Williams Is Learning on the Run
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, Oct. 20, 1998; Page A01
Cruising the city in the final weeks of a hurry-up campaign, the candidate favored to claim Washington's tarnished political crown is modeling the role of mayor in the mirror of his mind.
"I'm walking down the street, or I drive right across the bridge into Anacostia," says Anthony A. Williams, "and I go, 'Wow, this could be so amazing.' Or I'm driving down Constitution Avenue, and I will say, 'Wow, I could be mayor!' "
But this is Washington, where wow has a flip side.
"I'll wake up in the middle of the night," Williams goes on, "and sometimes I'll say, 'Oh, Lord.' With things like the schools in our city or the plight of black men, you're just awed by their complexity. You really get a sense that, man, this is going to be climbing a mountain."
Williams wants to climb that mountain. He says he dearly covets the challenge, even as he struggles to map the city's high ridges of need. A man of unfulfilled drive, he is on the Nov. 3 ballot as a dreamer-technician who makes clear that winning the election would not be victory enough, just a start.
He entered the race scant months ago, a long-shot chief financial officer who turned politician and thumped the professional pols in the Democratic primary. Now, increasingly confident in himself and his ability to win the election, he faces a question that links his fate with the city he hopes to govern. Can he lead? And can the District, governed so parentally by Congress, finally produce a trusted, take-charge mayor?
The city's immediate future may depend on the answers, as Williams, no less than his sniping opponents, is aware. Voters with their pent-up ambitions are watching. Congress through a skeptical eye is watching. And so are far-flung critics long grown comfortable in their chatter about Washington's urban woes.
"I believe that I bring management skills to the table, but I do not concede that I am not a leader," says Williams, the District's former finance chief, often derided as a bean counter and a hired hand. "Four years from now, I predict people aren't going to say, 'Wow, hell of a manager.' They're going to say, 'Hmm, he's a real leader.' "
To make good his metamorphosis -- and the city's -- Williams believes he must start winning hearts and minds. He is refining his voice, his message and what he hopes will be his mandate. He has not been at this image-making, ground-laying game for long. His political self is very much a work in progress.
Williams is trying to show it, but he admits he is not always comfortable in the role of vote-seeker. Presented with opportunities to engage, he sometimes whiffs. Even in a campaign's political whirl, Williams can have the air of a man standing off to the side, an observer at his own party.
Indeed, as Williams and his team work to mold the anti-candidate into a pleasing shape during the campaign's final weeks, the entire enterprise still has an experimental air, a product of the aspiring mayor's originality and his political rawness.
"We give Tony our sweat and dedication and he gives us angina," jokes campaign adviser Jim Wareck. Spoofing the owlishness of his boss, he draws delighted howls when he mimics an imagined Williams moment at campaign headquarters on victory night.
The stage is set, Wareck says, drawing the scene. Colorful balloons are everywhere. Bunting, television cameras, a crowd, emotion. Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw break into coverage to announce the dramatic Williams win. Supporters cheer madly.
And there in another room is Williams, in his own world, head cocked to the side, intently watching a Discovery Channel show titled something like "The Fruit Bat of the Northern Savanna."
Williams impressed a well-heeled audience in Colonial Heights one recent evening with his talk of the city's needs, its potential and his determination to fix things. Afterward, William Funderburk praised Williams as being "as clear and concise as any candidate I've ever heard in the District," then tried to explain his early skepticism.
"I had real doubts. I wondered if I could stomach a technocrat," says Funderburk, a surgeon. "I think we need a real politician in the mayoralty. We can't have someone who isn't politically minded enough."
Williams's family and closest supporters, the ones who see him most often on the campaign trail and the ones who chart his progress most carefully, constantly look for signs that Williams is more at home in the skin of a candidate.
The consensus: Improving, needs work.
"I see him growing. He's more open. He's learning," says his mother, Virginia Williams, who took a break from her life in Los Angeles to join the campaign. "He's not a natural politician, but he's a natural man."
Carlene Cheatam, working to promote Williams among gay voters, hands out free drink tickets at The Circle, a Dupont Circle club, and talks about the change in Williams since he entered the race in June.
"He was very standoffish. He didn't know what to do. He would just stand there," Cheatam says. "Now he understands that the purpose of being out there is touching the people, knowing the people. Now he extends himself a hell of a lot more than in the past."
His humor is back. Credited with a wicked wryness and a talent for self-deprecation, Williams put a lid on the funny stuff during the bruising primary against the Council Members Three -- Kevin P. Chavous, Jack Evans and Harold Brazil. Feeling his way and sensing the pressure, he did not seem himself, and he realized it.
"In the primary, it was deadly boring because, for one, I was very, very cautious and conservative," Williams remembers. "Now I'm more comfortable in the role. I still want to be responsible, but you can be responsible and crack a joke every now and then."
During an interview in his basement headquarters, Williams suddenly shouts in mock anger to unseen workers in the next room: "That music is pleasant. Turn it down! I don't want any pleasant music in here. Stop smiling, too, dammit! And get those kids out of here!"
The music is indeed pleasant, there are plenty of smiles, and no children. He is having a good time while doing some political spinning. It will be difficult to lead the city's renaissance, he realizes, if many voters continue to see him as aloof and somehow solitary.
"Tony is a no-nonsense guy and he doesn't suffer fools gladly. As a politician, you have to check that impulse. You need to connect with people," comments one high-ranking city employee who has watched Williams in action.
"Being mayor would be a very, very different job than he had before," the city worker continues. "He was running his own shop, he did not have to deal with competing constituencies and he wasn't called on to be a charming persuader."
A rousing public speaker, Williams is not. He has not perfected the big-voiced delivery to gratify and inspire a large crowd. It is not him. Where Barry's public style runs to contentious and fiery, Williams opts for reasoned and clever. If Barry is an uppercut, Williams is a jab.
Small gatherings and small gestures are more Williams's strength. Trying to tweak the atmospherics, he makes sure some days to leave his trademark bow ties in the closet, appearing at Metro stations and campaign events in open-necked shirts, corduroys, faded bluejeans, walking shoes.
"How are you, ma'am? Tony Williams. Running for mayor of the city," Williams tells a prospective voter on Quebec Street NW. "I hope I can count on your support in November."
To a grade-school boy leading the way to doorway after doorway, he says, "It's kind of like trick or treat, huh?"
Republican contender Carol Schwartz brings out the one-liners in him, says Williams, inspiring his patter. At Young's Memorial Church on Alabama Avenue SE, Williams told a recent evening gathering about his adventures with his opponent.
"I say, 'Hello, Carol,' and she bites my hand. I say, 'Hello, Carol,' and she keeps biting my hand. I say, 'Hello, Carol,' and she takes a slingshot to me. I'm not going to say, 'Hello, Carol,' again. Carol was in a bad mood."
Williams says later, "If I believed all the things she said, I'd have to get a divorce from myself."
Borrowing a tactic employed by Vice President Gore, Williams makes light of his supposed bloodlessness. He'll say, "I've been to events where they have an applause meter, and I'm looking at the applause meter and I'm wondering whether the thing's been plugged in or not."
Or: One guy says to another guy that he saw Tony Williams smiling. The other guy says, "Yeah, somebody told Tony that my car was just repossessed."
Or: "I don't have any personal life. My personal life is I go home and work Excel spreadsheets. I get a kick out of doing some new spreadsheet arrangements. For relaxation, I do some equations and stuff."
In real life, Williams was stunned by the tone of early campaign attacks. During the primary, in particular, he was labeled everything from a carpetbagger to an unfeeling bureaucrat who fired 165 District workers one morning without a second thought. He says he learned to dust himself off.
"When Kevin was blasting me for being against every known social program, I just considered it politics. I kept my head up above the waves, looking at the shore," Williams says. "I have a really high degree of self-confidence. I know that it's bs, so I just look beyond it. It's best to kind of be stoic and take it, as opposed to sitting there whining and complaining."
Williams has been polishing his stoicism during the current slice of election season when confronted by angry voters who demand to pick a bone. Instinct and political sense might suggest answering swiftly and surely, rather than letting negative vibrations waft through a crowd, but Williams waits to swat.
He demonstrates verbally, imagining a complaining voter.
"Rant rant rant. Just kind of rope-a-dope. Rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant rant. Then finally come through."
At a recent meeting of Democrats in Ward 4, Williams used the tactic when several people stood to challenge him on the three issues that most haunt his campaign. They are the employee firings, a decision to put senior services on a list of possible budget cuts, and a demand that the University of the District of Columbia live within its budget.
Williams took a few salvos before he gave his well-hewn explanations. He yielded ground only on the firings issue, where he said he should have handled the pink-slip process differently. He drew cheers when he declared loudly, "The only person who never committed a mistake who could run for office is God, and God's not running!"
On the personal side, Williams has a rich story to tell, if only he would. An adopted son who grew up in a large family in Los Angeles, he blended 1960s war protest with a stint in the Air Force, an abortive organic crop-dusting business with eventual academic success among the Eastern elite at Harvard and Yale.
He has been in the Washington area for five years, most recently in a rented Foggy Bottom apartment with his wife, Diane Simmons Williams, the chief financial officer of the D.C. office of the Urban League. He escapes into biographies and, when he can, into canoes.
Williams owns three canoes outright, and shares two others. His interests vary widely, from airplanes to astronomy to bird-watching. He does not own a piano, but can play tunes by ear when he finds one, his wife reports. He has mastered a computer flight game, although the early going saw him often crashing and burning.
He makes Starbucks coffee for the two of them in the morning. On rare slow days, he bakes bread and does much of the cooking, including experimental pasta dishes, Diane says. Until the campaign began, he was the one who cleaned the bathroom, took out the trash and delivered the laundry to the cleaners.
"In the past, he was a very quiet person around people. By quiet, you get the feeling he's a little standoffish," Diane Williams says. "When you first meet Tony, you have the image, you know, with the bow tie, but once you sit down with him, you find he's this warm, funny, caring person."
The private candidate chooses his public topics carefully.
"I like astronomy. I like outdoor stuff. I like birds and stuff," Williams says. "I do definitely not go around the campaign talking about birds, though. That would just feed into this image."
Asked about the trappings of the mayor's office, Williams says he remains unimpressed by visions of manufactured importance. An entourage, for instance, or security men in tailored suits clearing his path.
"That doesn't excite me," Williams asserts. "It excites me that as mayor you can ask for a tour of the trees of the District and get a top arborist to tell you about all the trees. That to me is exciting."
With the trees, if Williams wins next month, will come the forbidding forest.
"I've always wanted to be a leader," he says, leaving little doubt that according to his high standards, it will take more than winning an election to make him one. He talks about climbing the mountain, and he wants to direct the ascent, but he will know he has failed if he finds himself alone when he reaches the top.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company