News & Politics

Taking Charge

They Call Him Two Bob, and He Pretty Much Runs DC. No, He's Not the Mayor, But Someday He Might Be.

Robert Bobb had been DC's city administrator for nearly six months when tongues began to wag:

"This man would make a great mayor."

The notion that a Louisiana native just off the plane to DC could be a potential mayor says two things: DC has a leadership vacuum, and Bobb is seen as someone who can fill it.

He has the résumé, style, and charisma to position himself as a possible mayor. And he has power: As city administrator, he essentially runs the DC government.

But the last thing Bobb needs is a reporter asking him if he wants to be mayor. He was so successful as city manager of Richmond for 11 years that he started to overshadow the elected leaders. Oakland mayor Jerry Brown fired him from the same job last July in part because he was becoming too popular.

So does he want to be mayor?

"I hope the mayor runs again," he says. "I'm here to create the foundation if he chooses to run again."

Mayor Anthony Williams has not said if he'll run for a third term in 2006, but the smart money says he calls it quits.

Since arriving last fall, Robert Bobb–called Two Bob–has shown the best traits of Marion Barry and Tony Williams. He connects to DC residents without Barry's swagger or tendency to play the race card. He understands public administration as well as Williams, but he has the political skills to make people follow him–and fear him.

Bobb's predecessors held a dinner for him early in his tenure. There was Elijah Rogers, dean of African-American city administrators; Tom Downs; Carol Thompson Cole; Michael Rogers. DC bureaucrats have outlasted and defeated each of them.

"They told me to keep my back against the wall," says Bobb.

Th e oldest of five children, Bobb says his parents worked on sugar-cane plantations. Neither finished grade school. His grandmother badgered him to read. He was the first male in his family to graduate from high school and college.

At Christmas, the family received donations of food and hand-me-down clothes. One day at church a white boy said, "Hey, those are my clothes."

He vowed to "do whatever it takes, legally and ethically, to survive without begging. I would die before I let my son see me beg."

Bobb was too young to take part in the civil-rights movement. But he was in the first wave of African-Americans who went into city government. In the 1970s he was city manager of Kalamazoo, Michigan, then of Richmond from 1986 to 1997 and of Oakland in the late 1990s.

"Sometimes I made progress, sometimes not," he says. "If I go down, I'll go down fighting for those who don't have the same access to power and political influence."

Wi ll he go down as mayor? As of now, the field is open. Two council members are positioning themselves to run. Jack Evans, who represents the Ward 2 district of downtown and Georgetown, may run again. Adrian Fenty of Ward 4 is moving to the front of the pack: A Washington native, he's earned high marks for hard work and passion for the city.

The business community is grooming two potential candidates. Attorney A. Scott Bolden, who reformed the DC Democratic State Committee, enjoys the political limelight. Retired phone-company executive Marie Johns has joined the group with potential.

Bobb intends to make Washington his home. In conversation it becomes clear that he'd be happy to leave government and start a consulting business.

His wife and son, who stayed in Oakland through the end of the school year, are settling here this summer. The family is on the verge of buying a home.

Could it be a mayoral residence?

Bobb doesn't protest all that much.