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In July 2004, Mayor Anthony A. Williams traveled to Houston for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game. Amid the festivities, Williams met with Commissioner Bud Selig as part of a campaign to bring baseball to the District. Two years later, after the city had scored a franchise, Williams traveled to San Diego and again met with baseball officials, this time to press them to name an owner for the Nationals.
Lobbying trips like those, hopes Williams, will cement his legacy as the mayor who brought baseball to Washington, along with all kinds of spinoff benefits.
Yet as the mayor’s eight years in office wind down, it’s not the baseball for which he’ll be remembered. It’s the trips.
Williams’ fondness for the road broke all records for mayoral travel. He often sneaked away quietly, a strategy that delayed scrutiny of his trekking for several years. In the early going, carping about the chief exec’s fondness for out-of-town jaunts was considered the pet bitch of WRC-TV reporter Tom Sherwood.
The mayor never paid much attention to Sherwood’s travel stories, and he ignored the veteran journalist’s advice. “I told the mayor, ‘It is not that you can’t defend every trip,’” says Sherwood. “But when the Washington Post finally does ‘The mayor has been gone a certain number of days this year’ story, you will be known as the traveling mayor.”
No one can argue with that label now.
As the frequent-flier miles piled up, no John A. Wilson Building quip about the latest government crisis was complete without a mocking dialogue on Williams’ whereabouts: What’s the mayor’s take on this? Oh, that’s right. He’s in China, or Germany, or someplace.
The rap often hit the mark. During 2003 and 2004, Williams spent one of every four days outside of the District—and that was before he became president of the National League of Cities (NLC). Not exactly a sterling attendance record for a guy elected to provide the hands-on management needed to turn around a dysfunctional jurisdiction.
The mayor had plenty of enablers around to fuel his wanderlust. His involvement with the NLC—he served as president for one year—gave him a no-strings-attached travel budget and ready retort for those wondering why he was in Des Moines, San Francisco, or Boston. After his NLC reign, local travel and tourism officials always seemed able to convince city business leaders that funding a mayoral trip would bring benefits to the city.
And who could argue with the mayor’s rationale? The District was in serious need of an image upgrade. After all, Williams was elected to lead a city scarred by an international reputation as the U.S. murder capital, not to mention the whole Vista Hotel thing.
But let’s face it, our globe-trotting mayor stays on the move mainly because he likes it. This week, he returned from South Africa, the last (scheduled) international trip of his mayoralty. What better moment to take a look at Mayor Anthony A. Williams, frequent flier? —James Jones and Erik Wemple
Just how far has Mayor Williams traveled?
By Mike DeBonis
One day in late September 2005, Mayor Anthony A. Williams checked himself into George Washington University Hospital, feeling a little under the weather. He’d come back from a 10-day tour of Europe just days earlier, so he’d probably picked up a bug from one of those notorious airplane ventilation systems. The whole episode was pretty unremarkable, except for one small consequence: His hospital visit meant that he had to cancel a trip, this one to Michigan.
Not a whole lot of trips got canceled during the Williams administration. As Williams’ tenure winds to a close, there’s little debate that the mayor has taken D.C.’s interests to the ends of the earth. But what if he wanted to promote the District on an extraterrestrial basis, something along the lines of “one giant leap for statehood”? Could his cumulative travels have taken him to the moon?
This accounting covers only Williams’ second term (Jan. 2, 2003 to present). It doesn’t include personal travel (his yearly Thanksgiving trips to his in-laws’ in St. Louis, for example) or the dozens of domestic trips that haven’t been recorded in the local press. The Washington Post reported that in 2003 alone, he had taken 30 trips to 28 locales. We were able to account for only 14 of them.
Still, we’ve counted 59 trips constituting 295,770 miles of travel, ranging from a two-week, three-continent, 20,000-plus-mile expedition last summer to a quick trip down 95 to Newport News, Va., in March 2005. Strung together, that’s enough to take Williams to the lunar surface at its mean distance of 238,856 miles, with a solid 60,000-mile head start getting back.
Exotic Foreign Expeditions
111,085 miles in 7 trips
Beijing and Shanghai, China; and Bangkok, Thailand (October 2004); Beijing (June 2005); Chongqing, China (October 2005); Accra, Cape Coast, and Kumasi, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal (May 2006); Seoul, South Korea (June 2006); London; Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey; Paris; and Johannesburg, South Africa (June 2006); Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, and Tshwane, South Africa (October 2006) European Getaways
87,809 miles in 11 trips
Brussels, Belgium, and Paris (November 2003); Barcelona, Spain (February 2004); Rome (May 2004); Thessaloniki, Greece; Frankfurt and Berlin, Germany; and Vienna, Austria (September 2005); Paris (three times); London (three times); Belfast, Northern Ireland (September 2006)
Glamorous Domestic Junkets
68,086 miles in 16 trips
Colorado Springs, Colo.; Hilton Head, S.C.; Honolulu (twice); Las Vegas (three times); Long Beach, Calif.; Los Angeles; Miami, Fla.; Nome, Alaska; Orlando, Fla.; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Diego; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
28,790 miles in 25 trips
Atlantic City, N.J.; Beckley, W.Va.; Cambridge, Mass.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago (twice); Cleveland; Detroit (three times); East Plains, Ga.; Houston; Indianapolis; Lubbock, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; Newport News, Va.; New York (three times); Paducah, Ky.; Pittsburgh; Roswell, N.M.; San Antonio; St. Cloud, Minn.; St. Louis
Most Memorable Travel Moment
On his recent trip to South Africa, Mayor Williams was accompanied by his predecessor, civil rights activist Marion S. Barry Jr. The two were together on an excursion to Robben Island, the famous prison where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 27 years. Williams says the sight of Barry’s emotional reaction to the scene “is etched forever in my memory.”
Spinning the Globe It’s easy to explain the mayor’s travels—just stay on message.
By Jonathan York
In early May, Mayor Anthony A. Williams issued a rationale for his nine-day trip to Africa. “This trip is an important statement about our respect for Africa and our belief that we should maintain a global perspective when it comes to trade and our economy,” Williams said in a statement quoted by the Washington Post. “I believe that tourism is a cornerstone of our city’s economy, but I also believe that many emerging African nations offer excellent opportunities for American businesses.”
So where do voting rights come in?
In no particular order, Williams uses the following imperatives to justify his travels: promoting tourism, enhancing ethnic and cultural “ties,” bringing investment to the District, and, occasionally, reminding the world that D.C.’s citizens are disenfranchised.
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Sometimes the mayor sounds as if he’s trying to knit the world together. When he exulted over a sister-city agreement with Seoul, South Korea, in June, he noted, “This is an important statement of our willingness to work closely with our partners in Seoul and—just as important—it’s a strong statement about the importance of our city’s Korean-American community.” (According to the 2000 Census, Asians make up 3.1 percent of the District’s population. The survey doesn’t say how many of those claim Korean heritage.)
Through repetition, Williams’ flacks also deliver the bland justifications. When spokesperson Vince Morris told the Post about the mayor’s trip this month to South Africa, he said Williams went for these reasons: “One, to promote economic and trade opportunities between Washington and South Africa; two, to foster social, cultural and ethnic ties between the District and the African continent; and three, to help with the ongoing efforts to encourage people to visit the District.”
This catchall defense means that hizzoner always has a good reason to leave town, even when he shouldn’t. For example, the mayor was criticized in fall 2004 for missing two big moments in the restoration of baseball to the District: He attended a car show in Paris while the city government learned that the Montreal Expos had found their new home, and he took an 11-day trip to Asia when he could have lobbied with the D.C. Council to sort out a stadium deal.
“We’ve been briefing the council personally [about baseball] for any number of weeks and months,” Williams told the Post after the Paris trip, calling the Paris International Motor Show “an opportunity to bring huge investment to the city. We think it was a good use of time.”
On rare occasions, the usual reasons don’t fit, so the mayor resorts to more blatant fluff. In May 2004, he was in Rome at a conference about helping children in war zones while the city was trying to recruit Rudolph Crew, former New York City schools chancellor. Crew wanted at least a phone call from the absent mayor; Williams said later the call did not go through. Tony Bullock, Williams’ then spokesperson, gave the mayor’s reasons for helping the children of other countries rather than those of the D.C. Public Schools. “It’s important to the mayor,” Bullock told the Post. “It’s an event that’s growing in stature.”
And when Williams sees that no excuse will suffice, he offers none. He fumbled in July before a pack of reporters who seemed pissed that he’d been away while 12 murders occurred. He got back just in time to learn of two more killings and to see Metropolitan Police Department Chief Charles Ramsey declare a “crime emergency.”
One reporter asked: “If in fact you’re not apologetic or embarrassed by all your travels, why in recent months when you travel, you don’t indicate in advance, and indeedÉthe press is left to find out after the fact that you’re out of town, you’ll be out of town for an extended period of time?”
Williams answered: “As toward the general play up and rollout and discussion of trips, there are many, many—it’s a general rule—many of these trips I talk about endlessly when you all are asleep. I talk about all my activities as president of the [National League of Cities], I talk about, for example, our mission to Africa, our mission to China. But in some trips I don’t. So what can I say? Some trips I don’t.”
The reporter pressed him: “But why was it such a secret? Why—”
“It is not a secret,” the mayor said. “It is public information. But as to when I make it public information, I make it.”
There is one place where the mayor can speak his heart about his travels: his blog, blog.mayor.dc.gov. Here, he can reflect with no one hassling him for an answer. Here, he can show that the reasons for his trips are more personally fulfilling than he pretends. In an August 2005 post about the Florida League of Cities conference, he relates an exchange with another participant.
“I’m Tony Williams, from Washington, D.C.” the mayor said.
“Oh. And you’re with?”
This encounter led him to ask difficult questions about the nature of being mayor: “I politely informed the attendee that I was in fact the mayor, and that I had been in office about 6 1/2 years. But come to think of it, what do I expect? Does it take a couple of decades in office to make an impact?É.Illusions of grandeur are often dashed this way.”CP
D.C.’s international siblings don’t always return the love.
By Sarah Godfrey and Amanda S. Miller
When it comes to sisters, “relationships go in seasons,” says Ami Neiberger-Miller of Sister Cities International, the D.C.-based organization that pairs cities around the world to “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation,” according to its Web site.
Citing the changing nature of Sister City Agreements, which are formal acknowledgments between two communities to participate in “friendly, meaningful exchange,” Neiberger-Miller mentions the partnership between Asheville, N.C., and the city of Vladikavkaz, in southern Russia. The relationship had fallen fallow through the years, but following the 2004 school massacre in nearby Beslan, someone on the Asheville side of the partnership who had attended the targeted School Number One revitalized the relationship. “They went to Beslan, met with families of survivors, started up a significant aid program,” says Neiberger-Miller. “Their sister-city relationship is on the move again—they tend to go in cycles.”
At home, D.C. has signed Sister City Agreements or less formal “Protocols of Friendship” with 12 cities around the globe, fewer than Chicago’s 25 partners and slightly more than New York’s 10 siblings. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has brought in nine of the District’s sisters under his administration alone. And unlike many other U.S. mayors, he has taken to heart Sister Cities International’s advice to “visit your sister” to squash the stereotype of “arrogance and insensitivity” by American officials who don’t reciprocate trips.
ÊThough Williams is devoted to building these familial relationships, not all of D.C.’s sister cities are quite as enthusiastic.
Best Sister: Dakar, Senegal
Dakar cares about its sister. In 1987, it named a Freedom PlazaÐsized quadrangle in its downtown district “Washington, D.C. Square.” Dakar is the only one of Washington’s sister cities to have a full-time assembly set up solely to administer programs on behalf of the sisterhood. According to D.C.ÐDakar Council Chair Shirley Smith, programs include a summer enrichment program for 30 children, a scholarship program, a pen-pal program, and a Senegalese English Club. This sister even faithfully celebrates D.C.ÐDakar week every year. When it comes to partners, “you couldn’t ask for a more gracious host” than Senegal, says Smith. D.C.’s love for Dakar, however, is a bit spotty. “[T]he mayor’s office never gave me a gift to take,” Smith says. When she’s gone to Senegal, Smith says, she’s had to purchase her own gifts for the Senegalese. Once there, she is treated like a head of state.
Worst Sister: Bangkok, Thailand
The BangkokÐD.C. sister city link was established when three D.C. commissioners signed a sister city resolution with Thailand’s capital city back in 1962. But Bangkok hasn’t done much to celebrate its ties to D.C. lately. A source at the Thai Embassy, who declined to be named, couldn’t recall any specific celebrations or commemorations that have taken place in Bangkok recently. “It’s not very major,” the source says of the relationship between Bangkok and D.C. The source does mention that, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the agreement—D.C.’s oldest—the Thai Embassy held its annual “Thai Week” in D.C. in 2002, even though it is not an official sister cities event and typically travels to a different locale every year. “I believe Thailand had given the District of Columbia a gong as a souvenir,” the source says. Other highlights of the fest included demonstrations of Thai boxing, Thai massage, a Thai wedding ceremony, Thai kite flying, and Thai cooking by the governor of Bangkok. But, the embassy source says, Mayor Williams missed out on most of the fun and cultural enrichment. “A representative of the mayor cut a ribbon with our ambassadors—at that time the mayor had to travel overseas.”
Just Friends: Paris
According to the city of Paris’ official Web site, “the only sister city of Paris is Rome.” Other pacts of friendship and cooperation agreements have been signed with a number of other cities—Washington being one. But Paris will not go so far as to claim the District as a full-fledged sister.
Time Will Tell: Sunderland, England
Located in the English countryside, Sunderland is the District’s newest, and littlest, sister. “We usually just do capital cities,” says Pat Elwood, the acting secretary of the District of Columbia, whose office runs the sister-city program. The District agreed to sister with Sunderland because the town is the ancestral home of George Washington. “This has something to do with one aspect of our heritage,” Elwood says. Among the acts the partnership has yielded so far: a scholarship student exchange program between a Sunderland college and the University of the District of Columbia.
Experience what it’s like to travel in the Williams entourage.
By Jason Cherkis
You are blessed to work in the capital of the free world as a “vice president,” a “special counsel,” a “special assistant,” a “general manager,” a “director,” or a “chair.” These titles mean that you have done things in the world. More important, they may arouse Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ interest in traveling with you. We recommend the Samsonite X’ion 22-inch Expandable Upright.
You’ve made it onto the plane. But don’t expect to find your assigned seat up front next to Williams. That seat is reserved for his wife, Diane.1 You may get lucky and snag a seat right behind the mayor. If you do, and you happen to be a really commanding figure, he will stow your carry-on baggage for you. Watching him shove your bag into the overhead compartment, you will think that he is “polite” and “helpful.”1 After takeoff, though, he is more accessible than he is in the District, and you will be happy to have “exploited the opportunity.”1
Once on the ground, before you engage in discussions of tourism,2 trade,2 and infrastructure,3 you will travel in either a van or a bus. Williams will be shuttled off in a secure car.4 The conditions of the van or bus will largely depend on the host country’s GDP.2,7 From that moment on, you will rarely see the mayor from less than 20 yards away. You will politely think that he does “somewhat segregate himself from the others” and joke that you’ve been left in “steerage.”4
After settling into your host city’s accommodations, you can expect an early start time. The mayor begins his day in the wee hours, sometimes as early as 5 a.m., in an attempt to keep you “on task.”3 From your vantage point, you will determine that the mayor is “seriously focused,”3 “pretty focused,”6 and “spot-on the majority of the time.”5
When the mayor visits the set of the Icelandic children’s show LazyTown, he will not stop focusing on the tasks at hand, like meeting with the mayor of LazyTown, sitting in the mayor of LazyTown’s “office,” and watching LazyTown videos.1 He will understand the concept of LazyTown, specifically that town hero Sportacus must prevent archnemesis Robbie Rotten from making the town’s children fat and dumb and lazy.1 There will be talks to bring the show here, but that will just be talk because the District doesn’t have the money to import an Icelandic children’s show.1 But oh, how “absolutely terrific” the mayor was on the set.1
The mayor, you will find, is not so terrific when it comes to delays. Developing countries pose a particular problem in that schedules run as smoothly as their roads. After visiting a town in Ghana, the mayor and his delegation were caught in a rainstorm and could not fly back to D.C.’s sister city Accra.2,3,5,7 This made the mayor unhappy.2,3,7 The mayor had to ride roughly 130 miles with the delegation on a “rickety” bus with “no bathroom” and “not much” air conditioning.2 If you are stuck on a bus like this, singing may break out, but it won’t be for too long,2 because you will find that your fellow deputies and midlevel managers and councilmembers can’t carry a tune.2,3 Thankfully, the whole bus will bond over the experience.2 If you happen to sit next to the mayor’s daughter and you end up playing spades with her, expect plenty of trash talk.5
There will be few opportunities for close interactions with your delegation. Instead, you will be doing a lot of watching and listening. You will marvel at the vastness of it all when visiting a city like Shanghai.2,4 Or you will listen to your various counterparts discuss their infrastructure needs.3 If you are in any way associated with the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, you will find yourself taking a 2 a.m. tour of Accra’s gutters and catch basins.3 You will walk away from the experience thinking “we are very fortunate that we have the advanced water system that we have.”3
Don’t worry—there will be plenty of occasions to be a part of international ceremony. Embassy dinners are par for the course,3,5,8 as are host meals provided by various other dignitaries.1Ð5,7,8 If the mayor gets sick—as happened in Senegal—he will not show it.2 The mayor will attempt to eat anything put before him, no matter how mysterious the platter.2 In return, he will sometimes try to confuse his hosts by mentioning D.C.’s lack of representation in Congress. You will notice that nobody responds to such topics.5 Remember: Washington is the capital of the free world, not a colonized playground of the federal government.
During such meals and ceremonies, the mayor will be lavished with all kinds of gifts. His daughter might be made a princess, as she was in Ghana.5,8 You will also notice other trinkets, and you may joke that upon return we “melt down” the keys to these cities and “make D.C. plaques to give for when he goes to other places.”1
If you’re lucky enough to have some D.C. councilmembers in your entourage, you may hear a snicker or two referring to the mayor as “Ambassador Williams.”4
The mayor, though, will let you engage in your own homemade cultural exchanges. Perhaps before you travel to Ghana, you will find a picture of the country’s president with President George W. Bush in an issue of Jet (the one featuring James Brown). The mayor will not care if you go up to the Ghanaian president and ask him to autograph that issue of Jet, telling the leader: “You in good company; you’re with the hardest-working man in show business.”8 The Ghanaian president, you will find, knows about the Godfather of Soul.8
Maybe at the end of such a trip to such a country, you will remember what you do for the District as a commerce-and-trade muckety-muck, and you may think it “was disappointing”2 and explain it this way: “From a tourism perspective, they aren’t traveling. And they aren’t going to be traveling.”2 But you will also recall that trip to the Frankfurt auto show and relish the memory of sitting with the mayor at a small dinner. You will find him fascinating,2 and you might share your respective backgrounds and find things in common—that you both had fathers that served in World War II, perhaps. “He shared some of the problems that his father had as an African-American soldier,” you will recall.2 “There’s this real sense of prideÉI felt a sense that there was no anger or hatred in him about that.”2
Even months later after your travels with the mayor, you will lay awake in your own bed at night and marvel at the experience.8 You toured great and proud cities with the mayor of the free world, and you will think: I can just see those days, getting up in the morning nonstop, treating us like the president coming into the country. Man, that’s heavy stuff.8CP
1 Peggy Cooper Cafritz, president of the D.C. Board of Education
2 William Hanbury, president and CEO of the Washington, DC Convention & Tourism Corp.
3 Jerry Johnson, general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority
4 David Catania, at-large councilmember
5 John Johnson, founder of Verbal Gymnastics
6 Lafayette Barnes, director of Office of Partnerships and Grants Development
7 C. Jack Ellis, mayor of Macon, Ga.
8 Robert King, special assistant, Department of Parks and Recreation
International gifts presented to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, as received by the Office of the Secretary:
Mayor Williams and his minions are quick to highlight the mushy, unquantifiable benefits of international junkets, such as cultural understanding and the promotion of tourism. Here’s wondering why the administration has never just come out with it: They often get gifts when they travel. And those gifts become D.C. property. Herewith a partial inventory of Williams’ offerings from abroad.
Box of tango CDs, 100 A–os en 100 Tangos; from the mayor of Buenos Aires; presented 4/18/05
Wood-carved figurine of an African man smoking a peace pipe; from the delegation from Cameroon; presented 4/25/05
Necktie and medallion; from Mayor Emil Boc of Cluj-Napoca, Romania; presented 2/2/05
Butter tureen (silver/pewter with attached lid); from the King and Queen of Norway; presented 3/7/05
Woven basket with a silver turtle; from the ambassador of Cambodia; presented 7/26/05
Gold-trimmed, 10-inch round plate with the seal of the town of Rosport; from the mayor of Rosport, Luxembourg; presented 5/26/05
Four handmade plates with Mayor Williams’ portrait at center, gold-trimmed with floral pattern; from a Turkish businessman; presented 9/21/05
Hand-woven attache case, envelope style; from the ambassador of the Kingdom of Lesotho; presented 5/2/05
Wood-framed Turkish coat of arms; from Ali Kervanci of Turkey; presented 11/28/05
Zambian clock; from the ambassador of Zambia; presented 1/12/04
Pillow cover with scenic places in Guyana and a lapel pin; from the ambassador of Guyana; presented 2/9/04
VHS tape featuring a presentation from the Press and Information Office of the Republic of Cyprus; from the ambassador of Cyprus; presented 3/11/04
Traditional silk Afghan robe; from officials from Afghanistan; presented May 2004
Wood plaque and kimonos; giver unspecified (during Cherry Blossom Festival); presented March 2004
Replica of an Oriental pearl TV tower; giver unspecified (during tour of Asia); presented October 2004—Dave Jamieson
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Kyle T. Webster.