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During his nearly three-year reign as D.C.’s chief financial officer (CFO), metaphor-spewing Anthony Williams provided a sympathetic ear to the countless city activists who gathered regularly in his office at 1 Judiciary Square.
Whenever Marshall Heights community leader Lloyd Smith, Dupont Circle public works activist Marilyn Groves, and Ward 3 property-tax activist Penny Pagano called his office to complain about the city’s latest screw-up, Williams told the community leaders to pack a sandwich and come on down. He provided the Coke.
With eight to 10 activists seated around the conference table, Williams would answer questions, show a few slides, and then engage the group in off-the-record chats. In these moments of candor, according to participants, the CFO conveyed the impression that he was on their side.
Now that the CFO has descended from his 11th-floor office to join the D.C. mayoral race, those 6 p.m. sessions are coming back to haunt him.
When Williams traveled to Ward 7 June 1 to tell some 150 supporters that he would gladly accept their call to arms, Shaw activist Beth Solomon asked him to take a public stand on the controversial new convention center proposed for Mount Vernon Square, in Solomon’s backyard. Williams, vowing to be upfront with District voters, said he had voted for the project as a board member of the Washington Convention Center Authority and considered the matter a done deal.
Solomon was stunned. During one of the Coke klatches, Solomon says, Williams sympathized with convention center opponents and noted that his support was contingent on a number of issues that needed to be resolved.
“I think he misled a lot of people,” says Solomon, who would like to make the convention center the litmus test issue of this year’s mayoral contest.
League of 8,000 honcho Groves, who participated in a half-dozen of the CFO’s evening sessions, says she now feels used. Williams, she says, was capitalizing on the prestige of his position to build a mayoral constituency on the sly. Other candidates had to gear up in the full glare of the District media: Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans had his power lunches with big business; At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil had his exploratory committees; and Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous dithered in plain sight. All the while, Williams was gathering intelligence from well-informed activists.
“Everyone in the room felt they had a direct
line with a very important man,” notes Groves,
a steadfast supporter of Williams’ rival, Ward 7 Councilmember Chavous. “A lot of people
are looking back at those contacts and connections with himand looking at it from a different perspective.”
Williams, however, says his perspective hasn’t changed: “I did not intentionally mislead. People can accuse me of flip-flopping, but I’m the one out here taking the risks. I don’t have a cushy job to fall back on. I gave up my job.”
Opposition from the likes of Solomon and Groves will not kill Williams’ fledgling candidacy. Just ask Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis, whose strong support from community activists in the 1993 contest for council chair earned her only a second-place finish. Or ask former At-Large Councilmember John Ray, the darling of community activists in the 1994 mayor’s race, who lagged far behind Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. at the finish line.
Anti-Williams activists will have to wait in line at mayoral forums to attack the CFO. Chavous, Evans, and Brazil, after all, have been sharpening their political knives to puncture Williams’ air of infallibility. Despite the CFO’s accomplishments in officeincluding a clean audit for fiscal year 1998 and a sizable budget surplushis rivals will come to the debates with a few talking points.
They can cite the CFO’s initial appointment by Barry in the fall of 1995, when Williams stated that the mayor already had too many chiefs around him and promised to be a loyal Indian in Hizzoner’s tribe. Once confirmed by the D.C. financial control board, however, Williams acted like Sitting Bull, never hesitating to oppose Barry and take control of the city’s finances.
Barry’s reflections on Williams resemble those of the Coke klatch attendees. Hizzoner has complained that Williams kept his mouth shut during cabinet meetings but sounded off freely about the shortcomings of the mayor’s administration before Congress, the financial control board, and the TV cameras.
Those early battles with Barry earned Williams the nickname “Tony the Tiger,” derisively conveyed by WRC-TV Channel 4 reporter Tom Sherwood to denigrate the CFO’s attempts to stand up to Barry, one of Sherwood’s heroes. At the time, Barry and Williams were communicating through memos carried back and forth by couriers, even though both occupied the top floor at 1 Judiciary Square.
Through persistence and hard work, Williams prevailed, turning Sherwood’s mocking coinage into a flattering sobriquet.
When Williams talks about restoring democracy and self-governance in the District, his opponents will be ready with quips about his behind-the-scenes dealings with Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) last year to transfer more powers from locally elected officials to the appointed CFO. Williams’ maneuverings even caught his bosses at the control board by surprise and earned him a trip to chairman Andrew Brimmer’s doghouse.
The CFO’s duplicity, say opponents, was on display once again this spring, when Williams issued his Shermanesque repudiation of a 1998 mayoral run. The strongly worded statement bought Williams a couple of months to build support free of media pressure. The CFO seemed to reverse course at the mere sight of a draft-Williams flier last month.
Of course, the CFO will have plenty of ammo of his own to fire back at his three main rivals, like their recordsor lack thereofduring their stints on the council and their complicity in the financial disaster he was hired to clean up.
Lacking an organization and a war chest, Williams will have to rely on the sheer force of his personality, his humorous retorts, and his computerlike ability to recount the city’s problems and offer real solutions. Once he maneuvers this gantlet, the rush of voters to his candidacy, which already has unnerved Evans and Chavous, may become a stampede. Then the activists who distrust Williams will have to eat crow and pray for the return of those brown-bag sessions during the new mayor’s first term.
•If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Evans and Chavous must think highly of their colleague, Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz.
During media interviews and candidate forums, Chavous has been downplaying the city’s racial divisions by proclaiming, “There is no black or white or Latino way to pick up the trash.” That statement comes right out of Schwartz speeches and brochures for her 1986 and 1994 mayoral runs.
“There is no black or white way to pick up the trash,” Schwartz said during both campaigns, to address concerns over whether a white Republican woman could govern this city. “There is no Republican or Democratic way to fill the potholes.”
Evans has adopted the statement with even less modification than Chavous. “There is no white or black way to pick up the trash,” he told the Washington Post editorial board last month.
Schwartz, who announced her latest candidacy at a June 4 mayoral forum, says she will reclaim ownership of the rhetoric once she hits the campaign trail.
She certainly looked like a mayoral contender as she marched down 17th Street NW in last Sunday’s annual Capital Gay Pride Festival parade. Schwartz received the loudest cheers the parade watchers afforded the horde of political candidates.
Evans, surrounded by recognizable members of the city’s gay community, including construction mogul Bruce Johnson, also got a warm reception as he marched the entire parade route, tossing out Mardi Gras beads to parade watchers.
Brazil couldn’t get his parade vehicle started, and much of the parade passed him by before he decided to get out of his Humvee and walk. The candidate surely hopes his parade experience doesn’t foreshadow his performance in the race.
Williams, displaying his political savvy, walked with a small contingent of supporters near the end of the parade. Chavous didn’t show, although he was spotted campaigning in Georgetown that day.
Ward 1 council candidate Jim Graham walked the parade route accompanied by nearly two dozen supporters, outnumbering the groupies flanking longshot Ward 1 candidate Todd Mosley. Both challengers, however, did better than incumbent Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith. The 15-year council veteran got completely overlooked as he brought up the very rear, driving his own car and waving to a crowd that had turned away after Williams passed, thinking the parade was over. “This is really kind of sad,” one parade watcher noted as Smith passed by, sitting alone in his auto.
•Schwartz may get some competition in this year’s Republican primary from former Idaho GOP senator Larry Pressler. Proving once again that members of Congress can never get enough of D.C., Pressler is threatening to base his mayoral campaign on private school vouchers for District children. To smooth his landing in local politics, Pressler is asking D.C. Republican leaders to remain neutral during the primary season. Julie Finley, longtime District GOP head, gave Pressler a firm thumbs down on his request. Like most other D.C. Republicans, she’ll be backing Schwartz.
•When Maudine Cooper chaired her first meeting of the appointed emergency school board of trustees May 26, the same day that board chair Bruce MacLaury was forced to resign, Cooper ignored her predecessor’s advice to make the secretive board more responsive to the community. Only two residents signed up to testify about the school system’s controversial new disciplinary policy, but Cooper still limited them to three minutes each.
However, she let school administration officials and lawyers wax on endlessly about the proposed new policy for disciplining students.
•D.C. resident Marty Childers says he is being harassed by At-Large Statehood Party Councilmember Hilda Mason. The octogenarian councilmember keeps calling Childers at his Maryland job failing to remember why she called. After Mason phoned and left a message a second time last month, Childers returned the call, curious to find out how the councilmember had gotten his work number.
“She had no idea as to who I am, and why she had called me at all,” Childers related.
Then Childers thought he had figured it out: He is a friend of Sabrina Sojourner, one of the many candidates vying for the two at-large council seats up for grabs this year, including Mason’s. Maybe Mason was looking for some campaign intelligence. “But she had no clue as to who Sabrina is,” Childers said this week.
He regrets having returned Mason’s call because the councilmember learned through her caller-ID box that he was calling from GEICO, where he works as a computer consultant. Now Mason has been calling back with problems about her auto insurance.
“All of a sudden, she’s got it stuck in her head that I work for GEICO, and she calls me and starts telling me about her car,” said Childers, who is not an employee of the insurance giant. “I am definitely not happy about being hounded at work with something I have no concept about, and something I have no ability to work on.”
“I’m just getting frustrated with constantly being badgered by this woman,” he said in obvious exasperation. Mason’s council colleagues can commiserate.CP
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