How to Take Measure of a Mayor

Mayor Anthony Williams acknowledges his critics but says he is confident that he changed the city for the better.
Mayor Anthony Williams acknowledges his critics but says he is confident that he changed the city for the better. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 28, 2006

T he mayor is juiced. Time's just about up, game over, but he's still bubbling with ideas, still dreaming of the city to come: a trolley in Anacostia, ferries from Old Town to the Washington waterfront, bicycles here, a new school there, buildings and ballparks. Goodness, there's an entire new city in any 10 minutes of his talk.

I asked Anthony Williams to take me around his Washington. Show me the city you transformed, I said, the District as you remade it, not as your detractors deride it.

Off we go -- Williams brought a deputy mayor and his spokesman to accompany Post reporter Paul Schwartzman and me -- in a District-issued SUV, and the first surprise is immediate: Williams doesn't point to a single thing downtown. We never set foot in ritzy Georgetown or monied upper Northwest. We head instead east of the river, to the place where he is least respected, where the mere mention of "Bowtie" draws snide snorts.

"This is where there's the greatest disconnect between what I've done and where I'm unpopular," he says.

After way too many years of The Marion Barry Psychodrama Extravaganza, the city was hooked on showmanship and charisma. We needed to grow up, and we knew enough to elect an adult. But too many of us still craved the drama, and blamed Williams for being -- egads! -- serious about government.

Williams, who lifted Washington from the muck and turned it into a contender, is intent on confronting the worst of the criticism: He doesn't care about the poor. He's not black enough. He's a nerd. He won't buy a place here; he lives in a rental near the Watergate. He's rootless, a transient. He doesn't look you in the eye. He's not a church man. He's a tool of the white man.

He's heard it all, and he's had it up to here. "If I were the classic politician," pumping projects to the neighborhoods where his voters live, "I wouldn't be doing 80 percent of what we've done east of the river." But he chose to take down decrepit housing projects there, building mixed-income communities where thousands of people now own their first homes. Will he someday win credit for all this? "I'm not really holding my breath," he says.

He's cursing now, each expletive emphasizing that he doesn't have to play the role anymore. He's had it with the stories about his failure to engage, his frequent trips abroad, his inability to connect with the average Washingtonian, his lack of the natural political instincts of a Barry or an Adrian Fenty.

But he tried, he really did: "I went to every event of over two people -- every event. For a long time, I contacted people after the event, thanked them, sent them notes, stroked people. But I'm not going to argue with you. I'm not the most charismatic person in the world."

He talks about his father, "a really restrained guy, and I really admired that in him. Dry, you know. I like my wine dry. I don't like it all flowery."

Whatever the roots of his personality, the criticism persisted: He's aloof, his humor is biting (he's the city's funniest politician this side of Bob Dole) and, again, he cares only about people with money. That one prompts an expletive. Two. Three.

We stop at the site of what will be the first supermarket in Ward 8: "Story of my life," Williams says. He promised to deliver a supermarket east of the river, and "Here it is." Still, where's the recognition for his work rebuilding neighborhoods? Where's the love? The mayor's voice flattens to a monotone worthy of Eeyore: "'So what, he did a project.'"


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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