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Colbert I. King

The Right Tony Williams Question

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page A19

Dust-ups over national and global issues remain daily fare in the nation's capital. But the local political scene in Washington is dominated by a single question that lies beyond the reach of Congress and the White House: Will D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams run for a third term next year? Only Williams knows. But when it comes to the mayor's political future, D.C. residents also have a dog in this hunt. For them, the question is not "will he" but "should he?" Where you stand on that question may depend on where you sit.

If you happen to enjoy a seat in the mayor's cabinet or you serve in government at his pleasure, chances are that you (and your mortgage holder) are inclined to favor four more years. That sentiment, of course, isn't limited to Williams appointees.

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D.C. residents will recall the dismal '90s, with $500 million deficits, the financial control board, court-run city agencies, uncollected leaves, unplowed streets and a local government that was the laughingstock of the nation. Today those residents have good reason to feel better about their city. The downtown horizon helps tell the story: Cranes dotting the skyline, luxury condos sprouting like daisies, nightlife after sundown, a sprawling new convention center, and fans flocking to RFK Stadium to cheer major league baseball. Inner-city neighborhoods, once avoided like the plague, are now being transformed into desirable communities. Wall Street is no longer off-limits. The city sits on a $1.2 billion financial reserve.

If you happen to have lived through those years of red ink and junk bonds and now find yourself residing in a settled neighborhood with rising property values and improved core services, you could be one of the beneficiaries of the D.C. renaissance who are saying, "Run, Tony, run." If, however, you are in the ranks of the chronically unemployed, if you live in one of those large pockets in the city where streets don't get paved, where trash goes uncollected, where children lose their lives to violence, and where you're in danger of losing the place you live in, the question of whether Williams runs in 2005 is about as relevant as the Easter Bunny. Even then, deciding whether the city deserves a third Williams term isn't worth much without considering the alternatives. The question is: Williams compared with what? At this stage, the pickings are slim.

First there are the two Democratic mayoral possibilities with exploratory committees, lobbyist Michael A. Brown and former D.C. Democratic Party chairman A. Scott Bolden. Neither has made a convincing case for replacing Williams, though both wannabes have been at it for some time. Brown, Bolden and another mayoral hopeful, Ward 5 Democratic council member Vincent Orange, bring an abundance of ambition, ego and lack of shame to the race -- but not much more.

Brown's claim to fame is his inheritance of a well-known last name. Being the son of the late commerce secretary and former Democratic National Committee chairman Ron Brown probably guarantees Michael Brown a second look. But if his last name were Jones, Smith or Harris, let's face it: We wouldn't be talking about him today. Brown can ride his father's reputation only so far. In fact, in the minds of some, Brown's course is finished and it's time to dismount. If he had his father's talents, vision and maturity, those qualities would have shown through by now.

Bolden's bid is equally daring for a former state party chairman whose slate went down to embarrassing defeat in last September's primary. How Bolden thinks he gets from political ignominy to the D.C. chief executive's office is one of the great mysteries of the ages. In a contest in which only the top six vote-getters could win an at-large seat on the Democratic state committee, Bolden ran a distant seventh with 6.55 percent of the vote. His mayoral candidacy lends a deeper and richer meaning to the word "hallucination."

And what is there to say about Vincent Orange that his detractors haven't already declared? A ward politician with champagne dreams and soda-water ideas? Well, yes. A big voice but ethically tone-deaf? Perhaps. A politician who cannot be bought? True. How about rented? Hush your mouth. That leaves the rest of the field, both declared and undeclared.

Ward 2 Democratic council member Jack Evans is once again back in the ring, making him the Mike Tyson of D.C. politics. No matter that Evans has run twice with Scott Bolden-like results. Evans likes to say that with Williams out of the mayor's race, he'd have a shot. "Tony Williams's voters are my voters," he declares, whatever that means. Frankly, I think I know, but I'm not going there.

There's also Ward 4 Democrat Adrian Fenty, now serving his second term. Fenty makes up in energy, political organization and unwavering determination what he lacks in legislative achievements or successful council leadership. Try as he might, Fenty's barbs and fault-finding won't dethrone the mayor. Neither will a more youthful or pretty face. Fenty's task is to convince voters that he can provide more efficient and responsive government than Williams has. 'Taint easy.

Which gets us to those who would love to be mayor if only they didn't have to lock horns with others or put themselves out to get the job. Of folks like them, Frederick Douglass said: They "want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning." They don't warrant a mention in my book.

So back to Tony Williams. If he were running for mayor of the Washington region, Williams would be the front-runner hands down, thanks to his bringing the Washington Nationals to town. But he has to win within the city limits -- not the suburbs -- and the District has a long list of unfinished business. The mayor has also compiled a list of detractors who didn't exist when he first ran in 1998. The rap is that he's concentrated too much on making downtown a physical showcase at the expense of neighborhoods left behind as the town moved forward. His budget, buoyed by new tax revenue, seeks to remedy the problem by addressing poverty and neglect in all their ugly forms. But will he fight to help distressed neighborhoods, youth without family support and troubled schools with the same vigor that he applied to bringing back baseball, revitalizing the Anacostia waterfront and making the city a go-to place for a new generation of Washingtonians? Only he knows.

It's the question that gets in the way of deciding whether Tony Williams should or shouldn't run again.


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