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Can Tony Williams Save D.C.?

The top candidate to replace Marion Barry may be his total opposite

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 for inspiration.

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 responsible.

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.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 14, 1998

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Can Tony Williams Save D.C.?

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