Technocrat Injects Politics of the Unusual
By Michael Powell and Vanessa Williams
The campaign for mayor of Washington has just gone topsy-turvy.
When Anthony A. Williams, the city's chief financial officer, dove into the mayoral race this weekend, he injected the politics of the unusual into a campaign that was the predictable province of three longtime D.C. council members.
A bow-tied outsider, Williams has spent three years reworking and fixing the city's tax collection and finances and speaking with tart-tongued candor about Washington's woes.
A few seasoned politicians crowned Williams as the front-runner yesterday, saying he speaks most directly to those who yearn for a city government that works. Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) predicted flatly: "If he runs, he wins."
Williams, who is black, has spent a decade as a high-level technocrat, however, and it's unclear how his ready-aim-fire style and restless wit will translate on a campaign trail. He is a tough manager who has not hesitated to lay off inept city workers, face down the mayor, and tie his own tenure to his ability to reform city departments.
Some see a man more beloved by the intelligentsia and insiders than by a broad swath of Washingtonians. Those observers note that he has angered unions and supporters of the mayor, possesses a fledgling campaign organization and has raised little money so far.
"It would be easy to portray him as Mr. Heartless Bow Tie," said Howard Croft, a former council candidate in Ward 6, and a political activist.
But Williams is no political novitiate. He served two terms on the New Haven, Conn., city council, has headed two major development agencies in St. Louis and Boston, and has met with hundreds of community groups since arriving in Washington.
And his outsider status could serve him well. Voters have told pollsters they wanted somebody else the race, and somebody else has arrived.
At the very least, his entry has upended expectations.
"It sharpens the race," said council member Sharon Ambrose, (D-Ward 6). "Those who can't deal with substance at the same level as Tony will be at a real disadvantage."
Viewed in horse-race terms, Williams complicates the candidacy of Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). Evans casts himself as a reformer with citywide appeal. But he is not a fire-breather, and he has counted on the predominantly white west side as his base.
Williams threatens Evans's message and his base, say many political observers.
As Evans has noted, polls show that perhaps 15 percent of white liberal voters would prefer to vote for a black candidate. And Williams has a reformer's track record.
"He is refreshing, he's not tainted," said Matt Stevens, a 25-year-old Adams-Morgan resident.
The effect on the candidacies of Harold Brazil (D-At Large) and Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7) is less clear. Some see Chavous, with his campaign theme of returning power to neighborhoods, as offering a populist alternative to Williams's technocratic persona. But the draft-Tony Williams movement was spearheaded by people from Chavous's ward.
With an eye toward Chavous's base, Williams will begin his campaign east of the river where his name recognition is lowest.
"Williams can say, 'All they ever do is talk. They haven't made the hard choice,'‚" Croft said. "He can go after Chavous as missing in action in the city council."
Williams is an expert manager, with strongly positive poll ratings among the minority of city voters who recognize his name. But he must prove he can master the often subtle political arts and move beyond his fiscal expertise to address issues from broken schools to the convention center to potholes.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani faced a similar task in 1989. The former U.S. attorney was a crime fighter supreme. But he came out of the gates as a clumsy campaigner and unsure of some issues. He lost and spent four years polishing his style before running again and winning.
"Williams is a financial wizard," said Rob Hodgson, Brazil's deputy campaign manager. "But there's more to a mayor than being a financial wizard.
Some, too, wonder if Williams's brightest-man-in-the-room persona could prove off-putting. "When Adlai Stevenson ran against Dwight Eisenhower, he was the intellectually sophisticated guy, but he had no warmth," said Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a businessman who is running for mayor.
That said, Williams's outsized reputation as a reformer presents problems for his rivals. During the holiday season in December, Gildenhorn put a message on the marquee at his American City Diner on Connecticut Avenue in upper Northwest.
It celebrated the city's financial control board chairman, the U.S. attorney and the chief financial officer. It read simply: "Three Wise Men: Brimmer, Holder and Williams."
Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, David A. Vise and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.
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