For Williams, a Contested Legacy
Friday, September 30, 2005
Over nearly seven years, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams has led the nation's capital out of financial crisis, revitalized its once-shabby downtown and set in motion a dramatic transformation of its neighborhoods and waterfront. But as office towers and glossy boutiques have sprouted across town, poverty and joblessness have deepened.
Yesterday, as Williams announced plans to retire from public life, reactions suggest that he will leave a city that is both grateful and angry -- and searching for a leader who can bridge the divide between economic progress and social justice.
"Anthony Williams gave the city a facelift, but he didn't lift up the rest of the city," said Theresa Burton, 69, whose Mount Vernon Square neighborhood is filling up with luxury condominiums that neither she nor her neighbors can afford. "You know what he was telling the city with all this development? He was telling the poor people to get out because none of them can afford to live in the Washington, D.C., he was creating."
In an address to more than 300 supporters at the Hillcrest Community Center in Southeast, Williams (D) took credit for an array of accomplishments. In a city that once faced a $518 million deficit, he amassed record cash reserves, imposed discipline on a dysfunctional bureaucracy, eliminated the need for a federal financial control board and negotiated the return of major league baseball.
"As mayor, I've led this city to, I believe, the threshold of real greatness. I believe that I've gotten us to a point where we've opened the door and prepared this city to walk through that door," Williams said in his speech. "But I have come to tell you today that I will not be the one to lead you through that door."
Supporters mourned his decision not to seek a third term. "I'm sad for the District. He was never appreciated for what he's done," said Barbara Savage, a Ward 7 resident who helped launch the movement that drafted Williams to run for mayor in 1998."We don't have to be embarrassed to say we're from Washington anymore."
But even Williams acknowledged huge failures. Public schools have not improved, and the divide between rich and poor has sharpened. Thirty-seven percent of residents older than 25 have trouble filling out a job application or reading a map, one of the highest rates of functional illiteracy in the nation, according to "The State of Literacy in America," a government report.
In an interview, Williams said his political shortcomings have contributed to the perception that he has done little to lift up the poor. "It would be great for the city," he said, if his successor could help people trapped in chronic poverty to recognize that the city's growing wealth holds opportunity for them as well.
"If the next mayor can actually talk to people and appeal to people's own sense of self-respect and responsibility and determination, that's hugely important," Williams said. "But if the new mayor is all about throwing raw meat out to whatever crowd he or she is talking to, that's not going to be helpful."
Williams's decision to retire next year throws his job up for grabs at a pivotal moment in the city's history. Five Democrats have entered the race. Most are struggling to respond to the clamor for better schools, more affordable housing and more generous social programs while reassuring affluent homeowners and the business community that they will maintain Williams's policies of fiscal responsibility.
Even before Williams formally declared his intentions yesterday, three candidates started vying for his favor, as well as the cash and endorsements of his supporters. Former telecommunications executive Marie C. Johns and D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (Ward 5) sent out news releases praising Williams, and council Chairman Linda W. Cropp said she would immediately start courting Williams loyalists.
The other candidates -- council member Adrian M. Fenty (Ward 4) and lobbyist Michael A. Brown -- were silent about Williams's announcement. On the campaign trail, both men have criticized the mayor and have made explicit appeals to those who feel left out of the economic recovery.