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Speech Lifts The State of The Mayor

Supporters Are Thrilled By Williams's Address

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page B01

The bar on U Street NW was heaving with well-wishers by the time D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams arrived. Visibly energized after delivering his State of the District address, the normally reticent mayor plunged into the room and bounced from table to table, dispensing hugs and smiling for photographs.

Peering over their cocktails, friends buzzed in wonder: Is he running? Or what?

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's State of the District address has fueled speculation about a possible run for a third term. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

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"He's got some new energy from someplace," said Barbara Lang, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce president. "That was a different Anthony Williams out there. Everyone around me was just amazed."

For months, Williams (D) has largely languished in the background as a trio of ambitious politicians picked him apart and all but declared their intention to replace him in the 2006 election. Many assumed Williams would not seek a third term. But Monday night, the mayor struck back.

In a speech that admirers called the most focused and passionate of his six years in office, Williams defended his administration and reminded voters that when he showed up, the nation's capital was virtually bankrupt. Today, he said, District residents are safer, healthier and vastly more prosperous. And thanks to steady fiscal leadership, he said, the District has the cash to start fixing up the schools and lifting up the poor.

"Ladies and gentlemen: We should all be proud of the District of Columbia," he said. "We are strong. We are only getting better. But we are not done.

"And, no," the mayor added, in the most talked-about line of the night, "I am not done."

The invitation-only crowd at the Lincoln Theatre erupted in applause. In a post-speech interview, Williams cautioned reporters not to read too much into the statement, though it was printed in bold in the text of the speech prepared by his office.

Williams said he has yet to decide whether to run in 2006. So the statement "could mean I'm not done with my term. Or it could mean I'm not done and need to continue" into another term. "I'll let you know," he said.

Not even Williams's closest political advisers seem to know for sure what the mayor is thinking. Several said yesterday that they get the sense that he has made a decision, though they aren't sure what it is. The situation is complicated by dueling factions within Williams's own family, they said: His mother, Virginia, wants him to stay in office; his wife, Diane, is fed up with public life and has told Williams in no uncertain terms that she is ready to move on.

"He's like [comedian] Flip Wilson, with the devil dancing on one shoulder and an angel on the other," joked Tony Bullock, Williams's former communications director. "If I were an oddsmaker, I'd say it's starting to look in favor of him running. Whereas two months ago, I would have said he was leaning against it."

Whatever Williams decides, political observers said Monday night's speech marks a dramatic shift in tone for the mayor. He signaled that he will fight to claim credit for the city's reduced crime rate, an innovative public health system, a revived central business district and the return of Major League Baseball.

"He may be defending his claim to the office, but he's certainly defending his legacy," said Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor who follows local politics. "Whether or not he's running, he's telling future aspirants to stop beating him up and start focusing on what they have to offer. He made clear that he would be a punching bag no more."

The mayor's legacy has been under assault since at least September, when voters threw out three council incumbents, two of them backed by Williams, and replaced them with former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). The three winners campaigned against the mayor's proposal to build an expensive baseball stadium and what they called his failure to spread the city's economic renaissance to the largely African American wards east of the Anacostia River.

After the November election, aspiring mayoral candidates began to echo those complaints, accusing Williams of presiding over a city where the rich have gotten richer and the poor are being pushed out.

At first, Williams said nothing. But two weeks ago, the mayor signaled that he was getting fed up with council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), lobbyist Michael A. Brown and former D.C. Democratic Party chairman A. Scott Bolden, each of whom has formed a mayoral exploratory committee. In his weekly news conference, Williams offered brief but sharp critiques of the three men, saying their résumés lack significant accomplishments.

Fenty said the mayor's spending plan fails to compensate for six years of neglect. "Is it just coming to his attention that we have to put money into homeless shelters?" Fenty said.

And Bolden, who was not invited to the speech, said Williams's decision to close it to the public "raises real questions about the mayor's commitment to represent all of the District of Columbia."

Williams said he has long planned to invest in the poor once the city regained a solid financial footing. And he made no apologies for keeping Bolden and other critics off Monday night's guest list, saying he should have the right once a year to "deliver my message uninterrupted."

The friendly crowd gave Williams 47 ovations. At the after-party in the bar at Bohemian Caverns, he was still soaring.

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company