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Williams Reserves Right to Change Familiar Agenda

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page B01

The day after D.C. Democrats rattled the walls at city hall by booting three council members out of office, Mayor Anthony A. Williams laid out his agenda for the coming year. It included several long-discussed proposals regarding juvenile justice, medical malpractice insurance and economic development. There was nothing fresh, nothing new, nothing aimed at quelling the apparent upsurge of voter discontent.

But stay tuned, Williams (D) told reporters at his post-election news conference.

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"This agenda is subject to change based on things that have happened over the last couple of days," he said. "I mean, I'm not stupid."

Last week, in a city of more than half a million people, 61,025 Democrats went to the polls, cast their ballots and blew away the cloud of complacency that had blanketed the offices of the mayor and council. Although it has been recognized chiefly for the comeback of former mayor Marion Barry, the election has broader implications that already are helping to set the agenda for the 2006 mayor's race and stirring Williams to defend his legacy, regardless of whether he decides to seek a third term.

A review of election results shows that voters in Wards 7 and 8 turned out in unusually high numbers for an off-year election to oust council incumbents seen as out of touch. They threw their support to Barry and other challengers who promised to spread the city's growing prosperity to communities east of the Anacostia River, where residents feel neglected by the Williams administration.

But those voters were not alone in their demand for change. In the only citywide council race on the Democratic ballot, Harold Brazil, a 14-year veteran backed by the mayor and others in the city's business and political establishment, was defeated in every ward and in virtually every precinct by Kwame R. Brown. Brown was the first challenger in memory to carry both largely poor and black Ward 8 and largely wealthy and white Ward 3.

Brown also won big in Ward 4, on the District's northern tip, which posted by far the highest turnout rate on Election Day. Twenty-seven percent of registered Democrats voted in Ward 4, compared with 22 percent citywide, a phenomenon generally attributed to the popularity of freshman council member Adrian M. Fenty, who ran unopposed.

While Wards 4, 7 and 8 posted the highest turnout rates, voters across the city turned out in substantially larger numbers than four years ago, when 14 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots, or eight years ago, when about 16 percent voted. In Ward 3, for instance, Democratic turnout jumped from about 6 percent in 2000 to nearly 20 percent last week.

"It was very clear, even in Ward 3, that they were looking for someone who was going to bring concrete ideas and fresh energy to the city," Brown said in an interview.

Overall, the election sends several strong messages, according to the mayor and others. The loudest, they said, is a demand for better and more professional representation.

All three who lost were weakened by charges that they had neglected their constituents. Brazil was perhaps the most vulnerable in that regard. A lawyer, Brazil works part time at his $92,000-a-year council job. This spring, The Washington Post reported that he had pulled members of his council legal staff away from their government work to help out in his private practice. The city's Office of Campaign Finance concluded that Brazil had done nothing wrong.

Fenty, the only sitting council member to endorse one of Brazil's opponents, said his disengagement was nonetheless damaging.

"People want to see council members in their neighborhoods, see the mayor in their neighborhoods, the police in their neighborhoods," Fenty said. "One thing I heard from people who voted in these races is that they never see the person. It's not any complicated piece of legislation they're looking for. They're looking for touch and feel from their elected officials. The fact that someone has outside employment when they already get paid a lot of money only adds insult to injury."

Since the election, Brazil has not responded to requests for interviews. His campaign manager, Darden Copeland, declined to discuss the race in detail. "From east to west, people overwhelmingly wanted change," Copeland said.

What kind of change people want is the question the mayor and council now must answer. So far, a consensus is building around the notion that people are angry about the concentration of wealth in the District. There is also the perception that the Williams administration pursues high-end downtown development at the expense of neighborhood projects and services for the poor.

Eighteen hours after the polls closed, Williams, who has declined to say whether he will seek re-election, started fighting back.

At his Wednesday news conference, the mayor announced additional beds for homeless shelters and improvements at the city jail. A day later, Williams's deputy mayor for planning and economic development sent out a news release touting the selection of a developer for the New York Avenue Metro station, where plans call for a hotel, street-level retail establishments and a restaurant.

"Once again, we're putting goods and services where people want and need them -- in their neighborhoods," chirped a written statement from Deputy Mayor W. Eric Price.

While Williams made clear that he is taking the election seriously, that he sees "the smoke up in the hills," the mayor said he does not plan to offer a dramatic change in direction. Instead, he said, he hopes to do a better job of communicating his accomplishments and of challenging council members when they attack him politically.

"We've got some significant issues we've got to address in terms of shaping our agenda for the next couple of years. How it's shaped, how it's marketed, how it's prepared," Williams said. "I'm seen, for example, as getting up every morning and my number one priority when I wake up is bringing baseball to the city. Or that I get up every morning and my number one priority is closing the hospital for the poor. And that's not how I operate.

"My number one priority is to have a world-class city with opportunity for everyone," he said. "We've got to do a better job of communicating that."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company