There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
A poorly orchestrated campaign kickoff. Virtually no campaign staff. Sloppy, fraudulent nominating petitions. Ballot disqualification and a $250,000 fine assessed by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
There’s plenty of blame to go around in the Anthony A. Williams re-election effort. On the hustings, though, the mayor has emphasized contrition and unity in an effort to move forward. In a letter mailed to D.C. Democrats, Williams shouldered the blame for the nomination-petition fiasco and various other campaign screw-ups. “I want to take this opportunity to personally apologize to you for the poor judgment and inexcusable actions of my early campaign organization. I take full responsibility for the mistakes that were made,” he wrote.
Then again, Williams might feel awkward pointing his finger at one of the main culprits in his campaign’s summer meltdown: his wife, Diane Simmons Williams.
“The problem is Mrs. Williams,” remarks one local pol familiar with the Williams administration and the mayoral re-election effort. “She has the purse strings. No money is spent—none is spent—unless she gives the go-ahead.” Specifically, campaign insiders kibitz, Simmons Williams put her husband’s second term at risk by consistently vetoing requests to spend money on staff, literature, and other necessities for a popular incumbent’s re-election campaign.
Instead, Simmons Williams wanted to ensure her husband’s legacy by creating a charitable foundation with whatever she could save from the $1.2 million in campaign coffers earlier this summer.
The portrait of the mayor’s wife as backroom power broker has been slow to emerge from the Wilson Building’s penthouse suite. Simmons Williams, after all, expressed reservations about her husband’s 1998 run for mayor. And after four years, she still seems resistant to ceremonial duties as the city’s first lady: She rarely appears in public with her husband, passing off children’s story hours, ribbon cuttings, and deviled-egg block parties to mother-in-law Virginia E. Hayes Williams.
Yet Simmons Williams’ active role behind the scenes surfaced earlier this year, during the inspector general’s investigation into the mayor’s nonprofit fundraising. In the March report, Charles C. Maddox pointed out that the Williams administration had resorted to nonprofits to fund events such as a reception for a local Olympian and a children’s Christmas party. The mayor’s constituent-services fund was untapped for such purposes because fund treasurer Simmons Williams strictly interpreted its mandate. “In her interview with…investigators, SIMMONS-WILLIAMS advised that she narrowly limited the purpose of the Mayor’s Constituent Service Fund to providing necessary services to District citizens in financial need (e.g. assistance with utility bills), and she specifically ruled out the use of the fund for social functions such as ‘Christmas parties,’” read the report.
After years of seeing public monies doled out as political party favors, you might expect Williams loyalists to applaud the first lady’s fiscal prudence. Instead, Williams insiders have another title for Simmons Williams: “I guess the word would be ‘Scrooge,’” says one Williams true believer.
Scrooge, perhaps, with a CPA: The accountant Simmons Williams has always used her specialty to protect her husband’s spreadsheets. In Williams’ 1998 campaign for mayor, Simmons Williams worked closely with treasurer Marie Drissel. Two years later, she served as campaign treasurer for her close friend Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who was elected president of the D.C. Board of Education.
Simmons Williams has worked as unofficial chief financial officer of this year’s Williams re-election effort. “She controls all the money—anything that’s financial,” says one insider close to the campaign.
Former “senior campaign adviser” Charles N. Duncan made a few veiled references to Simmons Williams in his testimony before the elections board in July: “I had no check writing authority, no authority to hire or terminate key personnel, no authority to independently select individuals to serve as ward coordinators, no authority to enter contracts for media, advertising, rental equipment, or real estate, and no authority to enter agreements that would obligate the committee to spend money.”
That authority rested squarely with Simmons Williams—and still does. “She works very, very hard on our campaign finances,” the mayor told LL while campaigning with his mom in Adams Morgan on Wednesday.
Duncan learned where the bucks stop in the Williams campaign when he began the search for a campaign headquarters. He met with local realtors about setting up shop at several downtown locations, including 17th and K Streets NW, 14th and K Streets NW, and F Street between 13th and 14th Streets NW. LL could have cited one good reason to reject all three locales: A Gucci Gulch address would only amplify the mayor’s ties to downtown lawyers and developers and further estrange him from working-class Washingtonians.
Simmons Williams, though, had another reason to put up the hand: All three locations, with monthly rents ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, were too pricey.
The campaign finally settled on a headquarters: the ramshackle building at the corner of 7th Street and New York Avenue NW, which served as HQ for Carol Schwartz’s 1998 mayoral run and rented for a bargain-basement price of $3,000 per month. At that time, neither Simmons Williams nor her husband planned to spend too much time at the campaign’s home office anyway: Pre-July 4, the election was a lock. The threadbare office suite didn’t even have water and the conveniences that come with indoor plumbing until June 21, the day before Williams’ much-delayed campaign kickoff.
Water and Sewer Authority spokesperson Libby Lawson confirmed that the agency turned on the water spigots that day.
And who was responsible for utility connections at campaign HQ? That fell into the lap of Scott Bishop Sr., who attracted public attention a few weeks later when civic watchdogs and local reporters exposed Bishop’s faulty petition drive that got the mayor kicked off the ballot. In the month that Bishop worked as the campaign’s field coordinator, according to Williams campaign aides, the committee tasked Bishop with putting up campaign posters, coordinating logistics for the June 22 campaign kickoff—which included wangling a tent that got approved as a last-minute expenditure—and sundry other errands.
The miserly approach set the stage for the petition train wreck. Early on, according to sources, Duncan submitted a budget to the Williams re-election committee, which includes campaign Co-Chairs Max Berry and Gwendolyn Hemphill as well as treasurer Tom Murray, the mayor, and his wife. Duncan’s budget requested a paid deputy campaign manager, a scheduler, and a press secretary. In fact, Duncan specifically requested the services of veteran campaign strategist Joe Louis Ruffin, who oversaw At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil’s re-election campaign in 2000 and has worked on national races, as well.
Ruffin says he met with Duncan and submitted three copies of his curriculum vitae for the committee’s perusal. He also told Duncan his salary requirement: $9,500 a month. Duncan said he would present Ruffin’s case to the committee. He ended up countering with an offer of $3,100. “Charles said, ‘I know that’s insulting to you,’” Ruffin says with a chuckle. “I said ‘Charles, my nanny makes $3,100 a month, my cleaning lady makes $600, and my gardener gets $500. I got to earn $4,200 just to pay the help!’”
The financial powers that be denied the request, which seems to have ended all discussion of paid campaign reinforcements. Simmons Williams wanted to rely on volunteers, who never appeared. “Every politician I’ve worked with, the spouse has had a controlling role in events,” says one pol who has a bird’s-eye view of the Williams campaign. “I can’t think of any situation where the spouse of the candidate has a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on campaign expenditures.”
Of course, we all know that the re-election effort ended up penny-wise and pound- foolish: The campaign relied on Bishop for all field operations, including the petition drive. According to the campaign’s latest financial report, the committee paid Scott Bishop Sr. $6,646 for less than a month’s work as “consultant-field coordinator.” In the end, insiders say, the campaign relied too heavily on the economy-priced services of Bishop. And Bishop relied on campaign volunteers, who promised to deliver petitions for the mayor.
When those petitions didn’t show up, Bishop panicked—and the Williams camp ended up paying a much higher price.
D.C. has a short history of strong-willed first ladies, even if they were both once married to Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr.: Effi Barry and Cora Masters Barry. The latter used her marital connections to indulge pet projects such as the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center. Instead of pioneering such civic undertakings, though, Simmons Williams seems to have spent her time creating an enemies list of Williams loyalists.
“If she doesn’t agree—you don’t get paid,” remarks one Williams insider.
Simmons Williams did not respond to LL’s attempts to contact her for this story.
Williams campaign spokesperson Ann Walker Marchant says Simmons Williams acts as the re-election effort’s “assistant treasurer.” She notes, however: “The final buck stops with the mayor.”
In a brief conversation on a campaign stop in Friendship Heights last month, Simmons Williams admitted to LL that she takes a green eyeshade to her husband’s budget. “I did look at the budget,” she said. “Someone needed to protect my husband’s interests.”
* On Friday night, the Rev. Willie F. Wilson held a volunteer campaign rally to orient new recruits to his write-in effort. At one point in the evening, Wilson ward coordinators rose to announce their names and phone numbers. Wilson supporters hailing from Cleveland Park and Tenleytown were left hanging: A Ward 2 coordinator gave her information, and so did a volunteer from Ward 4, but no one rose to represent Ward 3.
Yet the campaign still has eight wards covered: At the rally, a woman emerged from the crowd and identified herself as Wilson’s “Ward 9” coordinator, who would help Maryland and Virginia residents express their civic activism across the District line. The coordinator did not specifically address the Wilson Ward 9 strategy for Election Day.
“It was a joke,” Wilson campaign spokesperson Gloria Murry told LL.
* Monday night featured the first bout of Williams vs. Wilson at the Ward 5 Dems candidate forum at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church. But the sucker punch came earlier in the evening, in a debate between Ward 5 incumbent Vincent B. Orange Sr. and challenger Harry Thomas Jr.
In a question addressing the closing of D.C. General, Orange characterized his opponent’s performance as a flack for the former Public Benefit Corp. as “piss-poor.” The audience erupted.
“Mr. Orange, you need to watch your language in here,” yelled Ward 5-ite Jeffrey Desmukes, reminding Orange that he was politicking in a church sanctuary. A few moments later, Orange called Thomas’ campaign stump speech about the incumbent’s shortcomings “a bunch of crap.”
The fight-night atmosphere continued right after the mayor’s forum ended. Without leaving the room, Ward 5 chair and moderator Franklin Wilds declared that the organization’s executive committee had caucused and endorsed Orange and Williams.
Wilds had no comment to LL afterward. CP
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