Williams Leaves a Legacy of Contrasts
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The District was emerging from financial ruin and a federal review board still wielded power over its budget when a bow-tied political neophyte named Anthony A. Williams defied expectations and captured city hall in 1998.
Streetlights and fire hydrants were broken; potholes, unfilled; garbage, uncollected. Five city agencies -- child welfare and mental health, among them -- anguished in court-ordered receivership. At their desks, thousands of government workers still dialed rotary phones.
Eight years later, as Williams (D) departs office, Washington is a city transformed. The District's reserves exceed $1 billion, and the financial control board is a distant memory. Entire neighborhoods are thriving with new housing and shops. Homicides have declined, along with infant mortality and teenage pregnancy rates. And although some agencies remain troubled, including the one overseeing the mentally retarded, none is controlled by the courts.
Yet for all his success, Williams's failings were dramatic. He twice was unable to seize control of the public schools. Nor could he reverse the perception that he catered to the affluent, a view reinforced by his unwavering quest to bring baseball back to town and his closing of D.C. General, a public hospital that long catered to the largely black community east of the Anacostia River.
With his approval ratings having slid from 77 percent to just above 50 percent, Williams is leaving office experiencing a range of emotions -- pride, melancholy and more than a trace of anger. As much as anything, he knows that many residents -- black Washingtonians, primarily -- are happy to see him go. And he knows why.
"Goddammit, when you close a hospital, it's hard," the mayor said, his monologue at one point punctuated by expletives as he stood outside city hall recently, reflecting on his two terms. "When you push for baseball in the kind of environment we have for this city, it's hard."
He dismissed the issues that critics and even supporters cite -- his frequent international travel and remote governing style -- as irrelevant to his legacy. "I basically took some stands, and they were unpopular," Williams said. "That's what ultimately hurt me."
Once embraced as the sober-toned antidote to his predecessor, the freewheeling Marion Barry, Williams acknowledges that his reticent persona did not always suit his adopted city. For a time, Washingtonians viewed the mayor's background as a political outsider, untainted by scandal, as a virtue.
But Williams's strength became a liability. Will anyone soon forget when he was kept off the 2002 ballot for campaign petitions rife with fraudulent signatures? And the mayor's discomfort with the basics of retail politics -- wooing legislators, mingling with constituents -- ultimately allowed his critics to define him as aloof and uncaring.
The mayor's Ivy League education, his haircut, even his housing did not escape scrutiny. Unlike constituents who capitalized on the real estate boom, the mayor remained a renter and even had a little-known spat with his landlord last spring and had to move. Never mind that he said he couldn't afford to buy. To his critics, the mayor's rental confirmed that he was detached from the city he governed.
"He arrived at a time of profound crisis and demoralization in Washington, and he provided extraordinary managerial and fiscal skills," said Jamin Raskin, an American University professor of constitutional law. "But he had very shallow roots in the city, and that set the frame for his tenure. There was never the profound emotional chemistry that you get with certain politicians."
Fred Siegel, an urban historian, said Williams's uneasy relations with portions of the black community dated to when he was the District's budget-slashing chief financial officer. He was "viewed as the agent of the white Congress and white voters," Siegel said. "There's a shadow of racial doubt that hangs over him, exacerbated by the bow ties."