Colbert I. King
Colbert I. King
Opinion Writer

Natwar Gandhi’s overblown reputation

Ten years as a banker convinced me that the two greatest lies told in business are: “The check is in the mail” and “There will be no changes after the merger.”

I have spent more than 20 years with The Post observing the D.C. government.

Colbert I. King

King writes a column -- sometimes about D.C., sometimes about politics -- that runs on Saturdays.

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The greatest myth most recently promulgated is that the District’s financial recovery is mainly the handiwork of Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. In fact, contributions to the city’s turnaround by several other officials give the lie to that claim.

It is impossible to talk about the District’s financial rescue without mentioning Andrew Brimmer, who died last week at the age of 86.

Brimmer, an economist with a Harvard PhD, was the first African American appointed to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. In 1995, Brimmer took on the job of unpaid chairman of the congressionally created five-member D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority, commonly known as the financial control board.

Along with other board stalwarts Constance Berry Newman and Joyce Ladner, and Brimmer’s successor, former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alice Rivlin, the control board pulled the city back from insolvency. The board introduced needed government reforms and put the District on the road to producing an unbroken line of balanced budgets.

Kudos? Hail Anthony “Tony” Williams, two-term mayor and the District’s first chief financial officer. Under his steady hand — and, yes, he had to constantly face down then-Mayor Marion Barry — the city went from hemorrhaging deficits to a surplus in two years.

Every fiscal year ended in the financial black under Mayor Williams. When he left office in 2007, the District had an A-category bond rating, up from junk-bond status when he arrived as CFO.

The District performed so well that the control board put itself out of business.

And let’s not overlook other elected officials who helped make a difference.

Goodness knows, I have devoted much of this column’s space in the past to criticizing then-Mayor Adrian Fenty for his governance style and remoteness, and Mayor Vincent Gray for the company he has kept and choices he has made.

But neither Fenty nor Gray can be accused of ignoring the District’s fiscal challenges. Both have been responsible fiscal stewards, not ducking hard choices in managing the city’s resources. They, along with Williams and D.C. Council members such as Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), represent the fiscal ethic that dominates the city’s political culture.

True, there are outliers on the council who love raising taxes and spending other folks’ money — Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) come to mind. But for the most part, today’s legislators, with all of their other faults, are far more responsible with taxpayers’ money.

So how did Gandhi earn the reputation of D.C.’s Fiscal Savior? Answer: He works at it. ’Tis fair to say, no District official — elected or appointed — spends more time tending to his own esteem.

Oscar Wilde said: “The nicest feeling in the world is to do a good deed anonymously — and have somebody find out.” Gandhi doesn’t take that chance.

My guesstimate is that, of all those mentioned in this column, I have had — with a few exceptions — more one-on-one sessions with Gandhi than any other, at his initiative.

Several took place on the phone, but we have also had meals — usually breakfast at the Old Ebbitt Grill and, once, lunch at Gandhi’s private club. I’m probably not alone.

It’s those tete-a-tetes with journalists and, I suspect, leaders around town and on Capitol Hill where Gandhi nurtures the high regard in which he seeks to be held, all the while carefully conveying tidbits about what he has done lately to earn the recognition he enjoys.

Over time, it became apparent, at least to me, that Gandhi often used those meetings to build himself up at the expense of some who regarded him as a trusted colleague. He was not vicious. But Gandhi would tell patronizing tales about city officials who weren’t up to his standards.

The stories seemed designed to reinforce the view that only his strength to stand guard, his endurance of abuse and the courage deep within him are standing between the sweet land of balanced budgets and financial Armageddon.

In truth, citizens and businesses — not the CFO — provide the city’s much-needed tax revenue. The mayor and council — not Natwar Gandhi — pass balanced budgets.

Gandhi and I haven’t broken bread in months. Don’t expect we will soon. If we do, after this column, I’ll bring along a food taster.

No matter.

He is flying high on other folks’ coattails. Want to seek the truth about Nat Gandhi? Review his management track record. Now that is a real tale.

kingc@washpost.com

 
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