washingtonpost.com
Williams Leaves a Legacy of Contrasts
Mayor Could Be Remembered as Reviver or Divider

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

The Anacostia Divide

Williams believes he should be judged on his accomplishments. In interviews, including one at his modest Foggy Bottom apartment, rarely glimpsed by those outside his inner circle, the mayor was boastful, self-deprecating and defensive as he ruminated on an odyssey that catapulted him from obscurity to the top of D.C. government.

"I think I'm going to go down in history as having saved the city," he said after ticking off a litany of achievements: repairing the city's finances, rebuilding a largely dysfunctional bureaucracy and raising residents' standards for what they could expect from their government.

"We restored the District's basic integrity, in terms of its economy and finances, and in terms of its basic government operations."

As much as anything, construction cranes defined the Williams era, as condominiums rose downtown and developers renovated and built new housing from Logan Circle to long-ignored areas east of Capitol Hill. Restaurants and gourmet markets opened, along with that ubiquitous symbol of gentrification: Starbucks. There were 21 when Williams took office; as he entered his final weeks, there were 56.

Although Williams and his acolytes acknowledge that a strong economy and declining interest rates spurred growth, they also say the mayor's steady hand made developers confident and fueled revitalization, some of which had begun percolating during the Barry years along corridors such as Seventh Street NW.

"D.C. was a joke," said John Kane, a member of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "He was able to change the image of Washington."

In the mayor's first term, polling showed that Washingtonians applauded the economic renaissance, and he won over some critics. Lawrence Guyot, a community activist fiercely loyal to Barry, said on "60 Minutes" in 2000 that Williams's budget cuts hurt blacks. Guyot retains reservations but applauds the transformation of beleaguered neighborhoods: "Look at U Street today, the way it has been revitalized. It's astounding."

Yet the development eventually inspired criticism that the boom was benefiting newcomers at the expense of longtime Washingtonians. Housing prices and property taxes soared, squeezing poor and blue-collar families. After a decline, the poverty rate rose, along with the number of people needing shelter, even after the mayor vowed to end homelessness.

"If you're a suburbanite who wanted to come back into the District, if you didn't mind paying half a million for a condo, the mayor is the best thing since sliced bread," said the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, president of the Washington Interfaith Network, a housing advocacy group. But young, impoverished minorities, he said, still have difficulty finding jobs and housing.

The divide is most pronounced east of the Anacostia, where many do not forgive the mayor for closing D.C. General, which was hemorrhaging cash. While the cranes loomed over downtown, residents there say they missed out on the economic rebirth.

Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Southeast community activist, praised the mayor for working to replace housing projects with mixed-income communities. But he said, "There's always the flip side. Where did the most vulnerable population go? Did we dismantle public housing and say you have to live in Prince George's?"

No matter the mayor's accomplishments, Kinlow added, many blacks may have experienced a "culture shock" as a bland, apolitical bureaucrat succeeded Barry, a flamboyant four-term mayor and veteran of the civil rights movement. "We went from dashikis to Brooks Brothers, from casual cool to bow ties," Kinlow said. "This was a new model we hadn't seen. . . . People were unsure about him and wondered if he really cared."

The mayor said the perception of him as indifferent to the poor was a misconception. He touted as among his most significant accomplishments the development in Ward 8, pointing to a $27 million arts and recreation center in Southeast and thousands of new apartments, many for low-income families. He also cited a program to provide health coverage to the uninsured.

Yet the mayor said he knows that many African Americans do not see themselves as having benefited from those initiatives. "The best word would be exasperated," Williams said of his mindset. "It's almost like mixed with resignation."

He recalled how he promised to build a development on the site of the public housing where a grandmother was fatally shot in 1999. "We actually did it," he said, referring to the mixed-income community replacing East Capitol Dwellings. But he said he has received "not a peep" of credit, then assumed the tone of an unimpressed constituent: " 'So what? He did a project.' "

"If I didn't care, why would I be doing all this?" he asked as he led reporters on a tour of Southeast. "I'm certainly not doing it politically. Dick Cheney may have higher popularity over here than I do."

"I'm doing it because I think it's right," he said.

The mayor declined to specify his future plans except to say he'll remain in Washington. But whatever he does, he said he hopes to lease office space in Anacostia, if only to help pump investment into the area. "It will be an important statement," he said, comparing it to Bill Clinton opening an office in Harlem after he left the White House.

Still, the mayor said that even that move might not convince his worst critics he's committed to the area. "I'm not really holding my breath."

A Mayor Under Attack

Too often, the mayor's allies say, his lack of a common touch hurt him with constituents and community leaders. And, they say, he was too meek in responding to opposition, allowing critics to define him and the issues he championed.

Max Berry, Williams's former campaign chairman, cited the uproar after the writer of a 1999 opinion article in The Washington Post asked, "How black is Mayor Anthony Williams?"

"That became a prairie fire," Berry said, adding that similar episodes "encouraged people to keep doing it; it became a norm. Bashing Tony Williams became justified."

The unceasing criticism, Berry believes, drove Williams inward -- and out of town on what Berry characterized as too many international trips. "When he's attacked, he doesn't fight back. He goes back in his hole, and it's a tragedy," Berry said. "I would like to have seen him go out with cheers and accolades. . . . I could say shame on the public. I can also say shame on him. He's got to take some of the blame for that."

The mayor scowled and cursed when told of his friend's remarks. "It wasn't my personality or whether I was black enough," he said, attributing his difficulties to "policy decisions. Not all this other stuff."

Analyzing his drop in popularity, Williams said the petition debacle was critical because he was too consumed with damage control to tout his achievements. And as the schools suffered, he said, constituents east of the river were infuriated by his devotion to baseball: "It was easy to stereotype. Mayor stands up, fights for baseball. But what's he fighting for over here?"

Yet he disputed the notion that he's not an adept politician, pointing to his two election victories. As for his style, he said he forced himself to overcome an essentially shy nature to endure the mundane rituals of politics, comparing the task to being "overweight and you got to do something."

He resisted any prodding to explain his persona, saying, "You're trying to get someone who's not that emotionally open to start analyzing themselves. You're tapping a dry well, man. I can't help you."

Perhaps, the mayor said, kudos for his work will come after he's gone, adding that he knows he's not the first leader to depart feeling less than appreciated. "Winston Churchill was thrown out of office," he said. "He saved the country."

Problems, and Progress

On a Sunday morning, the mayor answered the door to his apartment, a two-bedroom furnished with a Picasso art print, a black-and-white photograph of the Eiffel Tower and Ikea cabinets that Williams assembled himself.

Unbeknownst to the public, the mayor and his wife, Diane, moved there in May after their previous landlord announced that she wanted to sell their old place.

"Can you imagine?" he asked. "The landlord kicked us out of our apartment. She was flipping it to condo and kicked the tenants out, and kicked the mayor out."

They relocated to an apartment downstairs, loading up their vast collection of books -- and his more than 100 bow ties, now tucked in a closet in the den, on wire hangers, organized by shape and design. "There are browns . . . then we have the regular foulards . . . the dots . . . the stripes . . ." the mayor said as he pulled the hangers out.

A moment later, he returned to the living room and to the subject of what has happened to the District since he took office. He referred to a story in that morning's newspaper, about a leaf collection truck that had plowed into 13 cars on Wisconsin Avenue.

A terrible incident, the mayor said, no doubt. But in a funny way, it was a sign of progress for a city that was broke and broken when he arrived. "The fact is, we've got leaf trucks now," the mayor said. "We didn't have that problem before."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company