Airports and the race card

Saturday, February 26, 2011; 6:38 PM

H.R. CRAWFORD has worn many hats in his career as a power broker in the District of Columbia: federal official; City Council member; housing developer. One of his current roles is board member of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which oversees Dulles International and Reagan National airports, as well as the Dulles Toll Road and construction of the 23-mile Metrorail extension. He is the protagonist - in our view, a corrosive one - in the racially charged drama of hiring the authority's next chief executive.

As we reported last weekend, the drama's focal point is Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., who for five years has run the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees buses, streetcars, parking and traffic. Although he has little aviation experience, Mr. Ford is the front-runner for the airports job here. There are legitimate questions about Mr. Ford; race should not be one of them.

Mr. Ford, who is 49, earns more than $300,000 annually, the highest salary paid to any municipal employee in San Francisco. Despite that, he failed to pay all he owed in federal and California taxes for the past three years, resulting in tax liens totaling at least $75,000. (He told us he recently paid off his state tax arrears, for almost $12,000; the IRS lien, for $63,341, remains.)

Mr. Ford's explanation is that he faces steep tuition bills for his four children - two in college, two younger ones in San Francisco private schools; that he chose to defer almost $70,000 in bonuses and other compensation over the past three years because of the financial squeeze on the transit agency; and that to pay his bills he sold retirement annuities, saddling him with heavy taxes and penalties.

The question that arises is this: If Mr. Ford has trouble managing his household finances, will he be able to run the Washington area's airports authority, whose vital statistics include an annual budget of $1.9 billion in operating, maintenance and capital expenses; more than 42 million yearly passengers; and 1,400 employees. And, as the leading candidate for the airports job, did he level with the authority's board about his tax troubles?

Those are obvious and fair questions. Yet when board members raised them internally, sources told us that Mr. Crawford, who like Mr. Ford is African American, suggested the questions were somehow racist. That's disgraceful.

It's also highly unusual that Mr. Crawford has in effect controlled two votes on the divided, 13-member airports board. He holds the proxy of fellow board member Mamadi Diane, who has attended just one board meeting since 2008 and has met neither Mr. Ford nor the other leading candidates. (Although a District appointee, Mr. Diane spends much of his time overseas.) Nonetheless, in the board's preliminary deliberations over hiring a new chief, Mr. Crawford cast Mr. Diane's absentee vote for Mr. Ford, giving him a narrow majority, sources told us.

In an interview, Mr. Crawford dismissed the doubts about Mr. Ford's failure to pay taxes as a "witch hunt" and a personal matter and waved away questions about Mr. Ford's lack of aviation experience as unimportant. Of Mr. Ford, he said: "He would [make] an awesome, positive impression among our youth here in the city. This is how we would like most of our children to grow up to be - achievers."

We don't question Mr. Ford's impressive career as a transportation executive, which has also included the top transit job in Atlanta. If he is the best-qualified candidate for one of America's biggest airport jobs, we hope that he's selected on the merits. But Mr. Crawford and the other airports board members should bear in mind that they are hiring a manager, not a symbol.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company