“Welcome to St. Louis,” the mayor said in a call following the beating.
“After that, I started working out,” Williams says. “I figured that if I’m going to be in public life, and if it’s going to get ugly again, well, I’m going to at least take a swat back.”
It has gotten ugly again, though Washingtonians are more skilled at throwing insults than punches—a kind of savagery that can inflict more lasting injuries.
After he was appointed the District’s chief financial officer last fall, Williams quickly became the “monster” city employees love to hate, as he puts it. And few were as hostile as the one who appointed him, Mayor Marion Barry. While there’s somewhat less antipathy now, as recently as this spring administration officials made fun of Williams’ grammar, his clothing, and his Ivy League elegance. He walked into staff meetings with that awful feeling that everyone present had just stopped laughing at his expense.
There was nothing good-natured about their fun. As the new, congressionally mandated chief financial officer, Williams was the spoiler—the light-skinned patrician who had come with a green eyeshade to dismantle a city government scrappy civil rights veterans had carefully erected over 20 years. Barry had defeated the city’s old-line black middle- and upper-classes to create the first D.C. government, and now it seemed Williams would be revenge.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. When Williams sat down last summer with Barry’s top administrator, Michael Rogers, to discuss a possible job, he gave Rogers no indication of his long-established independent streak. In fact, he looked like an ally—an African-American and a lifelong Democrat, Williams was working as an obscure Clinton administration official. In his cover letter for the job submitted a few weeks later, Williams promised to be only “navigator” to Barry’s “captain.” Barry staffers expected as much.
Williams, in turn, never expected that when tensions mounted, the mayor would mock him, blame him publicly for the city’s financial woes, and treat him like a mail-room clerk in meetings. Williams expected a challenge, but he says he didn’t foresee the nightmare he found. Playing a quintessential Washington game, Barry and Williams got caught when their sunny expectations collided with the reality of their inevitable power struggle. “Barry and Williams are each playing symbolically to larger issues,” says a top Barry administration official.
Slowly, begrudgingly, Barry and some key staffers have come to respect Williams—or at least his current position in that struggle: Congress has given Williams not only statutory power over all city budget and finance officials, but unofficial—and more meaningful—influence over their decisions, particularly regarding money. After eight months on the job, Williams is coming into his own.
When talking with Hill staffers or District officials or reporters, Williams often creates the impression that he’s a shrinking flower—a number-crunching nerd with more academic degrees than street sense. “I don’t want to say ‘faceless bureaucrat,’ because he’s got a face, but that’s the image you get,” says a well-connected Republican on the Hill. In a March story, the Washington Post quoted Williams as saying he sometimes feels like “a geek.”
Williams may wear a bow tie, but he’s no geek. After a working-class childhood as the only adopted child in a family of eight kids, he’s been an outsider for years. A latecomer to the Harvard-Yale world he now recalls easily, Williams was a ’60s-era college dropout, Berkeley radical, and Vietnam War conscientious objector before he knew anything about securitization or asset management.
Even today, Williams remains a solid Democrat, and we should expect his now-healthy relationship with Republicans in Congress to sour as they begin to demand more cuts than he believes the city can handle (see sidebar). And some of Williams’ most ardent District admirers are liberal activists who represent the city’s hardest-hit residents—residents who get desperately needed services more reliably when Williams is allowed to do his job.
But if Williams is a Democrat, he is also a good-government, reform-minded “New” Democrat—an independent in style, if not in party registration. While he surprised some city officials by defying Barry, he’s fought entrenched bureaucracies—and African-American political machines—before. When District demagogues denounce him as an Uncle Tom, the language is all too familiar.
Perhaps that charge, however ridiculous, was inevitable for Williams: He traveled a long road from South Central Los Angeles to a top-floor corner office at One Judiciary Square. Quietly assembling a coterie of high-powered, mostly white associates and trading on his unquestioned intellectual abilities, the scruffy Tony Williams of Berkeley became the satiny Anthony Allen Williams of Washington. He has close friends in both the White House and Congress, and his job as chief financial officer—though his most challenging yet—should be seen as a mid-career hurdle, not a final destination.
Williams, in other words, knows exactly what he’s doing. Having re-created himself, he wants to do the same for the District. If Williams has his way, D.C. will sweep aside its disheveled financial past and become a disciplined, stable, reliable entity. Just like the man who will make it happen.
Last summer, running the city’s broken finance operations looked beyond thankless. It promised instant alienation from the mayor, who by congressional dictate could hire but not fire the chief financial officer (CFO). City officials assumed Barry could ignore the CFO since the mayor would still oversee hundreds of loyal city budget and finance officials—the people who had operated the Byzantine system for years.
The control board’s top CFO choice, former New York City budget maven Carol O’Cleireacain, recognized the threat and demanded more authority over those fiscal administrators. Barry balked. “Apparently my raising that issue did not make the mayor feel comfortable,” says O’Cleireacain, now a Brookings Institution resident fellow. She says she also “did not want to spend the first six months wrangling over [questions such as] could I have a secretary, where my office was going to be,” etc. The CFO’s office began without a stipulated budget.
Williams, on the other hand, sought the position with more deftness. In addition to the compliant tone of his cover letter, he told the D.C. Council that he would merely play “Indian” to the city’s “chiefs.”
Insiders say Barry and his top staffers believed the quiescent rhetoric and liked Williams’ long résumé, which included Yale, Harvard Law School, and finance posts in Boston, St. Louis, and Connecticut, as well as the federal government’s most complicated financial mess—the Department of Agriculture, where Williams was then serving as CFO.
Today, it’s hard to imagine Williams as a mere subordinate on the foundering ship Marion. After less than a month on the job, he mutinied by insisting that Rogers shouldn’t chair a joint council-administration committee on financial matters. Budget and finance were his job, he thought, and the committee fizzled because of the struggle. Though kept quiet at the time, Williams’ strong stand—an example of what he calls his “ready-fire-aim” approach—began a long feud with Rogers and Barry. Other brawls erupted in public over the next six months.
Williams denies that he intentionally fooled the mayor with his cover letter, but administration officials say privately that they didn’t “expect how vehemently Tony pursued the letter and intent of the law, trying to get total control right away,” as one puts it.
“What I said [in the letter] was misinterpreted,” Williams says. He actually did believe—and still does—that he should look to Barry for “overall policy and vision.” But he admits that he happened to “emphasize” his subordinate relationship in the letter.
What he didn’t emphasize—or even mention—was that “if the captain…is going to sail into an iceberg, it’s [the navigator’s] responsibility to tell them, ‘You can’t go that way,’ ” as he says now. In the letter and in talks with the administration, Williams now says, he underlined his “mission-support job” over his “control job.”
That’s a decent answer, and Williams could have stuck with it. After he uttered it, in one of several interviews, I was ready to move on. But Williams, as he often does, interjected another point—a more revealing one: “I think another thing you’ve got to understand is, what’s wrong with complimenting your potential boss?” he asks. I chuckle. He doesn’t.
For Williams, there’s nothing wrong with sucking up, even if your potential boss largely caused the train wreck that you’re being hired to clean up. It’s not a terrible fault—especially in Washington—but Williams has an uncanny skill for making friends with powerful people. He’s not an ass-kisser, exactly: Coworkers, friends, and even current rivals agree that Williams would never vulgarly applaud his own accomplishments, or swap his independence and principles for a connection. In a town full of people who measure power by the size of their Rolodexes, ass-kissing isn’t the purpose of his politics. Rather, it’s the other way around.
But if Williams isn’t Bill Clinton, he isn’t Mother Teresa, either. Now a creature of his education, he marks status—not just his own (he complained that his Department of Agriculture job “wasn’t exactly in the media spotlight”) but even mine (he wondered why the City Paper’s seasoned political reporter wasn’t writing this profile; he noticeably softened when I slipped educational credentials into our first conversation).
And he’s aware of the game. Williams, a former press secretary himself, at first omitted a seven-year swath of his life when I asked about his past. Later, when I started asking questions, he reversed and provided total access, even agreeing to my request to obtain his confidential military records from the Air Force, right down to early-’70s dental exams. In one of our last conversations, he worried that Republicans would lose respect for him after reading that he left the military in opposition to the war.
But mainly it’s an image thing: There’s Williams, decked out in his bow tie—the conservative “straight-end” model, he notes, not a more flamboyant “butterfly”—sitting in his all-gray Judiciary Square office, the walls lined with Ivy League degrees and little else. Add to that his bone-dry New England humor, his didactic conversation, and his understated networking, and Williams becomes the ultimate Establishmentarian. He doesn’t have to kiss ass because so many people want to kiss his. He looks, in essence, like someone the Tony Williams of 20 years ago wouldn’t have liked very much.
Williams and I leave his office one bright June afternoon and go for a walk. He occasionally takes these afternoon treks—not to meditate or unwind, since he’s not that kind of person—but to get coffee. He only has time for lunch once every two or three weeks (and even then it’s a business lunch), so caffeine has to do. He hasn’t even had time to visit most agencies whose budgets he oversees.
Barry recently told a Post religion reporter that he likes to take 30 minutes every day to just “sit here and do nothing and look out the window.” It’s hard to imagine Williams doing that for 30 seconds.
It’s not that he’s physically animated. On the contrary, his job title, his mannerisms, his signature neck wear, and his tamed hair all convey a rather yawning image. In particular, Williams has this weird way of stretching—not the usual splayed tangle of arms, but a rigid gesture in which he leans back and raises his arms into a sort of stoic touchdown pose.
Unlike Al Gore, however, Williams doesn’t have to fake a sense of humor to overcome his stiffness. He’s a constant stream of jokes and quirky analogies. (In fact, every friend of Williams’ that I spoke with—some who have known him 20 years—mentioned his “dry sense of humor” or “wry wit.”) At a dreary press conference last month on transportation, Williams rose to speak after everyone else. “Well,” he said, “when you’re the financial officer coming last on a program of major officials, it’s like the man at the funeral in the casket—you expect him to be there, but you don’t expect him to say much.”
Barry roared with laughter and started to clap. “The mayor likes my jokes,” Williams said as he left.
The light-heartedness doesn’t transfer to work. Especially since he started as CFO, Williams has put in brutal hours. (“He used to cook a lot, right,” says Diana Simmons, Williams’ wife of three years. “He doesn’t cook anymore.”)
Workaholism has dogged him for years: In Connecticut, where he was the state’s deputy comptroller, the Hartford Courant sniped at him for not registering his vehicle until three months after the deadline. Williams registered the Toyota and explained that he’d been working until 11 p.m. every day. (Williams registered his car in the District immediately after moving here.) A coworker in Hartford remembers that Williams used to leave work at 6 p.m. for the YMCA nearby, then return after his workout.
Outside, we walk past the markers of his rather sterile work world—courthouses, concrete gardens, blank government edifices—and into Starbucks. He’s just begun to tell me about his occasionally hardscrabble upbringing. Appropriately, a waitress says she’s unloading an “iced grande skim latté” that someone abandoned. Before anyone else, including the slave-waged reporter with him, Williams quickly pipes up, “I’ll take that!”
Even though he now makes $115,000 a year, Williams remembers leaner times. “We never went hungry or anything,” he says as he sips his latté and I gulp my cheap decaf. “But, you know, there were eight kids on two postal-worker salaries.”
Both his mother and father got jobs with the U.S. Post Office after they migrated to South Central from St. Paul, Minn. At that time, in the 1950s and early ’60s, he says, “they really couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.” Sometimes, when bills exceeded bank accounts, the Williams clan would “do fan mail”—for about a penny a letter, they would prepare and mail responses to fans who’d sent letters to Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare.
Williams says he got his wit from his mother, a “loquacious, outspoken” woman, and his “notion of sacrifice” from his father, a decorated, gung-ho World War II vet who is more reserved. An erratic student, he spent lots of time reading the newspaper, and he was a little odd: He obsessively watched and analyzed TV commercials, he tells me, though it’s not clear what he was looking for. “I was like that,” he says, a little embarrassed. “Like I got to know how to play piano, but I never took piano lessons. I just taught myself to play by ear.
“That’s the story of my life.” It’s not just a throwaway line. There’s an independent, improvisational character to Williams—one hidden under the résumé.
Williams left home at 18 to attend Santa Clara University in California. Always involved in student government, in 1971 he became president of his sophomore class. But he was flunking his classes, and he became embroiled in campus debates that ate his time. His father would later call these “two years that Anthony wasted.” He eventually dropped out. Williams says the next few years were a series of “detours”—a period during the early ’70s when Williams moved to Berkeley, did drugs, and became an activist.
In Berkeley, Williams “hung out on campus,” he says, but didn’t enroll. He did help run a left-leaning student coalition that he had first joined in Santa Clara. But in an early intimation of his consensus-based, moderate politics, Williams left the group.
“I had to quit because of the tension between the Black Panthers and the Berkeley campus,” Williams told the New Haven Register in a 1976 interview. “I thought black consciousness, Chicano consciousness was important, but I thought these had to be transcended for the fight against our mutual oppression. With the whole panoply of different factions, I was pretty much a conservative force—trying to get everybody together. I was called an Uncle Tom. Many of these people discovered I associated with the hips and the freaks in the Bay area.”
Then he shocked the hips and freaks by, of all things, enlisting in the Air Force. Though opposed to Vietnam, he had long wanted to be a pilot. According to letters from the early 1970s, he told his skeptical leftist friends that he thought he could help change the Air Force from within. And, he says today, he “wasn’t really accomplishing a damn thing” with his time.
After several months, however, his opposition to the war intensified, particularly during President Richard Nixon’s “Christmas bombings” of 1971-72. According to his 35-page, typewritten application for conscientious objector status, which he submitted to Air Force authorities in March 1974, real-life, day-to-day service as an airman had convinced him that he wasn’t helping pacify the military.
“i [sic] realized that while my participation in combat was indirect,” he wrote, “i was still morally accountable for my actions.” (Up to his ears in hippie sensibility, Williams refused to capitalize “i,” he said then, because the “amount of ‘truth’” he had discovered was “minute,” according to an investigating officer who questioned him about his application.)
His application is a remarkable document, full of both self-indulgent, ’60s-era malarkey and, more impressively, religious, philosophical, and historical reflection uncommon for one his age. (He was only 22, and had no college degree, when he completed the application.) It’s all the more remarkable considering that, by the time he submitted it, he could have simply left the military under an “early-out” program then under way. Instead, he felt it was important to make a statement.
The application’s basic tenets are religious: “i accept the teachings of Christ and the Catholic Church and cannot reconcile killing in any form with those teachings,” he wrote, citing various Vatican documents that shaped his view. But he also yanks Catholic teachings into flower-child radicalism: “i believe it…wrong and irrational to think i could protect my loved ones by killing other people,” he wrote. “There are no ‘other people.’ To a man as myself everyone is a loved one.”
Other passages veer profoundly from Aldous Huxley to JFK to Leo Tolstoy to “Gandhian satyagraha” to 19th-century Hungarian history. In the words of a friend who wrote the CO investigator on Williams’ behalf, “Few people live their minds in the way that Tony does.”
His parents didn’t take his move well, especially his father, the Bronze Star–winning veteran. In his letter to the CO investigator (which Williams courageously submitted, even though it didn’t help his case), Lewis I. Williams wrote, “Anthony has always been the child for which special emphasis, interest, and concern had to be continuously exhibited.” He noted that his son “did not manifest the normal athletic interest apparent in our other male children,” and that Williams “sustained a possible serious head injury” as a two-year-old.
Williams himself recalls it as a “traumatic” period, a time when he felt compelled to oppose his father (who wrote that the issue “cleaves to the very essence of my being”) and give up a lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. “You do what you have to do at the time,” he says. “I’m not going to apologize for that now, because I believed very strongly in what I was doing.”
After finally leaving the Air Force in June 1974, Williams undertook a succession of odd jobs and mini-careers—a 15-month stretch whose variety and ultimate pointlessness any hippie would appreciate. Among other ventures, he ran a crop-dusting business (though he used no pesticides, in keeping with ’60s principles), worked for a Colorado ski patrol, became a flagman on the Sante Fe Railroad, and eventually moved back to California to become a counselor and youth volunteer—work he had done since high school, friends said.
Like any respectable head, he also traveled widely, smoking pot here and there like any other “normal person for the time.” (“But I was never a ‘druggie,’ ” he insists. “I wasn’t very into that.”)
In the 1976 New Haven Register interview, he envisioned a future in which he would afflict the powerful, not join their ranks. He said that after college, he hoped he would “do some social and political organizing—planning strikes, boycotts, things like that.” He added: “And [be] a bus driver. I’ve always wanted to [do] that.”
It’s a little strange to read these quotes back to Williams as he sits in his office today. He’s more likely to oppose strikes than plan them. Williams offers a typically measured, soft-spoken response.
“I’ve had a lot of different lives, you know,” he says. Later, he adds: “Sure, there wasn’t a lot of focus. There was some drift.” But he says he was committed to some of these early ventures, particularly the crop-dusting business. It was a way to stay close to aviation even though he left the Air Force before he received his pilot’s license. “The crop-dusting—dropping bugs [instead of pesticides]—that was actually just before its time,” he says, only half-kidding.
But Williams’ banter disguises what must have been a profound transformation of his character. Somewhere along the way, he traded Gandhian philosophy for accounting tables. He dropped theories of justice for theories of growth. He turned in his tie-dye for a bow tie. When I ask about this transformation, he pauses. The seconds tick by in equal proportion to the years past. Uncomfortably, Denise Reed, the press secretary who’s been sitting in on the interview, moves in to help quash the question.
Finally, he punts.
“Around that time is the time when we all just got serious and cut out all the foolishness and got down to business,” he says. He adds: “If I had to do it over again, you know, I would have compacted my life and not gone off on all these detours….On the other hand, you know, I believe that one consistent strand through all this is I do believe in service to people.”
Reed senses a more contemporary detour under way and quickly says, “Time to go.”
During his travels, Williams spent time on the East Coast and became enamored of Yale. He wrote a 100-page essay on what he would gain from a another try at college, and the university nodded. At 25, he became the college’s oldest freshman.
In New Haven, Williams undoubtedly served his community well. He counseled truants, worked at summer camps, and got involved in Democratic politics. But he also very quickly moved into an elite sphere, building allegiances with some of the state’s most powerful white politicians.
In 1980, still an undergrad, he won a seat on the city’s board of aldermen. He quickly allied himself with board President Stephen Wareck, a well-connected Democrat with an independent streak. Just a few months into his first term, Williams took on two “sacred cows,” as he called them at the time, who were receiving city funds.
The two African-American business organizations had long won city contracts to help develop minority businesses. Williams says today that he supported efforts to strengthen black-owned companies, “but I didn’t think these guys were helping do that very efficiently.” Williams sponsored a bill to cut them loose. His bill passed despite opposition from every other black alderman. The Uncle Tom accusations flew again.
Barbara Wareck, Stephen’s widow, says the episode drew her husband to Williams. “Tony was part of the black community, and Tony wasn’t going along with any boondoggles,” says Wareck. “He and my husband often found themselves on the same side.”
Meantime, Williams began making friends with people who would play an important role in his future. He befriended one of his Yale instructors—Stanley Greenberg, who is now President Clinton’s pollster. Greenberg had married Rosa DeLauro, now a Democratic member of Congress and, at the time, a high-ranking New Haven official. DeLauro’s mother was an alderman with Williams. “I feel like my family has always known Tony,” DeLauro says.
His friends helped him find work after he graduated in 1982. He started out as a press secretary—first for Steve Wareck for Congress ’82, then for Bill Curry for Congress ‘82. (Both lost.) Greenberg was polling for Curry, then a 30-year-old upstart who now is a top Clinton aide. Curry hired Williams largely on Greenberg’s recommendation. Then Williams worked as press secretary for Irving Stolberg, speaker of Connecticut’s house—all while still serving as alderman.
Mustering their considerable New England polish, his old friends describe Williams as a reserved but witty Yalie—the kind of chap who’d be president of his fraternity, as Williams was. “There’s a nobility to Tony Williams which is inescapable,” Curry says. Friends underline Williams’ intelligent, patient mien. “He’s a canoeist, OK, so he knows everything about canoes—he knows how to build them, how they’re balanced, how they’re made,” Wareck says. “If you mention anything, you get this totally brilliant, educationally instructive response.”
What his friends know less about are the years before Williams got to Yale. “Tony doesn’t talk a lot about himself,” says Barbara Wareck. “Steve probably knew more. I knew he had had a very different career.”
And the politico Curry says of Williams’ past: “If you find out anything outrageous about Tony, please tell me, ’cause I don’t know.”
Williams may not have shared much about his conflicted past, but I don’t believe he was really trying to hide anything from his new friends. Once again, it’s a matter of emphasis, just like his application for the CFO job. Why discuss “detours” with people who never took them?
Williams denies that he’s an inveterate networker. “Well, I do know people, but I’ve never been a big fan of this notion of networking. I just meet people,” he says. Friends agree. “OK, Tony had friends, but he didn’t go out of his way to make friends with everybody in the world,” says Stolberg.
Even if Williams attached himself to important people, however, no one can deny his intelligence. He was one of only 11 students from the Yale class of 1982 to be chosen as a “Scholar of the House.” In 1983, Harvard admitted him to its prestigious joint law and public policy program. During his summers, he worked at big West Coast law firms, all of which offered him permanent jobs. Like many other Ivy lawyers, he also clerked for a federal judge, U.S. District Judge David S. Nelson of Boston.
But city politics called him back, particularly the thorny problem of drawing investment to urban areas, which by the mid-’80s were buckling under the weight of deindustrialization. He’d worked on the New Haven board of aldermen’s Community Development Committee, so while clerking in Boston he applied for work at the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). On recommendations from a Harvard dean and Nelson (who reportedly called him “one of the brightest guys you’ll ever meet in your life”), Williams got the job.
BRA director Steve Coyle would become a big influence on Williams—“I got this whole ‘action-not-talk,’ ‘ready-fire-aim’ thing from him,” Williams says. Today, Coyle is a gruff AFL-CIO man who was known in Boston for his boisterous style. He loved the quiet Williams, and together they brought life to inner-city neighborhoods, largely by strong-arming developers into helping them. “Tony’s was the kind of job that would put you two or three nights a week in the firing line in community meetings,” Coyle says.
It was at BRA that Williams adopted the bow tie. A couple of Nation of Islam guys worked in the office, and Williams “liked the look”—though “it had nothing to do with the Nation of Islam.” He likes the bow tie’s dual message: “It’s individualistic, but it’s also very conformist, depending on how you think of the bow tie. I’m that way, too, on a lot of issues, depending on how you think about it,” he says. (His wife actually hates bow ties and has only purchased regular ties for him since they married.)
At BRA, Williams also gelled his thoughts about urban renewal. Roughly, he believes in private sector–driven renewal—the idea that cities must get their finances in order “to provide the predictability, the stability, that businesses need to come here.” He also believes that the old way—the ’60s way, the liberal way, the Barry way—cannot work: City governments cannot afford to spend their neighborhoods into prosperity with job programs and handouts and sweet-deal contracts for developers.
If Boston was formative, Williams’ first real trial-by-fire came later—first in St. Louis, where his directness got him pummeled—and then in Connecticut and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Working his ever-widening web of connections, Williams landed jobs as deputy comptroller of Connecticut (under Bill Curry, who was the elected comptroller) and then as CFO at USDA (an important, Senate-confirmed job that White House friends and Stolberg helped him win).
By the early 1990s, both the Connecticut government and USDA were sprawling, tail-spinning bureaucracies famed for inefficiency and bloat. Connecticut’s situation bore particular resemblance to the District’s. Curry’s predecessor was an old Democratic dinosaur. Finances were in the toilet, the product of bitter political battles between bullheaded Gov. Lowell Weicker (I) and the legislature. “Weicker has very limited gifts for working with others,” Curry says. “We had tremendous fights—the government was on the verge of shutting down. There were definite parallels to D.C.”
USDA also needed “to get its financial house in order,” as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told Williams during his confirmation hearing for the CFO post. Leahy and his Republican counterpart from Indiana, Sen. Richard Lugar, joked during the hearing that the department hadn’t even been able to count its employees for years.
Williams’ performance at these jobs wins respectable, if not overwhelming, praise. Most former coworkers recall him as a competent, diligent manager who especially tried to update computer and accounting systems—a tall order for an agency the size of USDA, with more than $60 billion in yearly outlays. He exuded a first-things-first mentality and, once again, tackled sacred cows.
If there’s a criticism of Williams, it’s that he didn’t stick around at his various jobs long enough to get much past the first things. In Connecticut, where he worked about two years, he helped institute mainly procedural, not structural, changes in the comptroller’s office. At USDA, according to current officials, Williams did start some reforms that had only been talked about before. “But you can’t fix it in two years,” says a veteran USDA official. “Williams has a lot of things in place here—sort of a legacy—but it’s hard to measure.” The USDA still doesn’t know how many employees it has.
Williams is standing before a crowd of hot, angry activists from Wards 7 and 8—not just Barry country, but the most struggling areas of a struggling city. About 60 people have piled into a steamy room at the 7th District police headquarters for a community meeting. In general, the control board isn’t popular in this part of town.
Williams is often lumped together with the control board—many people at this meeting know his job title, but think he works for board Chairman Andrew Brimmer. (And, in a way, he does.) Residents of the surrounding neighborhoods hate the board and think Williams is just another usurper. Attacked by some African-American newspapers, Williams has been called everything from an Uncle Tom to a homosexual.
He’s more welcome in this roomful of activists, but he still seems out of place. He gives a 20-minute speech larded with CFO jargon like “balance sheet restructuring program.” Wearing a starched pink shirt and bow tie, he looks like no one else in the room.
But Williams is being himself, and the crowd appreciates it. As always, his voice is constantly modulated at the same, soft tone—as if he were a doctor practiced at the skill of breaking bad news—so it’s difficult to discern what he feels emphatic about. But his quiet, reasoned way of speaking is actually more persuasive than a politician’s bluster.
At one point, a local businessman angrily demands to know what Williams can do to shorten the long lines for food stamps in a Southeast neighborhood. “These are poor women, with their hungry kids, and they’re stretched around the corner!” he bellows.
Williams’ voice doesn’t shift an octave. “This is the first I’ve heard of that,” he says.
The call-and-response crowd begins responding: “First you’ve heard of it!” “Get out the office more!”
“Look,” Williams says, “I could stand here and tell you some line about how I’ve got a 15-point plan to deal with that, and how we’re studying it, but it’s not true. There are other people who won’t be honest, but I’m going to be honest with you. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”
A few people clap. “Now,” he continues, “I can tell you, because I used to work in the Department of Agriculture [which administers food stamps], in the long term…we need to get those done in electronic transfers, so people don’t have to stand in lines.”
The crowd erupts into applause and smiles. In a city starved for leadership, Williams has just provided a glimmer.
Since his profile is on the rise, Williams is getting invited more often to community events—both elite (last month’s D.C. Hospital Association reception at the swank Franklin Club, for example) and ordinary (the Mount Pleasant Festival three days later). It’s quite a change from last fall, when Williams arrived in the District government with only a sparse knowledge of the city’s politics and people.
He, his wife, Diana, and their three-year-old daughter, Asantewa, first moved to the area in 1993, when he started working at USDA. They settled in Crystal City, but when he talked with D.C. officials about the CFO post, he agreed that he should move to the city if he was to oversee its finances. The family now rents a four-bedroom brick house on Park Road NW in Mount Pleasant.
Like all job changes, of course, this one meant upheaval—new house, new neighborhood, new boss, new coworkers. But the first few weeks of Williams’ job were hell. After just three weeks to prepare, he began on Oct. 20 with the control board, the Washington Post, and Congress all demanding that he instantly slice up a 20-year-old government. At the same time, his titular boss, the mayor, wanted him to be a team player.
Williams, of course, didn’t cave to Barry. But the fights came toppling over one another, a nasty parry-and-blow routine that made him consider leaving. For five months, Williams had only two official employees. At home, he and Diana, who also works, struggled to make friends in their new neighborhood.
“This is a very hard situation, because, first of all, Washington is not itself one of the most hospitable cities,” he says. “It’s very, very rigid and hierarchical and closed in a lot of ways, and my wife is from the Midwest. She comes from a big family. It’s been hard for us to build relationships in the city. Then you go to this job, and you just have all this happening at work, on top of that. It can get lonely, no question about it.”
But he pressed on. First things first: Williams wrested control of the city’s checkbook from Barry. Then he could decide which contractors got paid when—a politically charged question in a city that paid few vendors on time. AIDS activists, in particular, lionize Williams for helping right the AIDS-services payment mess. “The city is damn lucky to have this man,” says Hank Carde, an AIDS activist who has followed the city finance debacle.
Next, Williams ousted budget director Rodney Palmer, who didn’t respect his authority and who, according to Williams, was using cooked numbers to prepare the budget. (Palmer, now an aide to Barry, declined an interview request.)
By February and March, the central question wasn’t whether Williams would independently control city finances, but how far his authority went. But Williams was swamped by this point. For years, vendor payments, federal aid, budget-writing, and borrowing were simply anarchy. All the money went into one pot—even funds earmarked by Congress for special purposes.
And the money left the pot uncontrollably. Political friends were rumored to be paid quickly; for others, it was a crapshoot. If parts of the government—say, the schools—felt they needed to overspend their budgets, someone would just write a check. Williams has tried to order the chaos: “I had heard horror stories. Having said that, I still didn’t think things were as bad as…I found.”
Of course, he made some mistakes of his own. He got bad advice, and probably leaned too heavily on staffers he didn’t know well. He was also simply new. “He’s a background person, and he [was] now in an up-front job,” a well-placed Hill official says. And he wanted to follow that provocative “ready-fire-aim” dictum. So he suggested chopping the Office of Aging before he realized that it was primarily funded by the feds. And he sometimes tried to apply federal or state lingo to District problems.
“He just didn’t understand the unique way the District works,” the official says. “I would ask him something and he would respond, and I would think I didn’t like his answer, but I would realize he just didn’t know how things worked.”
Even admirers say the requirements of his office have produced another bureaucratic layer. “Sometimes the CFO’s office has helped, and sometimes it’s been part of the problem,” said Whitman-Walker Clinic Associate Executive Director Patricia Hawkins at a recent political forum. “He creates a need for more documents.”
A city finance official agrees: “It’s a bitch to figure out from day-to-day who you’re reporting to. It’s very confusing.” That official, like others in this story, agreed to speak about Williams only on condition of anonymity.
Just recently, some have complained that Williams’ office held up the city’s summer youth program, which provides jobs to 28,000 kids. The program began a week late because Williams had not yet given its budget a procedural nod. One critic who works in city finance says Williams is often indecisive.
Williams says the summer youth program was delayed because he didn’t get the paperwork soon enough. And he won’t just rubber-stamp it. “If people are used to bringing up documents without any support, without any vetting, without any clearances, and they want me to decide on them, they’re right—I’m not going to decide,” he says, not referring specifically to the youth program. “People have to build in business habits where there’s a proper review and inspection of things before they’re signed off on.”
Relations between Williams and Barry—and between Williams and Rogers—reached a low point in February and March. While neither would discuss the matter, according to interviews with half-a-dozen officials close to both men, Williams and Rogers weren’t speaking to each other. A Hill official once had to put Rogers on hold, call Williams, and demand that Williams “pick up the damn phone and talk to this person.” The CFO and the city administrator fought over several issues—most generally, how to decide how far Williams’ control over “revenue-raising” departments extended.
For his part, Barry is said to have acted imperiously around Williams, though neither discussed the incidents in detail. Barry sometimes called Williams at the last minute for meetings—fierce meetings, where the mayor gathered top aides, maybe Cora Masters Barry—about 20 people in all. Williams would walk in alone, or sometimes with a staffer or two. Some of the meetings—on the March protest at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), for example—were late at night.
Barry and his staffers would then relentlessly pressure Williams to yield certain points. At the UDC meeting, Williams agreed to sign a letter that UDC students interpreted as reinstating an earlier 10 percent budget cut—though Williams and Barry both knew that the students were mistaken. Signing the letter was no big deal for Williams: “If the mayor felt that he needed to stage that to get the students off the street, then, OK, fine,” Williams says.
It was at that meeting, according to the Post, that Cora Barry told Williams: “I’m so sick of your stupid bow tie.” When asked about it later, she said she called him “Mr. Bow Tie.”
Relations have improved somewhat since then, according to Williams. In talks with me, Williams repeatedly stressed the mayor’s accomplishments: “I think, again, I do have a lot of respect for the mayor,” he says. “The mayor has built up, in a lot of respects, a black middle class, a black business cadre, although I do think it’s in need of some repair and restoration.”
Barry’s less-than-respectful attitude has also changed somewhat. “That’s definitely a slow-down. He knows I’m not going to change. I’ll be very polite and respectful to him, but I’ll just do what I need to do.” Williams says he meets with the mayor two to three times a week.
But others say Williams can be reluctant to meet with Barry and that some meetings are still acrimonious. Recently, for instance, Barry called Williams for a talk about the CFO’s independent move to reassess certain property tax rates, which had been incorrectly calculated by a city official. Some residents were complaining that their assessments were going up, and yet they had no avenue to appeal a CFO-level decision. Councilmember Kathy Patterson (Ward 3) sent a letter to the CFO asking for “clarification” on the appeals process, and sources say property appeals board members believe they don’t have the authority to hear the appeals.
Barry and his staffers—again, as many as 20 of them—criticized Williams at the meeting for acting on property taxes without going through established bureaucratic channels. This time, Williams simply took his abuse, alone, and then left.
Williams is convinced that he did the right thing. He says the property appeals board can hear any appeals. Without specifically discussing the meeting, he says: “What was I supposed to do? Nothing? That’s ridiculous. Do something.” It’s the only time he raised his voice in our interviews.
Over the past few months, Williams and Rogers have increasingly found themselves occupying common ground. Most of the initial suspicion and rancor has subsided. As one city official puts it, “Michael’s turning away from the dark side”—i.e., the mayor. Rogers took control of Department of Human Services contracts when Barry was away, and Rogers no longer believes Williams is “trying to take over the whole damn government,” as he once told a Hill staffer.
“I have a much better relationship with Michael now,” Williams says succinctly. Rogers didn’t answer requests for an interview, and Barry spokeswoman Raymone Bain said the mayor wouldn’t comment. Privately, senior Barry people say the mayor has always understood and respected Williams’ role. They add that Barry wishes Williams would “work harder on legislative programs” in Congress to benefit the city, rather than criticizing long-established city management.
Despite such kvetching, Williams’ role in the city is much better defined now, and he has won, with Congress’ help, most of the power struggles. In April, Congress formally granted the CFO authority over all 1,200 city budget and finance officials—the snag that had worried CFO candidate O’Cleireacain and, indeed, had occasionally enfeebled Williams. Without the fanfare District residents are used to, Williams had completed his takeover of the city’s coffers.
Williams likes to think of his job as an engineering project. “As a kid, I was always fascinated by airplanes, bridges—any major feats of civil engineering, any big, giant human endeavors,” he says. Righting the city’s finances is a similar task, he says. “Break it down into its component parts, and anything can be done. It sounds like a cliché, but I really believe that.”
As we walk back to his office, Williams sweeps his arm around Judiciary Square. “I think we’ve gotten away in this city from that basic principle,” he says. “In this city, home rule has been defined as African-American self-determination, so it’s defended passionately, and that makes sense. But we have to address a more fundamental question: Can we as African-Americans find real self-determination—a real environment of success?
“Everybody who trashes the mayor, everyone who says he’s wrong and bad and this city’s got to change—and I’m one of them—has to provide a vision, a vision of hope for the African-American community, to replace it. And that is that we must get this economy going—get stability to bring employers here. We must provide jobs for people.”
Whether Williams will be around long enough to reach that point is unclear. He hasn’t spent much time addressing long-term growth, since he’s mostly dealt with more mundane issues such as whether the city can afford to pick up its trash. He says he will stay here only “two to maybe three years—at a minimum…probably two years.”
Critics already say he won’t be able to institutionalize the changes he’s making, in part because he has hired federal detailees to help make the changes—detailees who will eventually go back to their regular jobs. When Williams leaves, who will be left to implement his “vision” for the long haul?
Williams notes, however, that he will likely stay in Washington—if not the District government—permanently. “It’s a nice town,” he says. Whether he intends it or not, the remark is vintage Williams humor: The town has been anything but nice to him—but that isn’t really what will keep him here. Power—and the prospect of another high-level federal job—will. Imagine the praise he’ll win if he’s given credit for the comeback of the nation’s capital.
Williams spent 25 years getting to Washington, and nothing—not Marion Barry, not Cora Barry, not the Republicans, not continued financial crisis—will drive him away. Mr. Bow Tie is here to stay. CP
Contributing writer Bill Rice provided additional reporting for this article.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.