A self-proclaimed outsider who spent most of his adult life as a registered Republican in Phoenix appears poised to become the next chief financial officer for the overwhelmingly Democratic District.
Jeffrey S. DeWitt, nominated for the powerful position last month by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), coasted through a confirmation hearing of the D.C. Council’s Finance and Revenue Committee on Wednesday — raising eyebrows only briefly, when his voter registration came up. The warm reception all but ensures his confirmation next month to replace longtime city finance chief Natwar M. Gandhi.
In the hearing and in written responses to the council’s questions, the 52-year-old father of three college-age children sought to portray himself as an honest broker who would deliver straight numbers to elected officials and someone with the management acumen to tackle long-standing problems with tax collections and computer systems.
“ ‘Technocrat’ is a term that will be thrown around over time,” he said. “I know how to deal with technology. I know how to deal with numbers.”
He added that his role is to “support the policies of the elected officials,” not to take sides in political disputes: “It’s not my place to say where the money should be spent. It’s my place to say whether the money is sufficient.”
DeWitt, who has worked in government for the city of Phoenix since 1989 and been the chief financial officer there since 2009, won praise from the half-dozen council members who attended parts of the hearing. A good deal of the praise was rooted less in his particular expertise than in his ability to bring a fresh perspective to a finance department that has been run by Gandhi for nearly 14 years.
“You need fresh eyes, a fresh approach,” said Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who pressed DeWitt, in particular, on the city’s practice of auctioning relatively small tax debts.
In some cases, a recent Washington Post investigation found, the system cost people who owned small amounts in back taxes their homes and tens of thousands of dollars in equity. DeWitt called tax-lien sales a “very difficult, very complicated issue” but added that “you don’t want to get into a situation like you saw on the front page of The Washington Post.”
“You find a way to work it out” without foreclosure, he said.
DeWitt also promised to devote quick attention to tax-office issues more generally, pledging to attend community meetings and solicit residents’ input as he does a “fairly deep drill” into finance-department operations. He also pledged to improve transparency, addressing a frequent criticism of Gandhi, who was criticized for not circulating internal audits to the D.C. Council or the public.
Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, said after the hearing that he will move DeWitt’s nomination to the full council in time for a final vote on Nov. 5.
It’s unclear when DeWitt could start, should he be confirmed. The confirmation is subject to a 30-calendar-day review by Congress, but city lawyers are exploring whether he could start sooner.
The most delicate moments at Wednesday’s hearing came when, under questioning from Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), DeWitt said he had changed his voter registration about a year ago from Republican to independent.
Graham pressed him for more details. “The Republican Party in the state of Arizona has a bit of a reputation,” he said.
“That’s why I’m an independent now,” DeWitt replied, suggesting that he was uncomfortable with the state’s strict immigration laws, “in terms what that has done to the economy and to how people in the state are treated.”
In an interview, DeWitt said he considered his personal politics “irrelevant” to his job duties. “There’s more diversity politically [in Phoenix] than there is here, and I survived that,” he said. “If you want to get into public finance, you need to be neutral.”
Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and his three predecessors, who together have led the city since 1990, signed a letter to Evans last week “wholeheartedly” endorsing DeWitt for the District job, praising his “financial acumen and ability to work collaboratively” with city officials and residents. All eight members of the Phoenix City Council and its city manager also signed letters of support for DeWitt.
Although D.C. Council members advised DeWitt to stay above the political fray, some also subtly lobbied him on their pet issues. Evans, for instance, told DeWitt not to pay heed to those advocating to ease the District’s strict debt cap.
“Stay away from that issue,” Evans said. “That’s not your issue.”
David A. Catania (I-At Large), a frequent sparring partner of Gandhi’s, urged DeWitt to avoid a “paternalistic” attitude — one, Catania said, reflected in Gandhi’s overly conservative revenue estimates and his negative views toward the city’s financial support for United Medical Center in Southeast.
“Eventually, we’re going to have to take the training wheels off,” he said.
DeWitt’s confirmation might be weeks away, but his crash introduction to city politics has already started. He had met with most council members and some Gray administration officials ahead of Wednesday’s hearing and is to meet this week with leaders from the business and labor spheres as well as community activists.
Also on DeWitt’s plate: a housing search, which began with a whirlwind, self-guided Metro tour of the city last month that, he said, vividly illustrated the difference between the District’s real-estate boom and the recession-battered Phoenix market.
“I determined I can get one-third of the home for twice the price,” DeWitt said.