Can Tony Williams Save D.C.?
The top candidate to replace Marion Barry may be his total
By John Cloud and Sally B. Donnelly/Washington
Anthony Williams steps from the chilly comfort of his campaign
sedan into a humid Washington night. He has come to a rundown
D.C. recreation center in what used to be Marion Barry country
for a mayoral-candidate forum. Barry won't be here; after his
genuinely baroque political career, the man who immortalized the
words "Bitch set me up" has finally stepped aside. In his place
stands Williams, who--if polls are right--will win the Sept. 15
Democratic primary (more important than the general election in
this one-party town) and become mayor.
While most of the residents are dressed summer casual, their
bare legs sticking to plastic chairs assembled on the center's
basketball court, Williams is wearing a gray suit, a gray shirt
and his trademark bow tie (also gray, though with a few zany
paisley figures). "Welcome to forum alfresco," he quips in a
typical bit of Ivy League drollery. No one laughs. But Williams
is being himself, and the crowd seems to appreciate it. Somehow,
in fact, this Yale-talking geek has inspired a city desperate
No one could have predicted his rise. After all, when Williams
(who was raised in Los Angeles) first came to the D.C. area in
1993 to become chief financial officer for the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, he and his wife actually settled in the Virginia
suburbs--a choice that now generates bad-natured ribbing from
opponents. More important, when he did move to D.C. to become
its chief financial officer in 1995, he quickly alienated
himself from Barry's African-American establishment.
By congressional mandate, Williams couldn't be fired by Barry.
With the help of a presidentially appointed financial-control
board, Williams used this power to begin dismantling the bloated
government Barry had built over two decades. Barry had more or
less used D.C. agencies as a jobs program; this governing
strategy created a loyal black middle class but eventually
ruined city finances. Williams issued pink slips for the first
time in years. In many parts of the city he was hated.
He was used to the sentiment. In 1980, still a Yale undergrad,
he won a seat on the New Haven, Conn., board of aldermen and
quickly took on two sacred cows: black organizations using city
money to develop minority-owned firms. Williams thought they
were spending the money inefficiently, and he sponsored a bill
to cut them loose. Later, as an official with the Boston
Redevelopment Authority, Williams worked to bring developers
into struggling neighborhoods--neighborhoods sometimes
suspicious of a bean counter wearing a bow tie. (Williams
adopted the bow tie because he liked the look of a couple of
Nation of Islam guys who worked in the office--though he says
the choice was strictly sartorial, not religious.) Still later,
when Williams worked at St. Louis' Community Development Agency,
two black businessmen angry with his handling of their contracts
sent him to the emergency room. They yelled "Uncle Tom!" as they
busted his nose.
Moreover, even as he challenged black establishments, Williams
gathered friends in white ones. He became close to a Yale
instructor named Stan Greenberg, who would later become Bill
Clinton's pollster (and whose firm now works for Williams'
campaign). Greenberg's wife Rosa DeLauro, a Congresswoman from
Connecticut, also became a friend. Other prominent New England
families helped advance his career.
All in all, when he arrived in Washington, Williams looked about
as likely to become mayor as a crack smoker (well, O.K., pick
another drug). But by the mid-'90s, the roofs on many city
schools were caving in. Thousands of people were dying of AIDS,
but management was so abysmal that millions in federal AIDS
dollars sat unspent. At perhaps the city's saddest, most surreal
moment, morgue officials said they didn't have enough money to
refrigerate the dead. Outraged residents--even some hard-core
Barryites--began to demand change. Finally, Congress and the
White House stepped in, and over the next few months most of the
powers of the mayor, city council and school board were handed
over to the unelected control board.
As CFO, Williams brought change. Not alone, of course. The fiery
economy (and concomitant soaring tax revenues) helped most. But
Williams brought accountability to a city where tax officials
had literally left returns strewn across the basement of a city
building. Under Williams, vendors got paid. Tax refunds got
issued on time. The morgue got cold again. Residents in both
white and black Washington began to thank him for little things
like timely trash collection, even when he alone wasn't
Williams had also been careful to conduct community meetings
(more than 150 in all) to explain his austerity measures in
plain language. A draft-Williams movement began--not in a white
establishmentarian's home this time, but in struggling Ward 7.
In May, after months of saying he wouldn't run, he decided to go
for it. The campaign, so far, has been a dream. Contributions
flow in like lobbyists into Congress. Williams' main primary
opponents are three longtime council members forced to answer at
every stop for the various crises the city suffered. Last week
opponents began raising 11th-hour questions about Williams'
background--before Yale, he experimented with marijuana and
hippiedom. And even after he traded his tie-dyes for bow ties,
he has been flighty, leaving most of his jobs within a couple of
years. Others complain that he cut procedural corners when he
took over city finances.
None of the charges have damaged him so far (and in fact may
have humanized the technocrat a bit). If he wins, Williams'
biggest challenge will be to convince Washingtonians that he is
mayor for all of them; in some parts of the city, his get-tough
policies and conservative mien have given the impression that
he's the white candidate. According to a recent Washington Post
poll, he leads a large field, with 37% of Democrats overall;
council member Kevin Chavous is second, with 20%. Among black
Democrats, however, who are expected to make up more than
two-thirds of those voting next week, Williams' lead slips to
28% over Chavous' 25%. Williams will focus the last days of his
campaign on black voters. He often notes that saving
Washington--and winning self-government back from Congress--has
broad racial significance. Under Barry, he says, "the government
of Washington took on the character of an
African-American-managed enterprise. Quite frankly, I think it
is vitally important we show that this can be the best-run
operation in the world."
Williams has hired an important black activist, Phillip Pannell,
as an adviser, and Pannell opened a campaign office in Ward 8,
Barry's home turf. Williams also sought and won the endorsements
of two key Barry confidants. Williams is on a roll now. Two
years ago, he was awkward at community meetings, but he has
learned a common touch. At the basketball-court forum, he patted
shoulders and grabbed forearms--physical gestures once
uncomfortable to him. And he's telling a more personal story. He
is the adopted son of postal workers who raised eight children,
he says over and over. He earned his way. He's asking voters to
remake the city in his image. So far, they like what they see.