A Success Story in His Comfort Zone

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 30, 2006

"A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kindred . . ."

-- Mark 6:4

History is likely to be kind to D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, although polling among African American residents might suggest otherwise. He certainly wasn't our most beloved mayor (that honor belongs to Walter Washington) or our most beleaguered (Sharon Pratt) or our most notorious (Marion Barry).Bu

t Tony Williams was the District's most successful mayor of the home rule era. He came on the scene at the right time and with the right skill sets to help the District through one of its worst patches in 100 years.As

chief financial officer and later as mayor, Williams teamed up with the federally imposed financial control board to pull the city out of the financial abyss it had fallen into, thanks to a series of D.C. politicians who never quite grasped the meaning or proper use of the word "no."Wi

lliams's contribution to the city, however, went beyond his fiscal prowess. His image helped, too. He was everything the four-term Mayor Barry wasn't.Wi

th Williams, there was no flamboyant, in-your-face leadership. And he never resorted to the racially tinged rhetoric that Barry used whenever he wasn't getting what he wanted.Wi

lliams, with his bow ties, Ivy League degrees and self-effacing humor, was non-threatening -- a perfect antidote to the toxic Barry and a mayor made to order for a city dependent on the largess of the federal government and the capital markets.Al

so, unlike Barry, Williams sought the approval of the city's downtown establishment and, once allowed through the door, luxuriated in his surroundings.Le

st we forget, the Tony Williams leaving office next Tuesday is not the Tony Williams who was launched on a successful mayoral campaign in 1998 by a true grass-roots reform movement. The trappings of office, the chance to rub shoulders with Washington's elites, the lure of foreign capitals meant nothing to the Williams of '98. That Williams was all about fixing a broken government, and that's why people were drawn to his candidacy.To

day several of Williams's original supporters are no longer around, having been either cast aside by him or shut out by his latest gatekeepers.Th

at said, Williams leaves in his wake a city with a good bond rating, sizable cash reserves, a more accessible health-care system for the underserved, several promising neighborhood projects, a major league baseball team, a new stadium under construction and a home town that is no longer the laughingstock of the nation.He

can't take all the credit; other elected officials, most notably outgoing D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, can rightfully share the honors.Bu

t one marker does belong to him. On his watch, the District underwent its most profound transformation in generations.Wi

lliams promoted an investment climate that led to the sprucing up of a city that had gone to seed. But longtime residents also witnessed, with deep sadness, the conversion of old neighborhoods into enclaves for a growing and politically active new middle class, some of whom have high regard for themselves but low tolerance for the history they are replacing. The beauty parlor and barbershop talk is that under Tony Williams, the District of Columbia has become more worldly, more wealthy and more white.Cu

riously enough, Williams is leaving office perplexed and angered by the fact that he is much more popular among whites than among African Americans.Ha

ving seen him in action many times at small and large events -- and in predominantly white as well as predominantly black gatherings -- I suggest that it isn't his manner of dress or speech or his braininess that produces his lower standing among African Americans.Th

e reason is more personal.To

ny Williams's fondness for people who don't look like him comes through when he's hobnobbing with them. He's congenial, communicative and relaxed.No

t so, when he is "among his own kindred."Th

at Williams, I have observed over the years, in my home and in other settings, is a poor mixer, even standoffish. His body language conveys a remoteness that says to those around him: "I'm here because I have to be here."In

reality, that is not the true Tony Williams. But it's the Tony Williams whom many of his kindred have seen on display -- a truly unfortunate misperception of a gifted and well-meaning public figure who, for six of his eight years as mayor, gave much more to the city than he received in return. (The last two years, he was often missing in action.) Williams, nonetheless, can look back on his tenure with pride and with few regrets. After all, consider what was bequeathed to him by Marion Barry.


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