Four Years of Mayor Williams
With Steve Twomey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, Feb. 28, 2002
When Anthony A. Williams was elected D.C. mayor in 1998, many hailed his arrival, saying it represented a sea change from the Barry legacy. Yet, for all the undeniable change between his first day of rule three years ago and now, Mayor Williams enters the 2002 election season dogged by the laments of supporters who expected more, by a style still more aloof than inspirational and by a nagging and angry chorus that questions whether he is the leader of all or merely the haves.
Steve Twomey is a reporter on The Post's city staff. He joined The Post in 1989, after working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury-News. He is a 1987 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
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washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Steve Twomey. How would you rate Mayor Williams's four years in office? Were the expectations of him set too high to begin with?
Steve Twomey: Howdy, all. A pleasure to be here. There are those, actually, who would say expectations for Tony Williams were too low, not too high. They mean that, coming after so much turbulence in the city, anybody who showed up and breathed would look good. Beyond that, it's probably wise to keep in mind that every politician is gonna disappoint somebody, because nobody can do everything. It's been noted that we perhaps expect too much of politicians.
Washington, D.C.: Anthony Williams began his tenure in D.C. as a "bottom line" man CFO. Many of his controversial acts (attempting to relocate UDC, closing the only public hospital in D.C., backing big developments that have displaced many native low income Washingtonians, etc.) show that he is still a bottom line man... is that a good thing for a mayor to be? Or was he better as a CFO?
Steve Twomey: I don't think even Williams would say that being mayor is easier than being CFO. If you're just the budget and numbers guy, you don't have to please anybody but the mayor or, in Williams's case, the control board. But if you're the mayor, the whole city is your boss, and pleasing such a diverse group is no easy thing. Williams argues that getting the budget in shape, getting the bureaucracy to function well, doing all sorts of very fundamental things, has got to come before glamorous, innovated new programs. The city has to get its house in order. So, yes, bottom line matters.
Arlington, VA: Recently we heard rumors of yet another appearance by Mayor-for-life Marion Barry into electoral politics. It was apparently a poorly kept secret that Barry's cronies did everything they could to obstruct and sabotage the efforts of Sharon Pratt Dixon, the last non-Barry mayor. Have you heard anything to suggest that such an effort is going on now, or has Williams sufficiently cleaned house to avoid such a possibility?
Steve Twomey: I have heard nothing to suggest that the former mayor is doing anything to undermine the current one. Certainly, many people who once supported Barry are now not too happy with Williams, but that's been true since the 1998 election, when Williams won without the strong backing of people in the city's less affluent neighborhoods. I think everyone in the city's political class expects Williams will run unopposed, and that's surely a sign that, however badly people think he's doing or however unsatisfied they are, there isn't enough unhappiness to give a would-be challenger much hope.
Foggy Bottom: How difficult is it for Mayor Williams to attract the kind of support he needs from Wards 7 and 8?
Steve Twomey: This is one of the most interesting things about the mayor. He and his supporters argue that they have done far more to improve matters in Wards 7 and 8 than they get credit for, tangible things no one else has done. But politics isn't only a checklist of things done or not done. Style still matters to many people. They vote for someone because they feel he cares about them, is aware of them, understands their situation. Tony Williams is not Hubert Humphrey, in the sense of a passionate, rousing stump speaker. He'll admit that. Should he try to be? There are those who say that would come across as fake, and he'd lose on both counts, i.e., he still wouldn't connect and people would think he's posing. So attracting Ward 7 and Ward 8 support is a challenge, though he might not need much to win again.
Washington, DC: Having been a District resident now for 10 years, I have witnessed three mayors performances. Given what Mr. Williams inherited, I'd say he's doing a decent job. How much fallout do you think there will be for the Tyson/Lewis fight. Did he really have a choice not to support, given the state of economic affairs in the city's tourism business?
Steve Twomey: The Tyson/Lewis proposal is an interesting moment. There's no question many people don't like the idea of inviting someone with the past of a Mike Tyson, but it's difficult to believe that will cost the mayor politically. Those who like him otherwise would seem unlikely to vote against him simply because of this fight. As for economics, such a fight would clearly pump millions into the city's economy. How much is your guess. But downtown restaurants and hotels, whacked pretty hard after Sept. 11, are surely not going to turn away cold cash from a Tyson fight. My sense is that if there's a fight, a lot of businesses will do well, some people will be very mad with the mayor, and things will move on. It won't be pivotal.
Washington, DC: I attended the second citizen's summit and found the Mayor to be engaging and responsive, quite opposite from the way he's often described as being aloof and uncharismatic. How can you describe the Mayor's true style?
Steve Twomey: The mayor really is fascinating study. He can be supremely funny, in ways many politicians are reluctant to be. At his weekly press briefings, he can leave the assembled multitude in stitches with spur-of-the-moment quips, as opposed to the scripted kind that so many politicians resort to. But he can also show up a public event in some ward and appear wary, reserved, even suspicious. In situations where other politicians would be sure to shake everyone's hand, he doesn't. Other politicians or officials sometimes complain they cannot reach him, or he doesn't return their calls, or he doesn't schmooze with them.
Harrisburg, Pa.: In general, I believe Mayor of any large city is an almost impossible job. Cities face enormous difficulties yet most cities lack the tax base to raise enough funds to solve most problems. Most cities struggle to keep operating as best as possible.
Living in Pennsylvania, I am more familiar with Philadelphia's Mayors. Since you also covered Philadelphia, how would you compare being Mayor in Washington, D.C. with being Mayor in Philadelphia?
Steve Twomey: Well, someone out there who knows my past. Yes, lived and worked a long while in Philadelphia, though never covered its mayor full-time. But I agree with your point. Any city, and any urban school system, faces problems of enormous dimensions, and it's probably unreasonable, even unfair, to think that any mayor or any urban school superintendent can solve those issues in a single term, or even two. Each election tends to build hope that the new man, or woman, is salvation in a suit, and much of the time the candidate has blithely contributed to those expectations. But getting rid of drugs, mending broken families, preventing child abuse, educating kids are not 15-minute goals.
Washington, DC: Do you think the downtown developments (MCI, East End, etc) would have ever happened under a Barry administration? Can we credit Williams, or is it just coincidental timing?
Steve Twomey: I think much of it would have happened under Barry, frankly. Just an opinion. But its reasoning is this: The return of cities and downtowns is not just a Washington thing at the moment. Congestion and sprawl have gotten so bad everywhere that downtowns suddenly look better than they did, because they have better public transit and often have under-utilized buildings. So much of the good that has happened in downtown D.C. probably would have taken place no matter who was mayor. (And MCI actually began under Barry, if I'm not mistaken.) That said, there is a psychological component to development as well as a strictly fiscal or transportation one. People like to feel confident that if they build in a downtown, the government will make it easy, be competent, do the right things. Many of his supporters believe Williams has created that atmosphere, i.e., that if you come to D.C., your investment will not decline in value and that you'll get good services from the government.
Washington, D.C.: When I voted for Williams four years ago, I was encouraged by his plans to make city government work better. But I still encounter hour-long waits at the DMV, and government officials who are rude or unhelpful. Yes, it's better than Barry, but I worry that people are settling for baby-step improvements simply because we no longer have a crack-smoking mayor. What do you think?
Steve Twomey: Your complaint about DMV is not unusual. It's funny, but of all the services government provides, DMV---anywhere, not just in D.C.---seems to be the one that irritates people the most. If I were a mayor, I'd spend zillions to have a DMV employee permanently assigned to each citizen full time. (A joke, a joke.) To your larger point, I think it's fair to say that turning around the city is a big job, and won't be done overnight. In writing the piece that appeared this morning, I found that most ANC commissioners have seen more effort from the city to do the little things. Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager and lives on Capitol Hill, said she looked out one day last fall and saw a city worker removing fallen leaves---and that had never happened in the 10 years she'd lived on the Hill.
Capitol Hill: Steve,
In today's Metro section, the Post reports that Williams is proposing to cut police and library funding.
Doesn't this kind of proposal contribute to the point made in your story--that Williams is seen as a downtown mayor? Downtown gets all of his attention and the neighborhoods suffer.
washingtonpost.com: Today's story: "District May Halt Income Tax Rollback
Steve Twomey: Excellent question. I don't think it's possible to stress too much how important the mayor feels that being in good fiscal shape is. Everyone agrees that, with the downturning economy, the city's facing big troubles this year, and that cuts must be made. What to cut is always the issue, but not cutting is probably not an option---unless you think a tax hike is. Having just come out from under the thumb of the control board, the last thing the city wants to do is start sliding into red ink again, so something's got to give. The ball's still up in the air, but reducing library hours and charging new recreation fees are on the table, as you note. I don't think that reflects that he is a downtown mayor so much as you have to cut something, if you accept his fiscal goals. Anything he'd cut would impact somebody in the neighborhoods, be it schools, social services, street paving, recreation.
Washington DC: Steve, don't you think that Williams is sending a message to poor folks to get packing, for whatever reason, by closing DC General, and trying to move UDC to Southeast?
A lot of the book on Williams is that he is the real estate developers' man. That by the time he is through, no one of median income will be able to live in this city.
What's your take?
Steve Twomey: As noted in today's piece, that is certainly the argument of some. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that any mayor would consciously seek to drive people out of his city. Now that might be the unintended consequence of promoting new development in the city, i.e., gentrification pushes people out. But Williams says he is working to reduce the impact of new development, development he believes is essentially to reviving Washington. As for DC General: No question that has become symbolically important. It's probably too soon to know whether that was a move that benefits or hurts those who used it. As for UDC: that proposal was ill thought out, as even the mayor now says. In a way, it was something that might have benefited the city's less affluent, because it would have put the school much closer to where many, if not, most of them live. But it came across as something being done to get kids out of Ward 3 and make way for development. In retrospect, I think the administration would concede it failed to explain itself very well.
DC: Is the mayor a policy man or a politics man?
Steve Twomey: My impression is that Anthony Williams is someone who loves to understand how things work, why they work that way, how they can be made to work better. I was at a press briefing not long ago when the mayor interrupted his own health director, Dr. Walks, to ask a question about the effective rate of an anthrax vaccine, and then asked his own follow-up and concluded by expressing his fascination with the answers. He loves details and minutiae. Does he love politics? Probably not as much. I think he'd agree that he's not a natural, in the way others are. Does that mean he's not a politician? No. In some ways, he's very good at the game of politics, at least in the sense of strategy if not in the sense of schmoozing. After all, this is a man who didn't even live in the city seven years ago, never held any elected office here and was the budget guy---and yet wound up beating much more experienced opponents. He must be doing something right, politically.
Gaithersburg, MD: Who do you see as a legitimate opponent to Williams in the city's mayoral race?
Steve Twomey: We touched on this before. And I see a couple of other questions out there about opponents. There's no question that council member Kevin Chavous would like to be mayor. So would council member Jack Evans. Other names I've heard mentioned as possible candidates: Eric Holder, the former U.S. Attorney; Bill Lightfoot, the former council member. But nobody's taken the plunge, and nobody I've heard expects that anyone will. There are good reasons: Williams has a lot of money in the bank. The business community, which has money to give, likes the mayor. And the city is doing better, at least in some regards if not all of the ones that people would like. Mounting a challenge against an incumbent, given those facts, is tough. That doesn't mean those names mentioned above will never be mayor. After all, Williams has said he doesn't want to be mayor forever, and I wouldn't be surprised if two terms is all he wants.
McLean, VA: To build on Harrisburg's point that being mayor of a big city is difficult. I think being mayor of DC is especially difficult considering you are responsible for programs (like welfare) that are normally handled by states, you have little in the way of property taxes since so much of the city is federal, and you have so much of the tax money earned on income in DC paid in Maryland and Virginia. It seems like a no-win job!
Steve Twomey: Well, without wishing to seem an apologist for the city IN ANY WAY, I think being mayor of Washington IS more difficult than other cities. Lemme tick off some short reasons why: (1) Congress. Ultimately, it controls. (2) No commuter tax. Why? See reason 1. But that does reduce the city's revenue. (3) State-like functions. No other city runs a DMV, for instance, although some state-like functions have been taken over by the Feds, like prisons. The city also does Medicare/Medicaid. I think. This is not my strong suit. (4) Untaxable land. The federal government and embassies, to mention two, sit on a huge quantity of real estate that cannot be touched.
washington dc: While Mayor Williams is repeatedly lauded in the press for his administrative skills, I don't know one person living in the city who feels that city services are being rendered effectively. Rather, city personnel and -- more importantly -- managers and directors, are either unwilling or intellectually incapable of rendering the services they have the responsibility to provide district residents. This is true irrespective of the Department involved.
As an example, last year our street did not get cleaned for over 12 weeks. After 10 weeks of notifying DPW offices and the mayor's office on a daily basis, we finally determined that our street was not getting cleaned because parking enforcement was not enforcing the parking restrictions. After months of assurances from managers and supervisors that enforcement was being provided, we finally managed to obtain the departmental reports that detail enforcement levels. The reports clearly established that the parking enforcement officials were not performing their duties. However, we still have to monitor enforcement because the city official with responsibility over parking enforcement cannot adequately evaluate the reports generated by her own department. Moreover, the Director of DPW has shown no inclination to correct the institutional problems leading to, and encouraging, poor performance in this office. As a consequence, to obtain some level of residential parking and street cleaning, we must continue to monitor daily enforcement levels.
I have documented similar examples of managerial incompetence within the:
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs: Inspectors, managers and the director allowing violations of the building code to continue to allow a developer to complete his work.
Division of Transportation: It took over a month to receive enforcement of the public space restrictions, despite daily calls to the Director's office and assurances from his direct subordinates that services would be provided.
Deputy Mayor's Office of Planning and Economic Development: Director never responded to written request for meeting after one low-level employee assured us he was investigating a matter (turned out he was a docketing clerk with no authority to investigate anything), and another promised specific actions that were never taken.
Office of Citizen Complaint Review (the office responsible for handling some aspects of citizen complaints against police officers): A citizen complaint filed over a year ago has yet to be processed. The officer in charge of the complaint admitted that he was being pressured by his supervisors to route the complaint to arbitration, thereby avoiding disciplinary action against the police officer involved.
However, perhaps the most disturbing example of unresponsiveness, came after months of following a complaint through the police system. The complaint had originally been filed as a consequence of it having taken the police department four-and-a-half hours to respond to a report of a crime in progress. The complaint somehow got lost or misplaced at every step in the police complaint review process. However, we finally managed to secure a meeting attended by two captains: a Captain within the Regional Operation Command (ROC), and a Captain within Police Communications. We were flabbergasted when the Captain within Communications disclosed that he had not forwarded any of the over 200 complaints that had been filed within his office over the past year to the MPD system. The requirement to enter complaints into the general system had been in effect for over two years at the time this meeting took place. However, as has been our experience with every city office, the Captain for the ROC asked that we understand that getting each police district and office to comply with the requirements of the system would take time. To our knowledge, the system-wide failure to enter complaints into the general MPD system remains.
So, you ask whether Mayor Williams is doing a good job in managing the city? Not as far as my experience has shown.
Steve Twomey: Don't want to ignore this very long questions. I can't speak to your myriad examples, but I do believe there is more of a sense than you credit that the city is doing better at making some services work.
WDC: Simple question: Is it really "news" to report that this Mayor isn't universally loved?
What Council members have a record that would indicate they would do a better job, especially since most of them sat around under the Barry years?
Steve Twomey: Very good observation. When he ran in 1998, Williams was pretty much characterized, at least in personal style, in the way he now is. So that's not news, you're right. In 1998, Williams won not because of exploding personal charisma but because of a reputation for professional competence. As was suggested in the piece today, those who didn't like him in '98 probably still don't and those who did probably still do.
washingtonpost.com: Thanks for joining us today, Steve Twomey.
Steve Twomey: You're more than welcome. See you during the campaign.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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