D.C. Pins Hopes for Change on Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 2, 1999; Page A1
Earl Cabbell remembers relocating to the District in 1996 and barely settling into a new job working for the chief financial officer, Anthony A. Williams, when he was summoned as a contestant for one of Williams's unconventional game-show-style staff meetings.
Williams was the exuberant host of his own rapid-fire format. Williams's purpose in singling out managers for what was essentially a pop quiz, Cabbell recalled, was to keep his staff sharp and hold his 10 senior aides accountable for their individual assignments.
"Tony selects an issue, he puts the spotlight on you, your butt is on the line, and you have to come up with the answers," said Cabbell, now the District's interim chief financial officer.
"I had only been in the District for three weeks, and I was the first contestant," said Cabbell, then a deputy chief financial officer. "They joked that I did so good on the show that Tony made the show part of his permanent management style. At the time it wasn't hilarious, but later, everyone cracked up."
Williams, 47, will be sworn in today as the fourth mayor of the District of Columbia. His taking office marks a moment of profound change. Mayor Marion Barry, who has held the District's top office for 16 of the last 20 years, is returning to private life. The financial control board, which has managed most elements of the local government for the last three years, is poised to return significant powers to the mayor's office. Census and economic indicators suggest that the city's long slide in population and fortunes may be bottoming out.
For many, hopes for change are pinned on Williams, who swept to victory in November with a convincing 66 percent of the vote. Throughout the campaign, Williams was portrayed by opponents as a cold-blooded, calculating manager more interested in spreadsheets than people. But that image is in stark contrast to the witty and compassionate executive described by several District managers who once worked closely with Williams.
They characterize Williams as an unflappable, corporate-style administrator whose bottom line is producing results, a hard-working leader who gives his managers all of the resources they need to be successful but who has little patience for those who are not prepared to take on the work he assigns.
"You don't have to change the world tomorrow, but if you say you're going to change the world tomorrow, you should do it," said Laura Triggs, a former chief of staff for Williams.
Triggs, who worked for Williams for two years, described him as a boss who worked long hours, had high expectations for his managers and a low tolerance for "whining."
In addition to establishing a tough-but-fair environment in the office, the incoming mayor also possesses a unique brand of humor, said several former managers who reported to Williams directly.
"Who is today's lucky contestant?" Williams would ask, surveying the room and playing the role of game-show host, a D.C. Bob Barker.
Triggs, who described herself as "a nerdy bean counter," said Williams would ask her questions about tax revenue, such as how much cash was on hand and the size of the city's surplus.
"It was like he was always extracting information from you," said Triggs, who added that she never had a bad experience on the game show because she had done her homework. Still, she said, the process was "very draining."
When a contestant had the right answer, Williams would nod, listen intently and take notes, Triggs said. When he heard an answer that wasn't on point, Williams would stop writing, sit back and engage other managers in the discussion.
"Tony has a no-nonsense approach to getting the job done," Cabbell said. " . . . If you're getting the work done, you won't have a problem, but if you don't do the work, you know you're not going to be around."
Tom Huestis, who worked for Williams for two years when Williams was chief financial officer, said Williams would ask him how he planned to handle various problems at city agencies, such as how many vendors had been paid and what the process would be to catch up on the payments.
"We were all on the game show frequently," recalled Huestis, now the District's deputy chief financial officer and treasurer. "Tony established a sense of urgency in his office, and the show was a way to add a bit of humor to meetings when we came together to talk about the challenges that faced us. It was never done in a hostile manner."
He said Williams also asked managers what kind of assistance they needed to get the job done and what was the likelihood of success. "Tony was probing to assess how well you had the issue under control," Huestis said.
After a series of questions, Huestis said, Williams would wrap up the session saying, "This is the question for all the money."
"I felt a little nervous," Huestis said. "It usually got my adrenaline pumping. It wasn't too uncomfortable, but it was like a special rush of adrenaline, like being on stage."
Williams is part of a new generation of big-city mayors who see themselves as pragmatic reformers offering a more corporate-style, business approach to running local governments, reducing the size of the work force and becoming more responsive to residents.
"He is concerned with everyone adding value and delivering services," said Abdusalam Omer, deputy chief financial officer for the Office of Budget and Planning. "The question is, what are District residents getting for their buck? Top-level managers and mid-level managers will have to produce. It's a different way of looking at public management in D.C."
Williams, the adopted son of postal employees who was raised in a black, working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, dismissed criticism that he was a carpetbagger. He ran for office backed by a multiracial coalition that embraced his message of returning fiscal stability and quality services to the District.
Williams made it clear from the outset that he won't spend a great deal of time studying what he already knows: D.C. is badly broken and needs immediate repair.
The avid canoeist who enjoys reading biographies takes office promising a radical shake-up in D.C. government, a hands-on style of leadership, swift improvements in city services and a challenge to employees to perform or be held accountable.
"Tony pushes people very, very hard," Huestis said. "He puts a tremendous amount of pressure on people to succeed."
Williams's hard-line rhetoric sent a signal to the District's employees that their performances will be monitored closely. But now he has the power to back up his talk.
Two weeks ago, the financial control board – the five-member, presidentially appointed panel that Congress authorized to govern the city after stripping powers from Barry – agreed to shift responsibilities to Williams to run virtually all the city's daily operations.
The heads of most major city agencies, ranging from those that pick up trash to those that provide health care and other services to the poor will report to Williams, as will D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey. The mayor-elect said he will now have the power to implement a far-reaching series of programs that will result in a cleaner, safer city. His first order of business, Williams said, will be to get the streets cleaned and to make sure employees at city agencies answer telephones politely and respond efficiently to inquiries from the public.
He has promised that city residents will see results within six months.
One of Williams's most formidable challenges – and the first test of his negotiating skills – will come in the weeks soon after he is sworn into office.
Williams plans to dramatically change the way District government does business by creating "managed competition" that would allow private companies to bid against public workers to deliver a wide range of city services from collecting trash to towing abandoned vehicles.
The master, if not the architect, of managed competition, is Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith (R), who instituted the approach six years ago. He said that in 1997, he saved taxpayers $400 million while vastly improving city services. Williams said he believes that Goldsmith's ambitious philosophy could be duplicated in the District.
Williams said D.C. government is entrenched with employees who have not been properly trained, including many who never should have been hired, and spends too much money providing inadequate services. As a result, he said, it may be necessary for government to get out of the service-delivery business and look to companies that can deliver services more efficiently and at a lower cost.
But Williams's proposal already has caused some concern among union workers, according to Chuck Hicks, president of Labor Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Hicks has said that employees have called his office worried that their jobs may be jeopardized by managed competition.
"For some people, managed competition means they will be without jobs if they lose a bid," said Hicks, who represents 6,000 members, including employees from the D.C. Departments of Human Resources and Public Works.
Hicks also said many residents view Williams as a heartless hatchet man – ever since he fired 165 employees several years ago, many of them black and female. "There are some people who will never forget it," Hicks said.
Beyond the issue of managed competition, Hicks said that Williams also must convince residents east of the Anacostia River, where some of the city's poorest neighborhoods are located, that he is as concerned about them as he is about the people in the District's more affluent communities.
"This is a city where your people skills is half your success," Hicks said. "He has to reach out to African American people across the board."
Williams's persona has changed somewhat since he went walking door-to-door campaigning a few months ago. He walks with more confidence, a semi-swagger, like a man who appears to be getting more comfortable with his new-found power and celebrity status.
Still, for many D.C. residents, Williams is an outsider. Williams moved to the area as a presidential appointee in 1993, living in Virginia, and spent his first two years commuting to St. Louis on weekends to see his wife, Diane. He moved into the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of the District when he became the city's chief financial officer.
Some community activists, area ministers and people involved with the campaigns of Williams's opponents said during the campaign and continue to say that Williams is particularly weak on racial healing, bringing people of all races and ethnic backgrounds together and boldly addressing the issue echoed most often in black communities: that there are still two D.C.'s, one for whites and one for blacks.
Leaders from the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a multiracial, multi-faith citizens organization representing 45 congregations and 20,000 families, said that Williams already has agreed to meet with them the last Thursday of each month during the first six months of his administration in an attempt to reach out to all D.C. residents.
They said Williams has pledged to redeploy 900 police officers from desk jobs to foot and bike patrol by February, create a $30 million annual fund for after-school programs and invest $25 million to build 1,000 homes for people making $20,000 to $45,000 a year. It is the most specific promise Williams is known to have made to any group.
The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, a member of WIN's leadership, said that the group plans to release a "report card" in April assessing Williams's progress. "He's got to establish a base outside of the base he already has," Edmonds said. "If he builds homes, that's a base. If he picks up trash, that's a base. If he cleans the streets, that's a base. He has to overcome the perception that he's not for people."
But Cabbell said the public doesn't know the real Tony Williams.
"People refer to Tony as a bean counter with no personality, but what people don't know about Tony is – besides being brilliant – is that he is witty and very funny, one of the funniest people I've met," Cabbell said.
"He got a bum rap [with the firings of the 165 workers] because Tony has a tremendous amount of compassion. He agonized over the decision of letting people go."
"He had to make the tough decision, and it was painful for him," he said. "Tony would always tell us the story about how his father worked for the post office and how he believes in people who work in the public sector and how he has a commitment to people. That's a side of Tony that people don't see."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company