Get local news delivered straight to your phone
CFO: Knock, knock.
Citizen: Who’s there?
CFO: The accountant.
Citizen: Whaddaya want?
CFO: I’ve come to fix your city.
Citizen: That’s swell, Mr. Accountant, but we’re a little long on
fixers right now. What we really need is a mayor.
CFO: That’s why I’m knocking on your door. I’m running for mayor because I want the city to pay its bills on time,
collect taxes in a systematic way, and provide services
in a reliable manner.
Citizen: Actually, I’d settle for a replacement for the Supercan that got ripped off two years ago, but if you’re so smart, how come I’ve never heard of you before?
CFO: I have been busy quietly restoring the city’s bond rating, instituting financial management systems, and firing incompetent managers. Instead of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, I’d like to re-engineer the ship’s systems and reprogram its personnel.
Citizen: Oh yeah. Now I remember you. The guy with the
bow tie, right?
CFO: Yeah, that’s me.
Citizen: You talk weird. What’s up with the metaphors, pal?
CFO: Well, I used to be a hippie, and then I went to Yale and became an accountant.
Citizen: That still doesn’t explain why a bean counter like you is running for office.
CFO: I know I can do better than the knuckleheads I’ve been working for. And I actually ran for city council back in New Haven and won. Besides, I have ego needs that can’t be accommodated by poring over spreadsheets day in and day out.
Citizen: That’s neat, but it’s June and most people have
never heard of you.You sitting on a big pot of
CFO: Not exactly. I plan on tapping into a groundswell of
citizen disaffection with politics as usual and riding it
into office. I’m here to clean house.
Citizen: Sounds familiar. You didn’t bring a broom with you,
So, Candidate X finally enters the picture. The other, the one who isn’t the problem, the man with a big shiny tool belt. The genius who knows where bodies are buried and the buck stops. Candidate X. My brand, your flavor.
He’s gazing at me across a table in his meticulously clean office, talking in measured terms about the future of our city. I keep looking at his bow tie and thinking about what the person wearing it could do for the city I live in. I was born here. This guy has only been around a couple of yearshe rents a place down near Foggy Bottom.
He is one of the countless talented people who came to the District to fulfill their ambitions. Williams’ ambitions now include elective dominion over the city where he’s been keeping the books ever since he was installed as chief financial officer. I get the feeling that he wants to be mayor not because he loves D.C., but because he really, really hates chaos.
Like most reporters, I like Tony Williams. He’s got substantial nerdly charms and is bright in a way that wouldn’t intimidate me if I were chatting with him at a party. And even though we are talking about his now-naked political ambitions, he’s not pounding his fists and gesticulating. As he reels off numbers and notions, he’s playing absent-mindedly with a Post-it note, flipping it around and around in his hands. We both end up looking at the small yellow piece of paperits four clean corners rotating in his handswhile he talks about saving the city from itself. He isn’t worried about any charisma deficit.
“This whole nerd bean counter thing: You know, if you’re getting on a plane, do you want Charlton Heston, who did a great job acting as pilot, or do you want a real pilot? You’re going in for surgery: Do you want Clooney, or do you want a real doctor? Maybe I’m not a matinee idol, but I can run this city and restore home rule.”
Williams doesn’t care much about home rule, of course. His whole tenure here has been predicated on a different setup. If he were to succeed, a functioning local democracy would be just a byproduct of his dust-busting. Rather, Williams will try to fix the city because that is what he does.
It’s what they all say, of course: Pick meI’m a brain surgeon! I’m a problem solver! I’m a doer! But the generic rhetoric is less vomit-inducing coming from the lone public official who has accomplished anything in the past three years.
“One of the things you want candidates to do is raise issues for the voters, and some real solutions on addressing those issues,” says Candidate X. “So it’s not a question of ‘I want D.C. General,’ [or] ‘I don’t want D.C. General,’ or ‘I want to be nice to labor; he’s gonna be mean to labor.’ It’s what are just the facts: What are the facts, how are you gonna address them and produce a result?”
It’s not the kind of rhetoric that is going to have people marching to the gates of the city. But Williams is betting that a majority of District voters will find those wordsbone-dry and devoid of any lustersexy as hell. Competence is a vixen.
“We’re going to face up and answer some of the real issues that are really key to really restoring long-term viability to the District. Maybe it hurts me in the short term, but I’m willing to do it. That’s putting your butt on the line,” he says, casting no side glances to see if he is impressing.
He is. But he’s also making me itchy.
It’s probably worth mentioning that it’s not just Anthony Williams’ butt that will be on the line now that he’s quit his job to run for mayor.
The Hill hates our guts. We’ve squeezed every last dollar out of the White House. And the Third World country where I spent a year on a scholarship seemed to have more democracy that my hometown. There’s half a million butts on the line this year. What makes Tony Williams, a career fixer-for-hire who used to labor in some back lot at the Department of Agriculture, the Answer?
The Post-it disappears, and Candidate X morphs into a politician, bragging about himself in the third person. Unlike most politicians, though, he’s not yakking out rationalizations and trying to make black and white out of gray. It’s tick, tick, tick: a list of personal accomplishments set in stone. Then. Now. Before. After.
“Then, you had people waiting up to eight months [to pay] vendor payables,” says Williams. “Now, they’re paid on good business terms. Then, you had really no tax assessment process. Now, we’ve worked with the [D.C.] council, the mayor, and the board to rehab the process. We’ve brought accountability. And very, very importantly, we’ve brought customer service, a lot of key investments in training and equipment of our people.”
Boom. It’s quantifiable stuff. And most of it is probably true.
“The tax-collecting process itself was a shambles two years ago,” he says. “We have now sent around 200,000 refunds in 15 days, which is well ahead of the IRS. Then we were looking at interminable deficits on into the future. Now we’ve brought the Districtbecause of the added revenue in 1997one year closer, really two years closer, to home rule, and some capital to work with.”
Maybe you’ve heard this talk before. Since the advent of home rule, Candidate X, that age-old fantasy of good-government busybodies, has been as much a part of the city landscape as leftover campaign signs. Williams is a particularly heady version of the fantasy pol. He deploys the rhetoric of management and accountability with real finesse, making it all sound so logical, so businesslike, so much like…Sharon Pratt Kellyoops, let’s not go there just yet.
His timing is excellent. Williams’ gamble comes at a moment of amazing openness in the D.C. electorate. Locals who have been forced to adjust to alien terminology like “financial management authority,” “emergency board of trustees,” and “Lauch Faircloth” know it’s a new D.C. All bets are off. This year, Candidate X is real. As it turns out, he sits just yards from the mayor’s desk.
Whether the D.C. CFO’s choice to give up a well-reputed gig with a lot more power than the mayorship for a chancy, shoestring campaign to run for a job now defined as municipal ribbon-cutter is a shrewd move or a jump off a cliff, I’m glad he’s here. If nothing else, he will enliven what up to now looked to be a somnolent mayoral election. And why can’t he be the answer? He’s got a bow tie, right?
Think of it as a high-tech piece of video work. For years, the Candidate X of quadrennial D.C. summer dreams was intentionally obscured, the blurry multicolored image the TV news uses to protect anonymity. It’s simpler that way: the broader the fantasy, the easier to hold.
With Williams’ announcement, that stained-glass patchwork image is suddenly clear and real. It takes the form of a 47-year-old number-cruncher. And suddenly, it all gets a lot more complicated than a good-government election-time fantasy.
His curriculum vitae offers comfort. The son of two postal workers, Anthony Allen Williams was born in Los Angeles in 1951. He was an avid newspaper reader but an erratic student. Two years after starting college in California, Williams dropped out to drift with the furious tides of Vietnam-era history.
He spent time on the radical margins of Berkeley life but then turned around to join the Air Force, only to leave his post there as a conscientious objector. He spent time on the ski patrol, running a crop duster, and working as a railroad lineman.
In 1976, though, Williams’ star began to rise. A 100-page application essay got him into Yale as the prestigious university’s oldest freshman. While still an undergraduate, he won a seat on the New Haven board of aldermen, serving two terms. Oh, yeah, and he graduated magna cum laude.
Williams began to work on the other side of politics, as an advisor to Connecticut congressional candidates and as chief flack for the state assembly’s speaker of the house. He’d spend the next 15 years toiling on the nonelected side of government.
After stopping off at Harvard for law and public policy degrees, Williams joined the elite class of managers-for-hire, crunching numbers for the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the St. Louis Community Development Agency, and, as deputy state comptroller, the state of Connecticut.
In 1993, he came to Washington with an already familiar assignment: putting on a white hat, picking up a lasso, and cleaning up a mess as CFO of the Department of Agriculture.
We can't make City Paper without you
Three years later, when Congress established an independent chief financial officer’s seat in the midst of D.C.’s financial crisis, Williams once again parachuted into an alien world. Though Mayor Marion Barry had hired Williams, the law said only the control board could fire him. He talked like a lapdog until he was confirmed, and then he immediately went to work bloodying the heels of anybody who got in his way.
Once again, he was in his standard role of public policy mercenary. But in D.C., a congressionally mandated check on the elected government is a big fat target. As he zeroed in, politiciansespecially the mayor, whose wife had dubbed Williams “Mr. Bow Tie”reached for their long knives.
For the most part, the public didn’t join them. Williams’ opponents say he’s been given a free ride by a media smitten with his elitist credentials, but his record of success is also substantial. More important, it’s also tangible to the average citizen.
Williams is credited with spearheading the city’s first “clean” audit since the beginning of its financial crisis. He gets credit for this year’s balanced budget, the improved bond rating, the salvaged vendor-payment apparatus, and the recovery of the city’s tax collection and refund mechanisms.
More than 110,000 people got their checks within two weeks of filing. That’s 110,000 people who know something about the way Williams does things.
Williams has also drawn rave reviews for the way he works. In three years, he has attended over 150 community meetingswhich would be quite a feat even for someone with an electorate to answer to. He’s proven able to take bureaucratic turf, an essential task in this convoluted city.
And Williams has fired incompetentsa rare move in District governanceearning praise in the press but also ample criticism for the high-handed way he did it. The string of achievements earned Williams man-of-the-year awards from organizations as diverse as the Whitman-Walker Clinic and the Association of Government Accountants.
Observers got the sense early on that even though he wasn’t saying so, Williams thought he could run the whole show better than anyone else. From his community meetings to his silky touch with the media, Williams began a quiet drift toward the biggest job a city-fixer could hope to get. The mechanic had his eyes on the car company.
As the 1998 election began to take shape, his record and quiet ambitions turned Williams into the fantasy candidate of a whole cadre of good-government Washingtonians. Williams’ winks and nods made it into the media just a couple of times. In January, Williams publicly toyed with the notion of running, but pulled back, taking flack for politicizing his CFO post by the dalliance.
He dropped below the horizon for a few months. But after Williams wowed a crowd at a neighborhood meeting in early May at the Holy Comforter Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southeast, a group of Hillcrest activists teamed up with west-of-the-river budget hawks like Ward 1 activist Marie Drissel to set up a draft-Williams committee. They said it was a groundswell, but talk to any of the inner circle and it begins to seem a lot more like wish fulfillment.
Williams wanted it even before they started asking. His wife, however, wanted no part of being D.C.’s other first lady. The ad hoc group secretly dined with her trying to allay her fears about losing privacyand about other aspects of her husband quitting a $115,000-a-year job. By Monday, the CFO had caved to the will of the peopleor at least a couple of dozen of them.
There are no barbecues here. There are no babies to kiss or graduations to attend or parades to grand-marshal. There are no constituencies to placate. There are no deals to make and no back rooms to make them in. There are no feelings to soothe. There is no moral imperative, no overriding need, nothing to be guilty of.
Tony Williams’ staunchest supporters live in a world where the grist of politics is left to hacks. The cultural components of democracy are just one more extravagance in this universe. There’s only one thing that matters here: order. Follow the rules, balance the numbers, eliminate the waste. Everything elsea welfare state, a free-enterprise epoch, or something in betweenproceeds from order.
“I want basic services,” says activist Marie Drissel, the long-time D.C. budget watcher who has done more to conjure Williams the candidate than anyone. “I don’t want any more charisma and charm. Because that doesn’t get my trash picked up.”
“I think right now folks are interested in seeing basic improvements made in the city, in delivery of services,” says Ward 7 activist Vincent Spaulding. “They’d like to see a government that works. He has a proven track record.”
Spaulding’s neighbor Paul Savage is even more emphatic. “I respect him for what he’s done,” says Savage. “I respect him for having made tough decisions. Unless the books add up, you can’t
It goes on: efficiency cliché upon efficiency cliché. But the Williams brigade gets a lot more specific when it comes to this year’s election. Drissel showed the CFO data that demonstrated he had a shot at being the leader instead of working around one. She convinced others, who are now convincing others.
Williams is sprung whole from the best-kept grass roots. To these Bolsheviks of the draft-Tony movement, Williams is like a Lenin with no Marx. He is practice, and no one talks about theory. After the rise and fall of home rule, better mousetrap-ism has replaced ideology. To them, he’s a mechanic. And no one’s questioning the underlying values of the machine he’s fixing.
“You’re dealing with a government that functions erratically, not always honestly, and sometimes nefariously. And so, looking at it from that perspective, it’s like we have to get back up on our feet before we can start walking,” says Shaw activist Beth Solomon, who is uncommitted in the mayoral election but has been impressed in her meetings with Williams as CFO.
But there are those who believe that Williams already has the government walkingin the wrong direction.
“What is his responsibility for the decimation of [the University of the District of Columbia]?” asks Progressive Review editor Sam Smith. “What is his responsibility for the 40 percent cutback in health-care workers? If he’s going to get all the brownie points, he has to take some of the hits. One of the beautiful things about the system we have now is that you don’t have to take responsibility for anything. If you tried to pin any of these things on Anthony Williams, he’d slip out of it.”
Others have been willing to point out the ugly side of Williams’ efficiency as well. And there will be more.
“A fair amount of his activity has come down on the backs of the poor,” says Mary Ann Luby of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “His heart is in the right place, but his head is somewhere else. I remember him saying that there was a trend in the country towards moving away from programs for the poor, and do you want the District to be different? My answer is yes. I think we can be a more humane place.”
Luby concludes that a reputation for dissing the poor might play well with the D.C. electorate. But Umoja Party D.C. Council candidate Mark Thompson says that on the campaign trail, Williams’ successes won’t be so impressive to folks outside the District’s small cadre of amateur mousetrap-builders.
“If attending community meetings and being concerned about the budget were the only criteria, you’d have a lot more people running,” says Thompson. “Every number he’s crunched has had a human face.”
It’d be a lot easier to bash Williams as heartless if his three major opponents weren’t busy fighting for the same technocrat mantle.
Less than a week before Williams’ announcement, at the first forum of the primary campaign in a church on Capitol Hill, the contestants all seemed to be copping a new script, throwing around catch phrases about competence, efficiency, customer service. In an era where business is co-opting everything in sight, it was familiar stuff.
Thus the draft-Williams flyers the CFO’s fans had placed on every seat in the church didn’t even have to make the case for technocracy. All they had to do was tout Williams’ superior record on deliveringas opposed to the filibusters full of rationalizations from the council members about where they’d been during recent police, education, and consumer-regulatory debacles.
A couple of days later, At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil attempted to trump his foes on frugality by defending the control board’s decision to slash unemployment and worker’s compensation benefits in the name of economic competitiveness. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans has put forth the same talk about bringing D.C.’s regulations in line with neighbors’. Only Ward 7’s Chavouswho in the past has sparred with the CFO’s office over funding for D.C. General Hospitalhas tried occasionally to position himself as a populist while spouting bean-counter talk from the other side of his mouth.
Each candidate’s acolytes have tried to paint their candidate as D.C.’s answer to the post-civil rights professionals now running such cities as Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary, Ind. The only thing that’s missing is the record of success.
“They are part of the problem,” says Savage. “If you’ve been on the council five years, what is it that you’ve done that would have prevented us from falling into receivership? What have you done that would bring us back to respect? I see no evidence of what Jack Evans has done, of what Councilmember Brazil has done, of what Councilmember Chavous has done.”
That’s underwhelming context that has had the Washington Post, Washington Times, and Washington City Paper spilling gallons of ink pining away for a candidate with clean hands.
Though he’s loath to attack them by name, it’s pretty clear that Williams doesn’t have much respect for his opponents, either. “I’m not going to call the captain of the Titanic to give navigation lessons,” he says. “All these guys were on the bridge of the ship when it hit.”
(Not that Williams’ record of city stewardship is unblemished. Mary Levy of Parents United says Williams deserves a share of the blame for D.C. Public Schools’ still disastrous financial picture. And David Schlein of the American Federation of Government Employees raps him for shoddy treatment of labor.)
While Williams’ candidacy seems like the mother of all curve balls, it actually is consistent with a growing national Zeitgeist. Barnard College political scientist Ester R. Fuchs says the nationwide emergence of mayoral technocrats doesn’t have anything to do with the rise of the bean-counting class. Rather, she says, it is the logical result of two decades of urban disinvestment and federal neglect.
Cities today have few businesses to tax and little federal aid to tap. “If you want to balance your budget, you can either get money from intergovernmental sources,” Fuchs says, “or you can raise taxes. Today, neither is possible. The third traditional avenue is increasing your debt. But the bond markets are cracking down on that. So the only other option you can do is cut spending.”
No one’s better at that than an accountant. Against the ineluctable logic of Clinton-era capitalism, the human angle doesn’t have a chance. No matter who wins, it’s cut, cut, cut. Asked whether his focus on cutbacksmost of D.C.’s budget cuts during his tenure have hit the poor or the youngwill be seen as callousness, Williams dodges with some finesse.
“Saying that services were cut implies that there were quality services being delivered in the first place,” he says. “We know we had millions of dollars put into training, [and] no one was trained. We know we had all kinds of money put into other services, and they weren’t delivered properly because the courts took them over. And I think what I offer is a vast hope that these services can be restored in a responsible, effective manner.”
And that’s the ultimate argument for Williams: In an age of malicious economics, he’ll at least make those dwindling dollars work. He’s hoping the rest of D.C., a city with a historically limitless view of what a government can do, is ready to settle for less.
A successful draft movement may be unprecedented, but D.C.’s young democracy has a history of reformist outsiders riding to upset victories.
It’s a neat irony that Marion Barry’s initial coalition in 1978 was similar to what Williams’ supporters hope to win: west-of-the-park liberals teaming up with others eager for improved services. A like coalition spurred Sharon Pratt Dixon’s (now Kelly) 1990 upset.
“I look at it this way,” says Don Murray, a former Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs director who fell for Williams at the Hillcrest meeting. “Nobody gave Sharon Pratt Kelly a hell’s chance of winning anythingI didn’t vote for her. He is no more of a long shot than she was, and I think that people who come in contact with him think he’s done a pretty good job.”
“Quite frankly, I think he can win,” says a former Kelly staffer. “I think they’re looking for somebody even further off base [than Kelly], somebody who’s not from Washington. And I think that has that attraction at this point.”
He could win. Yes, he has no money, and yes, he’s very short on time and organization, but his message has legs and his candidacy will redefine the limits of free media. Reporters always, always love Candidate X, especially when he’s got a catchy motifbow tie, anyone?and an addiction to the kind of metaphors that make writing stories mostly a matter of getting out of the way and letting him talk.
(Those same qualities, by the way, may be a disaster on the stump. The period that generally comes at the end of a sentence has found a willful enemy in the run-on Williams. Might be tough for TV to find a soundbite that will parse.)
Anybody unsure of the efficacy of his candidacy needs only to watch the amount of time and energy the other mayoral campaigns spend trying to tear the arms and legs off of his.
Williams is a threat because he will own significant parts of Ward 3. The white pseudo-liberals there are secretly pissed off with what the black leadership has done with the city. Williams speaks theirpostgraduatelanguage.
And he will demonstrate surprising attractive power in other parts of the city. While he hasn’t spent his life on the rubber-chicken circuit, after 150 show-and-tells out in the neighborhoods, Williams knows how to connect with a community meeting in the District. Typically, he warms them up with a few jokes at his own expense and then takes a hard turn into the kind of meat-and-potatoes issues a lot of city residents are dying to hear about.
Citizens mindful of transition will see a guy with credible relationships on the Hill and a mien that may put the fear of consequence into some of the city’s surlier service deliverers.
Williams says his biggest problem right now is not message, but messenger. “The favorable opinions we have empirical evidence about,” he says. “But the problem is the people who don’t know us.”
Others say that’s the least of his problems. Ward 1 activist Lawrence Guyot argues that Williams doesn’t have the interpersonal skills to make himself known. “I just do not envision him glad-handing, kissing babies, dealing with people,” says Guyot.
University of Maryland scholar Ron Walters says that the recognition Williams already has may present a problem.
“I don’t think Williams has credibility in the District,” says Walters. “Number one is that he’s associated with the control board mechanism. Having been tarnished with that kind of brush is anathema. Number two, having been part of the District, having been involved in strugglesthat matters. You have to connect with the people somewhere.”
Walters and others argue that as the campaign goes on, Williams’ firings of government workers and his back-channel dealings with Congress will start to stick. “The issue of how strong a supporter he is of home rule will come out,” says longtime D.C. political observer Howard Croft.
Williams uses a different calculus to predict voting behavior, in which civic pride plays a prominent part. The politician in him believes that there are enough people out there who would vote Williams for no other reason than to get on a bus or an airplane and not hear snickering when they answer the question about where they live.
Of course, that math leaves out the hefty number of Washingtonians who never get on airplanes. For them, Williams hopes basic needs will trump empty promises.
As soon as he finally admitted to me that he would be running for mayora week ago ThursdayWilliams’ patina of apolitical genius sloughed off. Left behind was a candidate with a penchant for numbers. Like the draft-Williams enthusiasts, he takes a stand for efficiency and for an inclusive process. But it’s hard to pin him down on other things.
Acting like a politician is not a bad thing, especially when you are running for mayor. Politicsrunning on a record and balancing competing interestssure beats the authoritarianism that’s ruled D.C. for the past three years. And the best-kept secret of Anthony Williams is that he is, in fact, pretty good at politics.
“When he was an alderman, he got elected in a ward that was more black than white,” says longtime New Haven political journalist Paul Bass. “He took on two forces at the same time: He took on the sort of gentrification white people in his own ward, but he also took on the black patronage politicians.
“He was really hated for a while because he was showing these corrupt contracts,” says Bass. “There was also this sort of white power broker in the neighborhood who represented the real estate interests, and he sort of took her on, too. She tried to put up someone to run against him, but she lost.”
The good guy-good government thing proved even easier outside elected office. In the process, Williams also learned a lot about the kind of programs he hopes to administerand would fight to regain control overas mayor.
In St. Louis, Williams served as executive director of the city’s Community Development Agency. A pair of irate contractors once punched Williams out over a canceled contract. But his manner of meeting with the public won him points and bureaucratic turfjust the kind of things he’d have to attain as mayor of Washington.
“I don’t like a lot of red tape,” quips St. Louis alderman Martie J. Aboussie. “I want to get it done quick and to go on to the next project. He was someone who understood the system he was operating in, and he could really get the job done. He did a lot of really positive things under a difficult set of circumstances, working with a lot of local people who in many respects resented outsiders being brought in.”
To Williams’ enthusiasts, quick and clean are qualities enough. They point out that the Hill is full of people who’d just like the District out of their hair. And they’d probably let an Anthony Williamswho is the one guy who never bullshitted themrun the show much sooner than anybody else the District could come up with.
But D.C.’s electorate is a different beast. Williams may have won praise for his economic development work in St. Louis, but it’s Aboussie who’s been an alderman for years. Williams just invokes the city’s name on a résumé.
Convincing Washingtonians that he’s one of us might be a harder task than balancing the city budget. If D.C. exists only as a particularly difficult problem on Williams’ intellectual blackboard, voters will never give him a shot. The city already hosts lots of imported genius. As his campaign gears up, Williams will have to segue from potholes into explaining his motivationsbeyond the generous line that fixing D.C. might merit on his 15-page resume.
The night Marion Barry announced he wouldn’t run for re-election, Williams received the Man of the Year award from D.C.’s chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors. Reflecting on the mayor, Williams told the audience that he’d always personally liked him. He said Barry would be a great guy to drive cross-country with.
Then, after a pause, Williams said he just wouldn’t want to be pulled over. He had the room in stitches.
You can bet that if Tony Williams got pulled over, he wouldn’t get in any hot water. His glove compartment would be well-organized. His fuel efficiency would be top-notch, and his speed would be beyond reproach. But what kind of road-trip partner would he be?
That question is bigger than just personality fluff. And it’s not about how nice a guy you can be, which Williams seems to manage just fine. A great part of the popularity of a flavor-of-the-month mayor like New York’s Rudolph Giuliani has nothing to do with his actual record. Or that he is an unreconstructed asshole. Giuliani’s current power stems from his having captured the imagination of New Yorkers.
For better and often for worse, Giuliani defines what it means to be a New Yorker in the 1990s: what you can expect from your government, what you can expect from your neighbors, and what you can expect from your status as a citizen. A less dynamic mayor could never have reinvented Times Square or jump-started a civility campaign.
On the other hand, a mayor less in touch with the essence of local identity would probably never have managed to get away with the massive cuts in social services and rise in police brutality that have characterized Rudy’s New York. The mayor fundamentally changed his city’s agenda.
Ultimately, capturing a civic imaginationand defining a new meaning of citizenshipis an even more important task in D.C., in part because the District is still figuring out what kind of city it is.
The financial crisis and the suspension of home rule have profoundly damaged public life here. For 20 years, Marion Barry was the walking embodiment of home-rule D.C.: Le non-état, c’est moi. His mayoral reign lasts until January, but his cultural reignan era whose official agenda included easy jobs from the government, but also a tremendous, joyous pride in the cityhas already died a slow death at the hands of Congress, the control board, and, it should be mentioned, Anthony Williams.
It would be nice if the person who figures out what’s next loved the place. We’re not going to get that from Williams, of course. He isn’t the kind of guy who belongs to any particular place. A big part of the reason that the people behind his draft are so intent on making him mayor is that they don’t want him to leave. Without progress, without a promotion, Williams is outta here. They know he will eventually leave, but they just want him to fix the rest of the city before he goes.
To succeed, whoever replaces Barry has to invent a new kind of citizenship. Sure, he can balance the books and fix the potholes in the meantime, but unless he changes the agenda and redefines the politics, all those turkeys he hunts will be right back there the day he leaves.
The qualities cited by his boostersWilliams the noncharismatic non-Washingtonian who’s good with numbers and able to explain tough choicesmay be very effective in office. But they don’t exactly embody qualities that make us proud to be Washingtonians. Barry rode cultural and municipal identity to four terms. Williamsand, for that matter, the three councilmembers he is running againsthasn’t defined what it means to be a citizen of the District of Columbia. What do we have the right to expect? If not statehood, then what? The winning candidate is going to have to come up with a version of the future that surpasses and erases the “neither state nor city” purgatory that we have lived with ever since Congress took over again.
“The effort to draft Williams is also a statement by the folks that the current three haven’t laid out a vision for the city,” says Croft. “I think they’re buying fool’s gold, because that is the one quality where Tony Williams is utterly devoid.”
That’s a conventional wisdom Williams has now set out to destroy. “I think the mayor captures the attention and the imagination of people by showing that he or she understands short-term pain/long-term gain,” he says. “You’ve got to make some key investments to produce long-term results.”
Like Giuliani, Williams says, he’ll become the living embodiment of better, quicker, easier services. Not exactly the kind of stuff that makes voters go through walls. But it might be enough to get a critical 40,000 peoplewhich is all it takes in a crowded fieldto pull a lever.
The last time District voters were asked to suspend disbelief in an effort to break with Barry’s D.C., we ended up with Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. A three-month honeymoon and then a ride into the toilet. That particular Candidate X, who swooped in on a shoestring and broad disaffection just as Williams hopes to do, doubled the deficit and further eroded services. Kelly broke the city’s heart and then disappeared.
Could Williams do the same? Sure, but the means of his failure would be much different. Recent D.C. history is full of competence-first fixers who misjudged what it takes and then ended up in a ditch. Williams has had unlimited power that he has used to clean up rooms full of misplaced assets and files. If he were to win, his mayoral portfolio would include a bully pulpit and not much else.
But then, the CFO is nothing if not a talker. The budget hawk is a well-documented master of the bloated metaphor. In an hour-long chat, he uses esoteric references to explain the importance of cities (“Do archaeologists dig up, like, suburban Rome? They dig up Rome….It’s ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco,’ not ‘I Left My Heart in, you know, San Mateo’”) and the value of living within realistic means (“I went to pick up my mother in this beauty shop, and there was a sign in the window that said you must have enough hair for the style you want: ‘We are beauticians, not magicians.’”)
Sooner or later, I know it’s going to wind back to another road-trip metaphor. And there it isa few thousand years older than his other image from life on the road:
“The impression of the mayor in African-American cities, he’s almost Moses to a lot of people because he has been about self-determination, human rights, real human progress. My question to them would be, Where’s Joshua? There was Joshua behind Moses, taking care of business. When Moses couldn’t make it, Joshua brought it home. Because he knew how to execute.”
After three years of control boards and Faircloths and meaningless elections, a lot of Washingtonians think we’re right where we were a quarter century ago: stuck in Egypt. In the face of that attitude, Williamsthe bitter pill-proferring bean-countersuddenly, amazingly, emerges as a giddy optimist. We’re not in Egypt, he seems to say. We’re on the edge of the promised land, and he and his calculator can take us in.CP