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“We’re going to vote you out of officethat’s a guarantee. Recall! Recall!” shouted the balding, middle-aged man with the booming voice, seated two rows behind LL in the Lincoln Theatre on Thursday, March 1. The guy heckled, booed, and maintained a running commentary throughout Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ State of the District address. LL’s eardrums were abused, and she was left with a headache that even Excedrin Extra Strength could not relieve.
The heckler and other would-be D.C. General rescuers have been waging an all-out war against Williams and the congressionally created control board over keeping the century-old public hospital open even in its current mismanaged state. Politicos such as Mayor-in-Wanting Kevin Chavous are hoping the issue will metastasize, eventually killing Williams’ political career by the time of the mayoral election next year. There were two recall petitions against Williams circulating. But it’s too soon to start buying lilies and making funeral arrangements. Unless Williams commits some major atrocity, there will be no humongous rebuke for him at the polls.
Williams hit a hard place the night before the address when he appeared at the Rev. Willie Wilson’s Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia. The mayor’s predicament was the result of poor advice and the naiveté of his in-house political operatives, who were so busy hitting up businesses in questionable fundraising schemes that they forgot that wonderful folk song made popular by Oscar Brown Jr. It’s one of LL’s favorites: A woman picks up a wounded snake from the road, takes it home, and nurses it back to health. As a show of appreciation, the now-healthy snake bites her, saying, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
Before LL’s telephone starts ringing off the hook, let’s be clear: She’s not calling Wilson a snake. But the analogy is certainly apropos, because Williams-administration officials thought, after two weeks of negotiations in advance of the event, that they could at least expect a fair dealsans the poisonous benedictionfrom the black-cultural-nationalist minister. And didn’t Williams, over some objection, keep his promise to the minister, appointing Wilson on Jan. 18, 2000, to that seat on the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) Board of Trustees he so coveted?
Williams may have been stung and bruised by last week’s events, but reports of his imminent demise are greatly exaggerated. Consider these facts: At least 60 percent of D.C. General workers don’t live in the District. And many of the hospital’s employees are not Williams supporters, as a female heckler in the audience on Thursday reminded him, yelling, “I didn’t vote for you in the first place.” A large number of the D.C. General workers who don’t live in the District are on the hospital’s professional staff; they are part of the black middle class significantly expanded by former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., people who took their money and ran to purchase houses in Maryland and Virginia, depositing their tax dollars there as well.
LL remembers them: They were members of that radical crowd that, when Barry wanted to cut government jobs in the early ’80s, staged similar protests, laced with equally venomous threats. Back then, that black middle class lived in the District, and the first-term mayor feared that he couldn’t win its support during a re-election battle against Patricia Roberts Harris, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in President Jimmy Carter’s administration. So he backed off, making the government an employment heaven for middle-class blacks and vowing never again to risk the loss of their support. Meanwhile, the poor and working poor were given crumbsa make-busy summer jobs program, for example. The safety net began to fray, and, before the end of the ’80s, nearly every major social-service program in the District was operating under some kind of federal court order.
These same black middle-class folks, having won their battle in the ’80s, are back, this time supported by other workers who have moved up the economic ladder. Both groups have dressed their fight for the public hospital in the guise of concern for the poor. In reality, they are both desperate to hold on to their D.C. General jobs and Prince George’s County middle-class comforts.
The fight over the hospital is classic class warfare, occurring mostly among African-Americans. The struggle is over which community’s needs will receive priority, and it has been building in the District for the past four years. Will the government choose to save middle-class, middle-management positions at the expense of funding a social-service network that has been neglected for two decades? Will economic development arrive in middle-class neighborhoods before poor and working-class communities? (Remember the struggle over whether to relocate UDC in Ward 8? And how about that behind-the-scenes fight over the location of the new technology high schoolWard 5 or Ward 8?) Will the government make genuine attempts to balance the needs of both the middle class and the poor, forcing a compromise among competing interests? Williams seems to be saying yes to that last question, although he is stumbling through each attempt. On the other hand, some D.C. councilmembers and other so-called leaders, including the clergy, continue to dance with the middle class, promising the poor that their turn is next.
But why should Williams care about the D.C. Council? How many of them endorsed his Democratic nomination? Four sitting members actually ran against him. And how about the members of the clergy, like Wilson, who now step forward demanding that they be heard and that Williams acquiesce to their wishes? If LL’s memory serves, most of them came aboard the train when it was apparent, during the Democratic primary, that they might be crushed by the runaway popularity of the former chief financial officer (CFO).
If people are thinking things have changed, they have. But not in favor of the status quo. Although the majority of citizens, including blacks, moving into the District and claiming it as their new home are middle-class, they are a different breed. They are not wedded to the jargon of the civil rights movement, nor are they overly concerned about race. Make no mistake, however: Many are committed to addressing the needs of the poor and working poor. These new arrivals to the District have lived in the world of the private sector and witnessed a variety of successful management techniques and service-delivery models. They know that there really is more than one way to skin a cat. (Now LL will have People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on the telephone.) Many of the new residents are willing to accept a reformed health-care-delivery model that is not shackled to an 80-year-old hospital. Further, as the fights between new and old advisory neighborhood commissioners show, these recent city dwellers aren’t willing to be passive observers; they want to be intimately involved in ensuring the success of government and community programs. And because they come with a fresh perspective on the District and city politics, it will take more than a notion to persuade them that the mayor they see before themthe one whose changes lured them back to the nation’s capitalisn’t the horse to stick with in 2002. What this means is that if Chavous, other political wannabes, and Williams-haters want to capitalize on any faux pas by the mayor, they had better have their own plan, which can’t simply be a rehash of the old, failed model.
In many ways, the fever-pitched battle over D.C. General and Williams’ determination to push ahead with health-care reform could actually bolster his image, reviving the portrait of a fiscal conservative intent on giving taxpayers their money’s worth while running a tight operation. That was the reputation he earned as CFO, when, on more than one occasion, he faced down Barry and his supporters, taking control of the city’s fiscal operations and firing workers who he believed could not make the grade. LL remembers a few days when things became so hot that Williams had to walk around with a police escort. Residents liked Williams’ kick-ass-and-take-names style, told him so, and pushed him into running for office, although he had been in the city only three years and had never voted in a local election. They were willing to sacrifice familiarity for competency and an executive who wasn’t afraid of making the hard choices.
But once he got into office, Williams seemed to lose that tough executive edge that supporters thought they’d bought. They also began to fear that he had lost touch with the thousands of citizens who had orchestrated his dark-horse race, shielding himself behind a small cadre of trusted, though novice, political operatives. Because of his reliance on this team of neophytes during the past two years, Williams fast became known as “Mr. Inept” and “Mr. Compromise.”
If he and his staff didn’t screw up, then they simply conceded, abandoning their visions and their initiatives for peace between the legislative and executive branches. Important reforms were the casualties. Early in his term, during the negotiations on the fiscal 2000 budget, Williams compromised on a complex multiyear tax cut pushed by the council. Then he sat back as the legislators eviscerated his plan to provide health insurance to the District’s more than 60,000 uninsured residents; the council fought instead for more funding for D.C. General and the retention of those all-important middle-class jobs. After UDC President Julius Nimmons employed slavery metaphors to denounce the proposal to study moving the school east of the Anacostia River, Williams stepped away from the idea. He seemed to be in perpetual backward motion. Now he says he’s “got his sea legs back.” He’ll need them, because the fights to keep the ship afloat have only just begun.
But there is great power in incumbency. The executive has a cache of programs and services, which, when properly wielded, can soothe any injury. During his State of the District address, he announced the consummation of a deal between the city and Home Depot for a store in predominantly middle-class Ward 5. That means the folks in Ward 5 soon will have a Giant, a Wal-Mart, and a Home Depot, all on a site that once served as a parking lot for impounded cars. Duplicating this kind of effort in one or two strategic communities will go a long way toward pushing D.C. General to the back of people’s minds.
Step outside the city for a moment for a case in point that contextualizes the discussion about Williams’ political future: In Detroit, Mayor Dennis Archer was up to his neck in doo-doo during his first term. Not only was he not Coleman Young, lacking Young’s civil rights bona fides and readiness to spew invective, he also deliberately courted white business leaders who had deserted the city, and instituted a more professional contracting process that didn’t rely on the once-common standard of whom you knew and what color you were. He made enemies fast. Some black business leaders left a bag of Oreo cookies at his office; some referred to him as the “white man’s nigger” and other, more colorful descriptions that LL won’t repeat. But Archer initiated several key economic-development projects, took on the battle of school reform, and began to push for neighborhood revitalization. Improvements in these areassome of the same issues being embraced by Williamswon the Detroit mayor a second term in 1998.
There’s no question that Williams has a tough road ahead. And unless his staff begins to rise to the occasion, properly advancing and positioning his vision and message, the mayor will stumble again, landing in yet another nasty spat. Still, for now, the next election remains his to lose. And, to use one of Williams’ favorite phrases: “That’s a fact.” Jonetta Rose Barras
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