Politicians have a lot of pat ways of stroking one another at official events. But Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) uses none of them when he stands alongside his longtime political buddy, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The two appeared together in June 1999 at a function sponsored by the American Friends of Lubavitch, a Jewish charitable organization.
“I never felt as confident about the future of this city as the day you were elected,” said Lieberman to Williams, before a crowd of adoring onlookers. “Now the feeling in the city is positive. Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians will stand behind you as long as you do the right thing.”
Williams said he was happy to receive praise from his “mentor.”
The ensuing round of laughing, backslapping, hugging, and camera-mugging clarified that Williams and Lieberman have genuine affection for one another—affection born of a two-decade-long friendship that germinated in New Haven and may yet reach levels that neither of the local Connecticut community politicos thought likely.
Last week, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore named Lieberman as his running mate in the 2000 election. And Williams responded like any good ally. “Clearly, he brings moral authority and moral suasion,” the mayor told the Washington Post. “He will be supportive of our effort for self-government.”
Should the Gore-Lieberman ticket vanquish Republican rivals George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in November, Williams will find himself in a familiar position—namely, representing a portion of Lieberman’s domain. As a New Haven city councilman in the early ’80s, Williams served a district within the jurisdiction of then-State Senator Lieberman.
Lieberman staffers say Williams will be as welcome in Lieberman’s new digs on the west end of Pennsylvania Avenue as he currently is in Lieberman’s senatorial offices. “Whether it’s Sen. Lieberman or Vice President Lieberman, if Anthony Williams needs help from our office…he has full access,” says Ken Dagliere, political director for the vice presidential nominee.
The mayor’s Batphone to Lieberman’s inner sanctum stems from a chummy political friendship that started when Williams was running for his seat on the New Haven Board of Aldermen in 1980. At the same time, Lieberman was attempting to advance from the state senate to the U.S. Congress. “As a ward candidate, I’ve got to get out the vote,” says Williams, who’d previously worked on one of Lieberman’s state senate campaigns. “And my ward effort was part of Joe’s overall New Haven effort.”
Lieberman lost his congressional bid, but Williams again supported the politico on his successful campaign for state attorney general in 1982. By the mid-’80s, their paths had diverged. Williams headed to Harvard University for graduate school. Lieberman captured Connecticut’s attorney general office and then, in 1988, one of its seats in the U.S. Senate. Their careers, however, intersected again in 1991, when Williams served as Connecticut’s deputy comptroller.
“They have a very important friendship, and they occasionally talk and keep in touch,” said mayoral Chief of Staff Abdusalam Omer in an interview from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
Not even Omer would dare compare the Williams-Lieberman alliance to that of Richard Daley and John F. Kennedy, or even Al D’Amato and George Pataki. But this is the District of Columbia, a place where juice in national politics is measured in milliliters. Because the District has virtually nothing to offer national officeholders—the city lacks a vote in Congress and has only three Electoral College votes—it’s usually happy with mere acts of good will by liberal-minded congressional reps.
That’s why the mayor’s thing with Lieberman is a big deal, as well as a precedent. After all, when he was first elected to office, in 1978, Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. couldn’t tap any roots in Minnesota politics to bend the ear of then-Vice President Walter Mondale. Nor could PEPCO-exec-turned-mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who ran D.C. from 1990 to 1994, swap homespun Hoosier tales with then-Vice President Dan Quayle, an Indiana native.
The Barry-Kelly paradigm points up a paradox of D.C. politics: Home-grown leaders, by definition, will always have less meaningful national ties than soulless outsiders like Williams, who came of age in a land where citizens actually have voting rights. Were the District similarly empowered, elected officials like council Chairman Linda Cropp and Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen would be forming alliances with lofty officeholders like senators and representatives. Instead, they spend most of their time solidifying relationships with pipsqueaks like advisory neighborhood commissioners.
Williams and his aides insist that they’d parlay their ties to a Gore-Lieberman administration into an end to the city’s political serfdom. “A victory by Lieberman and Al Gore will be a plus for the District and a step forward for home rule and full representation,” says Omer.
One problem: Even a duo as friendly as Gore and Lieberman wouldn’t jump to the vanguard of a battle that Williams himself has failed to join. Although the mayor occasionally tosses out his line advocating “one government, good government, self-government,” he has spent his time working solely on the second goal, to little effect.
In appearances before Capitol Hill committees, the mayor has assumed the role of pliant vassal in Congress’ protectorate, allowing frequent attacks on home rule to go unanswered. Discord with congressional types, after all, could endanger the funding that Williams needs to meet his self-imposed “scorecard” deadlines for service delivery. In keeping with his line about “commanding, not demanding, respect,” Williams won’t pester the Hill for voting rights until he fixes the Department of Public Works (DPW) and other agencies like it. Will it be any different when he sits down with mentor Joe?
“The greatest support I can lend [to the cause of democracy] is to make this a shining model of great government,” says Williams. “And Joe understands better than anyone that all politics is local.”
For the time being, though, Williams—to the pleasant surprise of citizens unused to seeing their leaders maintain actual friendships with powerful politicians—can hint at all sorts of wonders yet to come. Who knows? Maybe the fact that our mayor is a real-live friend of an actual vice presidential candidate will blind people to Williams’ pothole-scarred streets, run-down playgrounds, and divisive education agenda.
On the other hand, a Gore-Lieberman victory could also kindle some political problems for the mayor. For one thing, his friendship with the senator might make locals think Williams is bucking for an eventual cabinet appointment—adding to the short-timer perception he’s spent two years fighting. And if Williams sticks around One Judiciary Square, the Connecticut senator’s stance on issues like school vouchers and affirmative action might render him something less than ideal as a high-profile political friend. But that eventuality, as always, depends on how Lieberman and Gore fare with voters far from Williams’ back yard.
Much has been made of the management failures at places like DPW, the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, and D.C. General Hospital. But LL is thinking of calling in the American Management Association, along with the General Accounting Office and other experts in shoddy government management, to have a look at Mayor Williams’ Office of the Public Advocate.
LL even has a title for the report that the sleuths compile: “Finishing the Job: How to Perpetuate Dysfunction in Critical Municipal Offices.”
As perfected by the Williams people, here’s how it’s done:
* Step 1: Slap meaningless, wonky name change on office.
The Williams administration inherited a logical-sounding department called the Office of Constituent Services, which took ground-level complaints about municipal services from residents across the District. Without changing that mission, Williams changed the name to Office of the Public Advocate. Baffled staffers wondered if they’d need a law degree to stay on the job.
* Step 2: Pander to Race-Baiters.
Williams accepted the resignation of office Director David Howard after a staffer complained that Howard had used the perfectly legitimate word “niggardly” in a staff meeting. Staffers learned never to try sophisticated words in staff meetings.
* Step 3: Hire the Wrong Manager.
The administration moved Howard to a scheduling slot and placed Ward 1 resident Carlene Cheatham in the director’s chair. After a stormy tenure featuring a nasty fight with aspiring Ward 2 politico John Fanning, Cheatham was bounced to another office.
* Step 4: Hire the Wrong Manager, Again.
New boss Charly Carter failed to stem the disarray that Cheatham had failed to stem, which stemmed from Howard’s dismissal. Omer just sacked Carter and is now looking for the office’s fourth director in less than two years. “It was a bad fit for [Carter],” says Omer. “I don’t think she energized the office.”
Well, just what office would that be? By LL’s estimation, the mayoral public advocates take at least part of their job seriously—that is, they sit in front of One Judiciary Square all day and watch the public walk back and forth. Although Omer insists that the office has eight full-time staffers toiling away somewhere in the building, his good words about the outfit end there. “We tried to revitalize it and revamp it, but I’m telling you, man…It didn’t work out very well,” says Omer.
* Ward 4 D.C. Council hopeful Adrian Fenty has powerful motives for distancing himself from his opponent, five-term incumbent Charlene Drew Jarvis. For one, Jarvis represents a shameless brand of money politics that has alienated a big class of Ward 4 residents, and she draws sustained criticism over her failure to deliver economic development to Georgia Avenue.
But if Fenty hopes to fault Jarvis for her development record, he should rethink his posture on the issue of the day in Ward 4: a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) facility planned for the Petworth neighborhood. In late June, Mayor Williams announced plans to relocate the DMV from downtown to the Petworth site as part of a $111 million Georgia Avenue revitalization package timed to maximize political payoff for Jarvis, a reliable pro-Williams vote on the council.
Although Petworth cries out for any new commercial, retail, or residential development, Fenty has decided that the DMV plan is a bad idea. “I definitely oppose it,” says Fenty. “And I definitely oppose the process, because the plan has yet to be [filtered] through the [advisory neighborhood commission].”
That’s dumb politics. Fenty’s position aligns him with ankle-biting activists who prefer squawking over process considerations to heralding good developments in their neighborhood. And if the mayor hadn’t come forth with the DMV scheme, you can bet those same folks would have complained that they get no attention from downtown. Although government agencies are not reliable engines for economic development, they’re a hell of a lot better than anything Fenty and his followers have on the front burner (i.e., nothing).
“The fighting between different groups in the neighborhood has been going on forever,” says Omer, “but I think all the due diligence has been done.”
Fenty, on the other hand, says the mayor presented it as a “done deal” before “anyone ever heard about it.”
* Mayor Williams had originally planned to announce his endorsement of Ward 2 Council incumbent Jack Evans at a July 29 mayoral picnic in Malcolm X Park. But when only about 20 people showed up for that event, Williams suggested that they reschedule the announcement.
So Thursday, Aug. 10, the mayor mended fences with his most intractable council foe after a press conference at the corner of 12th and K Streets NW. Evans had lobbied for Williams’ blessing after sampling the pro-mayoral inclinations of his constituents. “It was important to me, because people ask me why I can’t get along with the mayor,” says Evans. “It does me no good to at least appear to be fighting with him all the time.”
Still, the party line from the mayor’s office on the Ward 2 incumbent is less than enthusiastic: “Jack is a lot better than the competition,” says Omer. CP
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