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TROUBLE IN PARADISE?

The story goes that following a less-than-stellar performance at a community forum, where he hadn’t been given sufficient information about issues of possible concern to residents, then-mayoral candidate Anthony A. Williams jacked up one of his most trusted aides, got kissing-close to his face, and warned: “It’s my fucking ass on the line; get your shit together.” The moral of that tale: Williams doesn’t suffer repeated mistakes, and, when his future is at stake, all bets are off. He wraps himself in his pragmatic politician’s cape and surprises even his closest allies with his actions.

The mayor’s decision to ease out his chief of staff, Abdusalam Omer—a colleague and intimate friend for the past five years—shows Williams at his most pragmatic. Anyone surprised by Omer’s departure, which takes effect April 13, doesn’t realize that the mayor realizes that his “ass [is] on the line” and doesn’t understand that Williams understands that he has to shape up his operation for the championship mayoral match—even if, so far, there aren’t any major opponents. (Oh please, don’t even mention the movement to draft former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. What has he done for the District? Nice guy, but look at the city’s streets.)

For several months, Williams privately has expressed a growing dissatisfaction with his staff’s gaffes and missteps, many of which traced back to Omer. Last summer, the mayor told LL there were several things he was not happy about: Remember the budget hearing before the D.C. Council where Omer, then-city administrator Norman Dong, and officials with the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) were caught dumbfounded, doe-eyed, and mute, unable to answer basic questions about the mayor’s fiscal plan? Remember that minor scandal surrounding the mayor’s efforts to change the school-governance structure, which resulted in the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) citing the Williams administration for inappropriately using government staff and resources to push for passage of the charter amendment?

Asked at the time if he intended to get rid of Omer, Williams told LL no, adding that the projects ultimately had proved successful and that Omer had been a loyal friend to Williams and his wife. But in high-stakes political games, friendship isn’t a dependable crutch.

This year, Omer’s negatives continued to add up: There was the fundraising scandal, which began in January and continues even now as both the city’s inspector general and the OCF investigate the administration’s questionable use of nonprofits as conduits to collect money from companies doing business with the city. At the center of that controversy is Omer’s deputy, Mark Jones, who has been placed on unpaid administrative leave. Omer says he knew nothing of Jones’ activities.

Then there was the near-riot at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, where the mayor appeared for a town-hall meeting about his proposal to redesign health-care services at the troubled D.C. General Hospital. Omer had been the prime architect of that event, negotiating with the Rev. Willie Wilson to hold it at his church—even though it was common knowledge that the pastor was not a supporter of the mayor’s D.C. General plan. Government sources say that Wilson had relayed as much to Omer, who nevertheless dismissed the warnings and went ahead with the program. A line of police officers subsequently had to usher the mayor out of that meeting.

If that weren’t enough, Omer has collected a pool of dedicated enemies since he assumed the chief of staff post in 1999, after the ouster of Reba Pittman-Evans. Some of these same people have Williams’ ear and have lobbied aggressively for Omer’s removal, suggesting an array of possible replacements, including former Al Gore campaign director Donna Brazile; Tony Bullock, the former chief of staff to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; Bernard Demczuk, a senior administrator in the Sharon Pratt Kelly administration; and Barry Campbell, who served as former mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.’s chief of staff. Whomever Williams selects, it is certain that, given lingering questions about both his loyalty to the African-American community and the number of whites currently serving in high-level positions in his administration, he will have to be particularly sensitive to the racial balance of his senior staff. But LL hopes he doesn’t reach back into the Barry grab bag, picking up people who didn’t serve that executive well and aren’t likely to do any better the second time around.

A year ago, both the political and managerial sides of Williams’ operation seemed in shambles. Then, with the appointment of John Koskinen as city administrator, Williams snagged a solid management operative, helping to shore up program initiatives and service delivery. Now is the time for Williams to focus on his inner office, where the political deal-making and machine-oiling takes place, and where, truth be told, the potential damage to his re-election effort lies.

Contrary to popular belief, Omer’s troubles didn’t begin with the arrival of Koskinen, who took over daily operations last year after Williams, in yet another pragmatic act, pushed out Dong, another trusted ally. Doom was foreshadowed for Omer when Max Brown left the government. Brown had worked for Williams when he was CFO, and he quit his job as general counsel to join Williams when he decided to run for mayor. Shortly after Williams assumed the mayor’s office, Brown, a lawyer by training, was appointed special counsel. Everyone knew he was the mayor’s in-house hatchet boy, called on to do Williams’ dirty work. Omer—who also was close to Brown, because Omer, too, had worked for the CFO as budget director—became the chief of staff, playing the role of good cop to Brown’s bad cop.

After Brown’s departure last year, however, Omer increasingly had to play the role of bad cop, alienating some of the mayor’s supporters while finding opportunities to exact revenge on Williams’ enemies. (LL must confess here that she maintains a good relationship with the chief of staff, even if sometimes she has gotten on his wrong side.)

To be fair, Omer also had successes: As CFO for D.C. Public Schools, he almost single-handedly forced officials to recognize the need to dramatically reform the system, instigating a takeover by the D.C. financial control board. At the start of the Williams administration, when things were pretty rocky, many government insiders were singing Omer’s praises for helping bolster city agencies and providing directors with much-needed support. And more recently, his lobbying of the council on behalf of the mayor’s fiscal 2002 budget has reduced last year’s cacophony to a purr.

Still, his mistakes seemed to outpace his successes. Williams now heads into a re-election where he is still unsure of who his opponents will be: He could face Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous, or Slater, or former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He can’t afford any more controversy or stumbles. Without a tight political machine—the kind Omer should have constructed—all flaws become gigantic.

Consequently, Williams is on the hunt. Talk is that he has interviewed Brazile, who, LL reported last week, is pondering a run for the council. On Monday, Williams told LL, “I don’t know where that came from. I talked with Donna, but not about Omer’s position.” Good. Brazile is a sharp political strategist, but her personality and stature coming out of a national election are slightly larger than the mayor’s—which could present a different set of problems for a man attempting to get his “shit together” by ramping up his political and management operations, hiring permanent directors for those agencies still without them, and stating clearly and concisely his vision for the District’s future—all while reducing his Advil-popping days.

GETTING ON MESSAGE

If the Williams administration’s execution has been sloppy, its ability to articulate the vision thing has been downright horrible. But the mayor also has an opportunity to repair that dysfunction.

Lydia Sermons-Ward, Williams’ director of communications, last week told her staff she will leave her job by mid-May, according to government sources. Sermons-Ward, who recently married WTOP radio’s Derrick Ward, had just returned from a five-week medical leave when she announced the news. For public consumption, the spin is that Sermons-Ward wants to spend time with her new hubby and start a family and all that kind of stuff. But privately, One Judiciary Square sources say, the departure is definitely connected to a growing spat between Sermons-Ward and Peggy Armstrong, the mayor’s press secretary.

Sermons-Ward had been brought in from the U.S. Treasury Department last year to manage the mayor’s overall message, making sure that public information officers in each of the agencies were reading from the same playbook, speaking the same jargon, and seeing the same vision. She also was supposed to develop an overall vision/message strategy that would help the public connect the dots in the mayor’s seemingly zigzag moves.

But right from the start there seemed to be trouble, especially because Armstrong, the mayor’s press secretary from his CFO days, had more juice with the top brass. Sermons-Ward attempted to assert herself, believing that squatting is the best approach in any land dispute. But Armstrong had her borders secure. It also didn’t help Sermons-Ward’s cause that the public information officers she had handpicked and put in various agencies were floundering, and that when a crisis arose—say, the demise of former Department of Parks and Recreation director Robert Newman, or the recent fundraising scandal involving the mayor’s office—Armstrong was seen as the infantry.

The most recent face-off between the two spinmeisters came over the administration’s D.C. General PR blitz. The story, as told to LL by people in position to know, is that Sermons-Ward demanded that she be given complete and absolute control of the project. (Someone should have taken control a long time ago; Williams has been creamed, mostly because his lips have been sealed for months and his administration has failed to share relevant information with the public.) Sermons-Ward lost that battle. The project currently appears to be in the hands of Armstrong.

Both women dispute LL’s version of events. “I get angry when people paint the picture that two competent, strong professional women cannot work together,” says Armstrong about the in-office tensions. “Of the many things I can take credit for in this administration, Lydia’s change in position is not one of them.” Says Sermons-Ward: “In any office, people have their differences….I can’t continue on the fast track I was on.” She adds that she will likely stay in the Williams administration as something like “senior adviser on strategic activities.”

Judiciary Square sources say that for now, as Williams reshapes his administration, he may opt to dismantle the communications office, placing agency public-information officers under Koskinen’s control and leaving his press relations in the hands of Armstrong, who is now the last person standing from the inner circle of former CFO acolytes whom Williams shuttled into the mayor’s office. —Jonetta Rose Barras

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