Financial Officer to Run for D.C. Mayor
By David A. Vise
In an interview, Williams said he wants to be mayor so he can encourage the restoration of home rule by bringing the same accountability he has achieved in the city's financial sector to the rest of the struggling District government.
Unlike the three leading mayoral candidates -- council members Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Williams has never run for political office in the city.
Williams, a Democrat, said that after attending more than 150 community meetings in recent years, he believes that city residents are ready to elect a mayor from outside the political mainstream if they are convinced that he can deliver better schools, safer streets and a growing economy that will produce jobs.
"The District is at a crossroads in terms of moving from the old generation of black leadership to the new generation that still inspires hope but also delivers results," Williams said. "I'm running because I believe District politics have changed from a politics based on political considerations and ideology to a politics based on a discussion of real needs and real results. I believe I am the best person to be mayor, and I agree with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton that this is the most important race in the District in probably 100 years."
Williams, 46, who won two city council races in the early 1980s in New Haven, Conn., was appointed chief financial officer by Mayor Marion Barry (D) in 1995. He is credited with restoring the city's financial credibility on Capitol Hill and Wall Street by taking decisive actions, hiring a talented cadre of financial managers and imposing stiff new spending controls.
"We have a lot of spectators in Washington and a lot of people in the anchor booth," Williams said. "I'm asking people to come onto the field with me and change this government."
Williams openly mused about running for mayor three months ago and then issued a repudiation. "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." Now, he acknowledged that he faces obstacles in his bid for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 15 primary.
Williams said he will meet tomorrow with a grass-roots group that has been urging him to run and will resign as chief financial officer within a few weeks.
First, Williams must address skeptics who question whether he is seriously committed to the race. Williams said a major factor in his earlier decision not to run for mayor was the opposition of his wife and daughter. Now, he said, his family seems ready to support his decision to seek office.
Williams's aggressive cost-cutting and firing of hundreds of District employees has made him an enemy of organized labor, and he is a defendant in lawsuits filed by unions on behalf of ousted District workers. "We would interview him just as we will interview the other three" candidates, said Joslyn Williams, head of the local branch of the AFL-CIO. "There are those in the labor movement who know him well and do not view him favorably as a candidate for mayor. He fired people without regard for collective bargaining agreements. He trampled on that by dumping people and taking the position he did not have to recognize the union."
The union leader, who has been involved in the city's political process for many years, said Anthony Williams's candidacy would increase interest in the mayoral race. Barry recently announced that he will not seek reelection, and none of the Democratic candidates has high name recognition among District residents, he said.
"It is wide open," Joslyn Williams said.
A recent Washington Post poll shows that about 70 percent of District residents do not know much about Anthony Williams or have no opinion about him. Among those with an opinion, Williams is viewed favorably by 72 percent of African Americans and 83 percent of whites.
The other candidates have low name recognition as well. While 62 percent of those polled had no opinion about Evans, about half said they had no views on Chavous or Brazil.
Williams faces another hurdle by entering the race after the council members: fund-raising. A Democratic fund-raising expert said yesterday that many affluent business leaders in the area already have decided to support either Evans or Chavous. Evans had raised $307,305 by the latest filing date in March, while Chavous had raised $117,000. Since that time, the fund-raising expert said, Evans's relatively weak performance in polls has prompted some contributors to shift their support to Chavous, whose next filing will show that he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, the fund-raising expert said. Brazil, who entered the race after the other two council members, will file his first campaign finance report June 10.
Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a Washington businessman who also is seeking the Democratic mayoral nomination, has so far loaned his campaign $400,000 of his own money, according to the March reports.
In a race in which the candidates are not well known, the importance of having enough money to purchase ads and generate awareness by other means increases, experts said. Some wealthy donors, who asked to remain anonymous, said they would consider backing Williams if he ran for mayor because of his proven management skills.
"I view his chances as being roughly in the same range as the council members," said Charles Wesley Harris, a Howard University professor, who wrote "Congress and the Governance of the Nation's Capital." "They are all going to have to go out and sell themselves, and I think a lot will center on who does the best job of selling."
The challenge, Williams said, is to run a campaign that increases his profile and prevents others from portraying him as nothing more than an agent of the presidentially appointed control board. To win the race, Williams said, he must overcome his short tenure as a District official and popularity in Congress, an institution many D.C. voters resent. He said he must connect with voters who may regard him as an outsider.
One element of Williams's strategy is trying to persuade Donna Brazile, Norton's chief of staff, to serve as his campaign manager. The two have held talks recently. Political experts said Brazile's strong campaign and organizing skills, contacts and reputation as a staunch defender of self-government could transform Williams from a late entry in the race to a contender by fall.
Williams, who was born in Los Angeles and is the son of postal workers, became the city's chief financial officer three years ago after convincing Barry -- who nominated him -- that he wanted nothing more than to be a "navigator" on the mayor's ship. But once in office, Williams clashed with Barry over personnel and spending issues and persuaded Congress to increase his authority. During his tenure, the city went from the brink of bankruptcy to running annual surpluses, leaving Williams eager to tackle a new challenge.
Before becoming the city's chief financial officer -- a job that pays him $118,000 a year -- Williams was the chief financial officer of the U.S. Agriculture Department. Williams, an honors graduate of Yale University, Harvard Law School and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has a 15-page resume. He served in the Air Force before entering college and headed community development and housing departments in Boston and St. Louis.
"I believe there is a spirit out there for change," Williams said. "I believe that spirit of change will carry me over the obstacles that I am first to admit I face."
Staff writer Vanessa Williams contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company