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Mayor Anthony A. Williams and President Bill Clinton have little in common. One is a career number cruncher, the other a career cad. One enjoys canoeing in his leisure time, the other golf and women. Put the two in a room for a while, though, and they’ll surely find a touchstone: They both have obsessive enemies.
Now, you don’t have to subscribe to the American Spectator to know that Clinton haters don’t really care about his feelings on family medical leave, reinventing government, or even the V-chip. Well before Clinton had signed his first piece of legislation, the antis were apoplectic about his draft record (cowardly), his wife (domineering), his accent (dumb), his hugging (manipulative), his displays of emotion (fake), and even his daughter (awkward). Seven years later, it’s pretty clear that anti-Clintonism—like anti-FDRism and anti-Nixonism—is more emotion than ideology. God damn, but they hate that sonofabitch.
Just five months into his tenure atop One Judiciary Square, Williams sees like invective splayed out in the dailies, in public appearances, and in the e-mail messages that pile up in his computer. From budget missteps to the mishandling of racial flare-ups like the David Howard affair, the mayor has certainly given his detractors plenty of material. But on closer inspection, LL gets the sense that the hardest-core Williams haters would have found as much fault even if he had done exactly the opposite—say, giving Howard a promotion, or making a speech at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street to proclaim that the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) will only move over his dead body.
Any politician worth his bully pulpit makes enemies. Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr., for example, rankled his share of constituents with his choice of political advisers and his stance on downtown development battles—the sort of skirmishes that keep bread on LL’s table. But as his tenure wore on, Barry also generated a more visceral, psychopolitical hatred—the kind of base emotional loathing a purist like LL rarely deigns to cover.
Williams is getting a jump start on harnessing that latter kind of enmity. Of course, while the stereotypical Barry hater’s blood boiled over things like Barry’s invocations of civil rights rhetoric and his tolerance for bloated government in the name of mass employment, the folks who loathe Williams are different. Committed District old-timers, they have no patience for a D.C. mayor who needs on-the-job training and routinely brandishes his unfamiliarity with the city’s time-tested causes and institutions. The proclamations of the anti-Williams set speak to the District’s us-vs.-them provincialism and underscore how dearly the activist class values the collective suffering of the early ’90s. Williams has been tried, convicted, and hanged for not being one of us.
No one in town is less tolerant of carpetbaggers than Columbia Heights stalwart Dorothy Brizill. Last November, Williams’ minions discussed working with Brizill on their transition plans, but never came to an agreement with her. Just seven months after those talks, Brizill is now one of the administration’s most quotable detractors—even when it’s doing the right thing.
For example, Williams pledged recently to send a high-level task force into the neighborhoods to coordinate remediation of ground-level problems throughout the city—rats, abandoned buildings, trashy alleys, and so on. The task force is supposed to complement the work of “neighborhood stabilization officers,” who serve as a clearinghouse for all neighborhood complaints; that way, frustrated residents won’t have to call five agencies to eliminate one eyesore.
Sounds like good government to all but a card-carrying Williams hater. “They’re sending people into the neighborhoods who don’t know anything about them,” says Brizill. “Tony and his people don’t have a clue what they’re doing.”
While Brizill may be picking a nit over the neighborhood stabilizers, she has little problem making a case that the mayor lacks a historical understanding of her neighborhood. In 1981, the city gave regional business mogul Herbert Haft development rights over several choice Columbia Heights parcels. Haft sat on them for two decades. The city finally yanked Haft’s deal and on May 20 was scheduled to award them to one of four new bidders. One problem: Williams had failed to fill a vacancy on the board of the Redevelopment Land Authority, the panel that was to vote on bids. The two board members who showed up on May 20 decided that they needed some company before voting on the award.
Perhaps the mayor figured that after waiting for more than 20 years, Brizill & Co. wouldn’t mind holding out for another month or so. “He doesn’t know Columbia Heights, and he doesn’t care about Columbia Heights,” says Brizill.
Supporters of UDC, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and D.C. General Hospital would doubtless parrot Brizill’s assessment. His missteps around those institutions, after all, have padded the ranks of Williams haters with folks like UDC President Julius Nimmons and Niketa D. Wilson, the psychology major who called Williams the devil when he visited campus this spring.
If Williams stopped and listened, his crowd of detractors could brief him on the dynamic that he has yet to grasp: The District is a hardship town, a place where the die-hard’s bona fides gels around the suffering endured under a historically incompetent municipal government and second-class political rights. Those realities have convinced the mayor’s haters that the city is a unique place, inimical to the formulaic solutions of outsiders. Hence the widespread skepticism of folks like former schools czar Gen. Julius Becton and former management guru Camille Cates Barnett, the popularity of provincial schemes like residency requirements, and, of course, the gasps that follow the mayor’s perceived attacks on home-grown institutions.
For folks who cut their teeth on the home rule movement, D.C. is more than a 63-square-mile city. It’s an idea—an idea they think Williams just doesn’t get.
Williams can blame the D.C. electorate for his insensitivity to hometown concerns. On the campaign trail last year, Williams opponents in both the primary and general elections tried to paint the former CFO green, hammering him for his short history as a D.C. resident and voter. It didn’t work: Williams trounced all comers by impressive margins and came away with the impression that District patriot credentials didn’t matter.
Convinced that the D.C. homer thing was a phony issue, Williams stacked his cabinet with outsiders. His anointed “right-hand man,” legal counsel Max Brown, came to D.C. politics by way of the U.S. General Services Administration, not via Anacostia, Capitol Hill, or Kalorama. The mayor’s idea of a seasoned community hand was Henry Sumner “Sandy” McCall, a Ward 6 political dabbler whose lack of strategic vision last week cost him his job as deputy chief of staff for external affairs. The opening presented the mayor with a chance to hire an adviser who would head off fiascoes like the UDC and Howard episodes. But no—Williams transferred McCall’s portfolio to Brown.
Until he hires a more seasoned political team, Williams will continue stumbling over the issues that matter most to longtime D.C.-ers. LL can only guess that the mayor is resigned to taking shots from the politically engaged nativist class no matter what he does or whom he hires. Perhaps he’s a steady reader of Washington Times columnist Adrienne Washington and Progressive Review editor Sam Smith.
The standard bearer for Williams hating, Washington countenances nothing that comes out of the mayoral suite. Upon Williams’ election, she wrote, “[T]he District went from Chocolate City to Vanilla Village overnight with the Bow-Tie Bandit’s coronation. Got to give it to the ‘el supremo’ carpetbagger who came, who saw, who conquered with the overbearing help of the elite establishment, congressional overlords and underlings.”
But a few months after playing the racially divisive angle, Washington showed the intellectual flexibility to bash the mayor for…racial divisiveness. When Williams joked that he was taking Berlitz courses in how to talk like a real black man—a satirical response to a Washington Post commentary questioning whether the mayor was “black enough”—Washington appeared on WAMU radio’s D.C. Politics Hour to denounce the joke as “irresponsible.” Washington questioned whether Williams understood that the District was a “racially divided” city.
Although Washington’s political acumen is as sharp as the mayor’s own minions’, she’s best off sticking to matters of haute politique, like race and higher education. Washington would have little authority commenting on lowly matters like the mayor’s service-delivery record. After all, the Department of Public Works isn’t responsible for trash pickup in Alexandria, where Washington beds down each night.
And when Smith stops panning him, Williams can rest assured that he has silenced the last of his political enemies. Smith holds Williams responsible not only for mistreating workers, mismanaging the city, and neglecting the poor, but also for demographic trends—the sort of power that only dictators like Slobodan Milosevic throw around.
“The brutal urbanism of the Williams administration is based on the growing power of the city’s richest residents,” Smith wrote in the April 29 edition of his listserv, D.C. News Service. “For example, between 1989 and 1994, D.C. lost 40,000 taxpayers—singles or couples—earning less than $50,000 but gained 4,000 earning more than that figure. These stark figures help explain why the Williams administration caters so extensively to the interests of a small percentage of the city and why the vaunted budget surplus was created on the backs of D.C.’s poorer residents.”
To earn a pat on the back from Smith, Williams will have to reverse current demographic trends as well as, well, eliminate pretty much everything negative about the ’90s. On Williams’ election, Smith foresaw the beginning of “the dull, hard work of converting a community, a place, a home into Urban Facility #236. The eviction of those who hurt, the suppression of complaint, the construction of facades that hide every deficiency of soul and service, the silencing of patois and its substitution by bureaucratic bromides.”
LL doubts the mayor has a total quality management system or long-term tool kit to handle that list of grievances.
Few sights annoy D.C. councilmembers as much as watching senior District bureaucrats pull into their assigned parking spots in cars bearing Maryland or Virginia tags. Suburbanites, argue councilmembers, don’t know enough about the city to make decisions about its future. And the District should also reap taxes from the income it pays to cabinet-level officials.
Mayor Williams, say councilmembers, apparently doesn’t share their views. Since taking office in January, Williams has waived residency requirements for 27 top-level officials. With each waiver, the mayor has turned up the heat in what may be his next major feud with the council. He’s also helping cement his administration’s out-of-towner reputation.
Although the council has repeatedly demanded that residency be required of all D.C. government employees, current rules specify that only excepted service employees—cabinet officials and others, such as council staffers, whose work requires familiarity with the District—must live in the diamond. The mayor’s personnel office, however, has the authority to waive the requirements.
On May 24, council Chairman Linda Cropp wrote Williams asking for a list of all D.C. government employees serving under the mayoral residency waivers. Cropp’s letter stems from a May 20 council discussion on the matter. “Some individuals who claimed they’d move into the District have gotten a waiver from the mayor,” said Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous at the meeting.
On March 3, Chavous had asked Williams’ personnel director for an accounting of the waivers issued to excepted service employees. On March 19, then-Director of Personnel Millicent Few revealed that nearly equal numbers of senior officials lived within and outside the District’s boundaries. Of the 246 excepted service employees, 127 were D.C. residents. Eighty more had been told to relocate to the city within 180 days of their hiring. Thirty-nine had received waivers.
At the time of Few’s report, the Williams administration had issued only seven of the 39 waivers; the others dated to Barry’s administration. But in the two months since, Few’s office has gone on a waiver binge, approving 20 requests—bringing the waiver total to a whopping 59.
In public appearances, Williams has vowed to locate cabinet members within the District and—somehow—has claimed no involvement in the proliferation of waivers. “The mayor has not waived residency requirements for anybody he has appointed in his administration,” says mayoral spokesperson Peggy Armstrong.
That may be. But his underlings are another story. Several agencies—most notably the Metropolitan Police Department, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the procurement office—have managed to wring waivers for hard-to-fill vacancies from the personnel office. “We’re doing whatever it takes to make sure the District attracts the best and the brightest,” says interim personnel chief Judy Banks.
“We need to know the depths of where this is going,” said Chavous at the May 20 council meeting. LL will work his sources at Tysons Corner to solve the mystery. CP
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