I don't think he's earned it."

Williams says he would like to see schools have "an environment of success" with good principals and teachers. "That's the key to bringing 100,000 more people into the city," he says.

With three years left in his term, Williams seems to have lost the education key.

Politicians, perhaps more than most people, must rely on their personalities for power and prestige. Tony Williams's personality is a power vacuum.

At a late-October press conference, Williams introduced the head of the DC Commission on the Arts, Dorothy McSweeney, who in turn unveiled a new generation of small Party Animals, the painted donkeys and elephants that graced the city's streets for many months in 2002.

"You know I am a charisma-free zone," Williams said. "The reason is that I was passing through Roswell, New Mexico, and my charisma was beamed away and transferred to Dorothy McSweeney."

Williams's self-deprecating humor and straight demeanor helped him get elected in 1998, when voters saw him as an antidote to Marion Barry's freewheeling charm.

"The city was shell-shocked," says Eleanor Holmes Norton. "We wanted someone to run the government. He didn't promise he'd change his personality. He didn't promise he would conform to the traditional big-city, African-American pol.

"I was intrigued by the notion of a person who becomes mayor who does not fit the stereotype. I find it interesting he is an enigma rather than frustrating. I prefer that to the politician who is an open book you would like to close immediately."

What's intriguing to Norton has frustrated many officials, politicians, and community activists who have tried to work with Williams. In the contact sport of political governance, Williams often is impossible to touch or read.

Council chair Linda Cropp, a trained guidance counselor, has seen Williams's interactions firsthand.

"Classic foster-child syndrome," she says. "Not trusting, somewhat aloof, afraid to make connections."

Williams has had testy relations with the council, Cropp says, because he has difficulty making connections, period. Monthly meetings early in his first term were "torture," she says. "When the council is trying to give suggestions, he perceives it as criticism."

Where the mayor once had a few dependable supporters on the council, he now has hardly any. His most vocal detractors are Jack Evans and Republican David Catania, who clash with him often over policy but also claim he has trouble keeping his word–that Williams more than once has given his word on a deal or a piece of legislation and then backed out.

Cropp says she too had an experience with Williams's credibility gap when then Republican congresswoman Constance Morella asked District politicians to attend a fundraiser for her in the 2002 election. It put Williams, Cropp, and DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton–all Democrats–in a political bind: Would they support an important friend of the District who was being challenged by a Democrat in a closely contested race?

The afternoon before the fundraiser, Cropp says, Williams discussed the matter with her. "I will do what you do," she says Williams told her. She decided not to attend. "Me, too," he said.

The mayor had a similar conversation with Norton. The three agreed not to attend.

That night Williams attended the Morella fundraiser.

"I think in this business your word is extremely important," Cropp says. "You build what you are going to do based on what people say."

In a similar incident, Eleanor Holmes Norton says Williams told her that he would "absolutely" not back vouchers. The delegate later read about the mayor's support for vouchers in the newspaper. She was livid and felt betrayed.

Jack Evans says he won't have meetings with the mayor alone: "I want someone else there to hold him to his word."

Asked his reaction, Williams replies: "That's really disappointing. I'm really sorry to hear that."

The mayor's difficulty in making contact with people has made it hard if not impossible to be a leader.

"It's my personality," Williams says. "Do I look like a man of the people? Let's face it–that's a factor. I'm a big boy. I understand that."

Williams has had a hard time keeping top managers. The only stable agency is economic development, run for nearly five years by Eric Price.

"The bureaucracy doesn't listen to him," Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King wrote last June. "He speaks, and workers go about their business knowing there will be little follow-through or few consequences if they ignore his orders."

The mayor has attempted to introduce accountability to the city's bureaucracy, but it has not seemed to sink in. Management failures that plagued the Barry years still crop up: Automated voices on the 911 emergency line still ask callers to wait, millions of dollars in federal grants still go unspent, and contracts still go to cronies.

"On the managerial side, I don't think he's reached into the second- and third- and fourth-tier layers," says Representative Tom Davis, the Fairfax County Republican who chairs the congressional committee that oversees the District. "On the day-to-day level, I don't think he has brought about the kind of reform that I think all of us had hoped he'd do."

Williams also has been forced to fight charges of misconduct, including campaign violations in 1998 and 2002, as well as inappropriate fundraising by his inner-office staff. Williams is connected to the Washington Teachers Union embezzlement case through Gwen Hemphill, a longtime political operative who cochaired Williams's second mayoral campaign and is accused of embezzling union funds.

"There's almost a level of corruption that seems to take place that he should know about that he doesn't," says council member Jack Evans.

Says Williams: "In terms of ethics, I do believe that we have helped put in place the most transparent government we've ever had . . . . And Lord knows we have more oversight than probably any other government in the world."

Williams blames many problems on sloppiness, the kind of problems that might have been avoided with trusted, loyal staff. Yet Williams has pushed out many of the friends and allies who supported him before and during his mayoral terms. Early on he jettisoned acting city administrator Norman Dong. He forced out his best friend and chief of staff Abdusalam Omer. The last to bid adieu under duress was communications director Peggy Armstrong.

Just a year into his second term, Williams is on his third chief of staff, fourth director of housing and community development, third fire chief, third city administrator, fourth director of human services, third general counsel, and third health director. His second director of public works will be leaving in April.

The one person who doesn't have to worry about Williams's loyalty or honesty is his wife, Diane. Williams says he has few friends; he relies on his wife for advice, both personal and political.

"I hang out with my wife a lot," he says. "My wife's a very, very good friend. She's a good judge of character. . . . She's been very, very good at pegging who's basically a lot of smoke and mirrors and BS and who isn't."

The Williamses have lived in the District for eight years, but they have yet to put down permanent roots. They still rent an apartment in Foggy Bottom.

"I'm trying to get my finances together to buy a house, which is very expensive," says Williams. "I'm not getting myself into a better financial situation serving as mayor."

Critics says they find it hard to believe a man making $142,500 a year can't afford a house somewhere in the District. It's yet another reason many view him as a temporary figure.

Diane Williams may be less visible than some First Ladies, but she's active on the social scene and often travels with the mayor. She also wields private power as effectively as her predecessor, Cora Masters Barry, and she has left her imprint on her husband's administration. She served as a sort of super-treasurer and campaign adviser during both of the mayor's campaigns. She pinched on the money for the most recent reelection campaign, which, some observers say, was at least one reason for the petition debacle in which hundreds of forged signatures on nominating petitions forced Williams to run a write-in campaign and cost him $250,000 in fines.

If Diane Williams has her way, Tony Williams will leave office at the end of 2006. Who might be the next mayor?

The city's political culture, born in the early 1970s with the limited elected posts available in the Home Rule Act, is still young. There are 20 elective offices: 13 council members; five elected school-board members; a mayor; and a delegate to Congress. The city is dominated by the Democratic Party, which has a 9-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans. But the Democrats aren't well organized in the eight city wards, and there is not much competition for the elected slots. Talented native Washingtonians are much more likely to enter business or law than politics.

With three years left in Williams's term and a year to start organizing a campaign, the field of candidates is thin.

Many council members look in the mirror and see a mayor. Running from his base in Georgetown and downtown, Jack Evans is casting himself as a populist to make his second run for the office. Ward 4's Adrian Fenty is building citywide support, but many believe he needs more political seasoning. Ward 5's Vincent Orange has a shot, too.

Council chair Linda Cropp would make a strong candidate but when asked whether she will run answers emphatically, "No."

Eric Holder is an attractive prospect. An attorney with Covington & Burling, Holder is a longtime Washingtonian who served as US Attorney for the District and deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. He has hinted at running, but his interest seems tepid, and his wife is opposed. Plus his involvement in Clinton's January 2001 pardons tarnished his reputation.

Another attorney, A. Scott Bolden, has taken the reins of the Democratic State Committee and positioned himself to run.

The field is so wide open that city administrator Robert Bobb, who arrived in October, has impressed enough people that he's mentioned as a possible candidate.

Assuming Williams doesn't run, what would he like his legacy to be? Education? Safe streets? A government that works?

"Anacostia Waterfront Initiative," he says. The plan would revitalize neighborhoods, add promenades, and improve water quality on both sides of the Anacostia River. "That's really me, when you look at all the manifold aspects and dimensions of that. It includes so many different things."

Williams also points with optimism to the redevelopment of St. Elizabeths Hospital. But if Williams wants a lasting legacy, he'll have to put his mind and political muscle to fixing the schools. A good school system could put DC on the path to being a great city.

But it probably would take more than two years to leave renovated waterfronts and good schools as a legacy. It would take another term. Tony Williams said he wasn't running for mayor the first time, but he changed his mind.

Maybe he'll change his mind again and try to finish the job.

Anthony Williams has brought DC a long way back from the trouble of the Barry years. But the mayor has lots of unfinished business. Will he get it done?