Although Mayor Anthony A. Williams may be a political novice, he has enough sense not to turn down an appearance before thousands of the District’s senior citizens, a block of motivated voters that the mayor’s predecessors curried favor with at every opportunity. Williams attempted to follow in their footsteps last Thursday at Elderfest! 1999, an event designed to “showcase the talent and creativity of District senior citizens.”
Perhaps skittish about trumping his elders, the mayor delivered a performance low on both.
“We’ve got a good recreation and parks director, don’t we?” Williams asked the crowd assembled at Freedom Plaza. “We do.”
“We’ve got a good Office on Aging director, don’t we?” he said, repeating the motif. “We do.”
“And we’ve got a good first mother,” said the mayor, pointing to Virginia Williams. “She can sing, but I don’t know if she can dance.”
By the time the mayor finished his short presentation, his captive crowd appeared ready for a few Judge Wapner reruns or an afternoon nap. It took MC Brenda Reynolds, senior citizens program director for the Friendship House, to blow some life into the proceedings.
“C’mon, this is our mayor!” exhorted Reynolds to the sea of expressionless faces. “Stand up and give him a hand. C’mon, this is our mayor!”
She was right. This is indeed our mayor, a man who promised substance over style, tangible service improvements over rhetorical tangents, fiscal discipline over spiritual rejuvenation. On each count, voters hungered for the contrast involved in dumping a civil-rights-era schmoozer for a modern technocrat.
And at events across the city these days, they’re getting exactly what they voted for. While the mayor’s many critics have harped on the serious blunders he’s made since taking office in January—like his penchant for dissing the D.C. Council and the disarray that continues to dog his political operation—he’s a more bona fide clunker when called upon to celebrate, to dedicate, to commemorate, and to proclaim. The man can cut expenditures, but not ribbons.
At least the mayor delivers his awkward public addresses on time. After spending 16 years in official event purgatory awaiting the arrival of ever-tardy Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., everyone in D.C. politics—busybodies, journalists, elected officials, and government employees—has welcomed Williams’ commitment to mayoral punctuality.
Keeping a schedule isn’t hard when you have one or two appointments per day. Williams, however, sometimes hits four or five a day, plus staff meetings and office work. The result is a schedule-obsessed man who always appears worried about making his next appointment and rushes through public appearances at the same pace that he disposes of e-mail.
An onlooker at the July 14 Bastille Day celebration at Les Halles restaurant, for example, might not have noticed that Williams had come to kick off the annual waiters’ race. Rambling through prepared remarks, the mayor drew a parallel between the French people’s fight for freedom and the District’s colonial status. Then he heaped on the platitudes: “Bastille Day reminds us of the strong bond between the French and the Americans,” said Williams. “I look forward to working together with you on the District. I want to recognize the large French community in the Washington area.” And that was about it. This man can suck the life out of a room quicker than Al Gore. He stops by, puts the crowd in a short-lived sleeperhold, rounds up the security retinue, and gets back in the black SUV.
Although effective speakers generally keep their remarks brief and punchy, Williams these days virtually apologizes for his presence on the stage, as if he feels unworthy to occupy the time of his constituents. Take these remarks at Elderfest: “[We] are dedicated to you in making your lives better, making your community better, and that’s all I have to say,” said the mayor, rushing to stage door right. Mission complete.
The Elderfest visit will be remembered only in a computer log at the mayor’s scheduling office, not in the hearts of D.C. seniors. And in a city as messed up as the District, improving the mayor’s ability to connect with his audience is not exactly Job 1 at One Judiciary Square.
“We really don’t coach him,” says mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong.
Once the administration catches its breath and has the opportunity to address the mayor’s communication deficit, his handlers may want to cure him of his list obsession, a tic that cramps his message at nearly every stop. Ever the taskmaster, the mayor routinely addresses his constituents in Listspeak, punctuating his goals and dreams with nothing but commas.
“I want to serve people better than ever before, create a climate for investment, particularly in the neighborhoods, which have become an endangered species, and rebuild communities in our city. I want to come together, meet challenges, and make the difficult decisions we have to make,” he said at a March Ward 1 town hall meeting. Such recycled cadences leave audiences overwhelmed, confused, wondering what really matters…and constantly checking their watches.
It might be worth giving the mayor a tuneup. At some point in his first term, the mayor will encounter serious popular opposition to a program that he really believes in. When that time comes, he’ll have to connect with his constituents in a way that speed-walking through a list can’t accomplish.
Word of the mayor’s wooden public performances has yet to spread among the dignitaries, celebrities, and organizations that each month bury his office with up to 600 appearance requests. “There isn’t anything going on that he’s not invited to,” says chief scheduler David Howard, who has restored order and efficiency to an office that earlier this year caused the mayor several political embarrassments.
And even though Williams may not dazzle a crowd, he at least knows whom to honor and whom to stiff. Over the past eight months, the mayor has struggled to meet with the city’s major civic groups, often at the expense of more glamorous outings, like an invitation to appear with Kevin Bacon on the D.C. set of Hollow Man, a request to join soul man James Brown onstage, and a speaking invitation at the fifth National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
If an event hurdles the mayor’s priority bar, he may even show up with a special mayoral proclamation. And don’t think for a moment that Williams hands out the proclamations as liberally as the number for his citywide call-in center. The administration subjects all potential proclamations to a trying set of criteria that the mayor’s people have scrubbed, according to Armstrong.
In the Barry days, proclamations were nothing more than a “flimsy piece of paper handed out all the time,” says Williams, noting that his office frames the documents so they’re ready to hang in your foyer. “We’ve really upgraded them. Now, if you’re getting a proclamation, it’s important,” he says with enthusiasm otherwise reserved for the opening of the Thomas Circle underpass, the rehabilitation of city-owned properties, or the placement of the week’s best-selling books on the racks of the D.C. public library.
Of course, the proclamations serve Williams just as well as their recipients; they give him a script to follow when he’s exhausted his scant arsenal of off-the-cuff remarks. For instance, at a June 16 celebration of the new Kalorama building for the American Friends of Lubavitch, a Jewish group that promotes education worldwide, Williams made almost no introductory remarks before turning to his shiny gift. “Without further ado, I present this proclamation,” and then plowed into all the “whereas”es. Next stop?
Last January, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton used a Capitol Hill hearing to air her gripes over the inflation of salaries for D.C. agency heads into the low-$100,000 range. “This is the center of the universe,” screamed Norton after displaying a chart comparing lofty D.C. salaries to those of comparable positions in other cities. “If you can show you can do your stuff here, you’re made for life.”
The city’s Y2K preparedness office appears to have taken Norton’s golden rule to heart.
In June, Chief Technology Officer Suzanne Peck hired Y2K ace Mary Ellen Hanley as a contractor at an annual rate of $256,000. According to the city’s agreement with Hanley and her employer, Kaludis Consulting Group, Hanley “plans, organizes, and coordinates District employees, contractors, and sub-contractors toward the completion” of Y2K preparations. (The contract amount pays both Hanley’s salary and a fee for Kaludis Consulting.)
The fat numbers in the compensation package derive in large part from Peck’s desperation. From June 1998 to June 1999, Hanley took a leave of absence from Kaludis to work on the District’s Y2K problem. To the surprise of exactly no one, Hanley couldn’t transform the city’s quasi-network from the Wang 70s to the IBM 00s in one year. D.C. is months behind other cities in equipping its systems to recognize “01/01/00.”
Faced with hiring a fresh, untrained staffer or retaining Hanley, Peck made the only choice open to a woman haunted by the prospect of even worse 911 service, spottier street lights, and government workers who couldn’t answer their phones even if they wanted to. Peck boasted in an Aug. 19 personnel memo that she’d negotiated a 35 percent discount of Hanley’s normal billing rate, which would have saddled the city with a $367,000 annual bill for her services.
The discounted contract, says George Kaludis, the firm’s president, amounts to a public service to the District. “We feel we’re doing some good things for the city,” says Kaludis, adding that Hanley’s leave of absence was “in essence a gift” to D.C.’s Y2K operation. Kaludis says the city would have paid much more to contract with another firm for the work Hanley is doing.
Then again, says Kaludis, the city will really make out if it keeps on ignoring the firm’s invoices. “We haven’t been paid a cent yet,” he says, noting that the company is in the third month of its contract with the city. Perhaps it’s just a computer glitch.
* The D.C. Democratic State Committee (DSC) is quietly plotting to undermine electoral democracy as we know it. The target is the consensus principle—enshrined forever in local, state, and federal statutes—that the candidate with the most votes takes the prize.
The DSC, however, is now injecting another consideration: affirmative action. The move comes amid a controversy over disputed ballots in the June 19 election for recording secretary in the Ward 2 Democrats organization. In that race, Andy Litsky edged out rival Leslie Miles by a mere four votes. Miles, nonetheless, appealed to count eight ballots that had been submitted before the elections process concluded, in apparent violation of the contest’s rules.
An ad hoc DSC committee recommended unsheathing the ballots in the interest of democracy, inclusiveness, and—get this—”affirmative action.” It was a strange choice of terms considering that Miles and Litsky are both white and are vying for elected, not appointed, positions. Still, the appeal to a liberal Democratic ideal persuaded the DSC to approve the committee’s recommendation and count the votes. (Litsky won by a margin of two votes.)
“I don’t see how that puts itself into this issue at all,” says Ward 2 Democrats chief Bud Lane. “It just plays on the sympathies of people who don’t take the time to think about it.”
* Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has two problems with the Columbia Heights development award issued to Horning Bros. and Grid Properties by the Redevelopment Land Agency board on Sept. 9. First, the triumphant development plans don’t contemplate using the historic Tivoli Theatre as a performing arts space, and, second, they apply to only two of six empty parcels in the heart of Columbia Heights.
All of which raises the question: Why didn’t Graham support the (losing) development proposal advanced by Forest City Enterprises? That plan, after all, called for the restoration of the Tivoli as an arts venue and would have brought development to four of the six blighted parcels.
Somehow, though, the first-term councilmember stands by his decision to remain neutral in the most important development competition in Ward 1 history. “If I had endorsed one of the proposals,” says Graham, “I would have become the issue.”
Well, the issue now for Graham is how to get Horning Bros. to revise its plan to accommodate a performing arts space—an imperative that he pressed on the developers at a Wednesday lunch. As he pursues his eleventh-hour agenda, Graham can take heart that neighborhood protesters have fixed their sights on the mayor and not on their fence-sitting councilmember.
Graham even credits his pusillanimity with minimizing constituent complaints: “What I am sustaining now is nothing compared to what would have happened if I had supported one of the applicants,” he says. CP
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