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Pulling back the curtain on those anti-Williams ads.
Who is William Reed, and why is he saying all those nasty things about Mayor Anthony A. Williams? It’s a question that’s been on the lips of many D.C. residents since ads signed by Reed started appearing in October in the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Washington City Paper, and other local media outlets. The ads raked the mayor over the coals for what Reed called “inexcusable favoritism” toward affluent white residents of the District.
“You continue to give the predominantly affluent Ward 3 voters whatever they want. But you fail to give the rest of your inner-city
citizens the same consideration,” a Nov. 24 ad in the City Paper charged. “Now, your pandering to the wealthy residents of Ward 3 threatens to cost the taxpayers money.”
The immediate cause of Reed’s exasperation was the Williams administration’s Oct. 5 decision to revoke the building permit for a telecommunications tower already under construction in the Tenleytown neighborhood. In blocking the construction, Williams was responding to intense lobbying from neighborhood activists in largely white Ward 3. And that, apparently, was enough to rile up Reed, who is president of a networking company for black entrepreneurs called the Business Exchange Network.
Tim Cooper, of the Stop the Tower citizens coalition, says he can’t figure out why Reed sided with American Tower Corp., the company behind the Tenleytown tower. “It’s a mystery to me why he’s come on board this issue to begin with,” says the neighborhood activist. “This has little to do with race and everything to do with misplanning.”
So who paid for the ads? A close review of funding sources reveals a peculiar pattern. Rather than being a spontaneous expression of grass-roots support for the tower, the ads appear to be what lobbyists call “astroturf”a campaign funded by an interested party, disguised as an independent upwelling of public sentiment.
From his office in the National Press Building, Reed responds carefully to a question about who paid for the anti-Williams ads. It wasn’t he, Reed says. Although Reed won’t disclose his backers, he also denies that American Tower is among them. Bryan Wyatt, a spokesperson for the company, concurs, saying that American Tower is not the source of Reed’s funding.
“The people who paid for them are…concerned citizens,” says Reed of the ads, which cost thousands of dollars. “I have never in my life knowingly met any employee of American Tower.”
He may not have met any employee of American Tower, but Reed certainly has had dealings with both publicists and attorneys for the company. The company that cut the checks that paid for the Reed ads in the Post and the City Paper is the Graham-Williams Group, one of two PR companies representing American Tower in the District.
The Graham-Williams Group is run by conservative syndicated columnist and talk show host Armstrong Williams, a protégé of Reed’s from the ’80s.
“Mr. Reed called Mr. Williams and let him know he supported this tower and had contributed to the fund that was used to buy these ads,” explains Graham-Williams spokesperson Akili West.
In fact, says West, Reed first approached the PR firm for American Tower at the suggestion of American Tower lawyer Robert Cooper. It was then that Reed and Armstrong Williams started working together on the ads.
But the anti-Mayor Williams campaign devised by the Graham-Williams Group was not limited to Reed’s signed Business Exchange Network ads. According to advertising records, the City Paper also printed several other ads placed by the Graham-Williams Group on the tower issue during October and November. These ads charged that the mayor’s actions “threaten D.C.’s hopes of becoming a technology hotbed” and that the administration, which operates its own telecommunications tower on Georgia Avenue, “doesn’t want any competition.” Some were signed by a group called Citizens Against Government Waste; others were unsigned.
To those who have been involved with D.C.’s black media over the last few decades, it may seem odd that people are wondering who William Reed is. From 1983 to 1992, he was associate publisher of the Capitol Spotlight, a black D.C. newspaper. For almost a year in the mid-’90s, Reed headed up the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group representing black newspaper publishers. Since 1983, he has been a syndicated columnist writing on business and management issues for 140 African-American-oriented newspapers across the country. Most recently, he worked as a media consultant for the Million Family March, held on the Mall earlier this year.
“Don’t know him,” says Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a community activist who works with the Anacostia Coordinating Council and has been active in opposing the proposed trash-transfer stations in Ward 8. Kinlow also serves as lead coordinator of the Ward 8 Coalition and vice chair of the Far Southwest Civic Association.
That Kinlow, one of a younger generation of black D.C. organizers, doesn’t recognize Reed’s name is telling, a sign perhaps that Reed’s particular brand of pro-business black activism has fallen out of favor. In fact, Kinlow says he assumed Reed was acting on behalf of American Tower.
“I started [reading the ad] and then stopped,” says Kinlow, “because I said, ‘This is an industry guy.’ And if he’s not with the Tower folks, then it becomes harder to understand his motivation.”
Reed’s motivation becomes clear enough when you talk to him: He’s a true believer. Described by some as a black-nationalist Republican and the last of a dying breed of liberation-through-entrepreneurial-self-help philosophers, he quotes Marcus Garvey and Frederick Douglass to the effect that American blacks must learn to be a part of capitalism if they want to seize a piece of the socioeconomic pie.
Reed says he is a third-generation Republican from southern Ohio, where black Republicans are not unusual. Reed ran in the Republican primary for D.C. congressional delegate in the late ’80s and is currently the Ward 6 D.C. Republican chair.
“I am a capitalist,” Reed says, “and probably more a conservative than I am a nationalist. Nationalists don’t vote, and I votemostly Libertarian, although I voted for Ross Perot in ’92 and ’96.”
As a pro-business Republican, Reed has surprisingly nice things to say about the administration of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., which put more city contracts in the hands of black businesspeople than they had ever seen before. That administration also helped run the city’s economy into the ground and created a hostile environment for businesses generally. But Reed sees it differently. “Barry was driven from office when he got the expansive wrath of Congresswho actually controls the cityfor actions such as directing 35 percent of the city’s $1.5 billion purchasing to blacks,” wrote Reed in one of his syndicated columns.
No matter who paid for the strongly worded ads, Reed’s animus toward Mayor Williams clearly predates the tower issue. Since last year, Reed has blasted Williams several times in print for not being “black enough” to lead a city that, according to 1999 census data, is 60 percent black. Reed contends that Williams filled the upper echelons of his administration with white advisers and returned “full control of the city’s contracts” to whites.
But the issue is not just a perceived double standard for blacks and whites in this city, where, Reed maintains, whites have the mayor’s ear and blacks don’t. In a letter to the editor published in the Times Dec. 6, Reed charged the city government with policies that in effect discourage business investment in the District. By halting the Tenleytown tower, Reed complained in the letter, not only did Williams open up the cityand thus the city’s taxpayersto a $250 million lawsuit from American Tower, he also sent a message to other companies that D.C. does not offer a friendly business climate. (Williams spokesperson Elena Temple declined to comment on Reed’s charges, because tower litigation is ongoing.)
The issue, for Reed, comes down to whether the city is pro-business. More specifically, Reed’s quarrel with Williams comes down to whether the mayor supports funneling city contracts to black businesses. Since 1976, the D.C. government has been required by law to grant 35 percent to 50 percent of certain city contracts to minority and disadvantaged local businesses.
“For blacks to make up lost ground,” Reed has written in his syndicated column, “we don’t need to continue the same old ‘Somebody done done me wrong’ song. We need to stop letting our collective preoccupation be focused around whether the Confederate flag flies atop the state capitol building and whether the Jewish community doesn’t like words some black speaker says. We need to start processes of self-sufficiency to a level where we won’t give a damn about what another racial group says, or feels, about us.”
Reed has found allies in strange places. He says he’s close to the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, whose Unification Church owns the Times, going so far as to travel with Moon to Korea on a number of occasions and becoming involved with the church’s World Media Association and Family Federation for World Peace. And the generally pro-business Times has given Reed’s position on the tower issue more supportive coverage than the Post, where two articles have been openly suspicious of Reed’s motives in running the ads slamming Williams.
But it is membership in another group that, more than anything else, offers a clue to Reed’s political philosophy: Reed also serves on the advisory board of the Korean-American Grocers Association of Greater Washington. In major cities throughout the country, tensions between blacks and Korean-American merchants have run high. For Reed, however, the Korean-Americans are not the enemy. Instead, he thinks that the positive business experience of Korean-Americans is the triumph of a minority that has accepted the rules of American capitalism and profited by doing so.
For Reed, the Tenleytown tower controversy is like manna from heaven. It brings into sharp focus, in a way few issues can, the relationship he has preached for decades between black power, black politicians, and black capital.
“There are those who will tell you Mayor Williams was the white man’s candidate in the election,” argues Reed. “The question I and others are raising is: ‘Does he have a record of giving the same kind of courtesies to Washington’s predominantly black communities that he gives to Washington’s predominantly white communitywho, by the way, gave him his margin of victory [in the mayoral election]?’ It’s that simple.” CP