Tough Rhetoric Marks Mayoral Debate
By Michael Powell
Williams, who resigned Monday as the District's chief financial officer to enter the race, seemed tentative in his maiden mayoral debate, several times couching his views in technical language and offering few of the rhetorical pyrotechnics he has displayed elsewhere.
The debate in the Tenley Circle neighborhood of Northwest Washington featured Williams, as well as D.C. Council members Kevin P. Chavous (D-Ward 7), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Harold Brazil (D-At Large); businessman Jeffrey Gildenhorn, also a Democrat; and John Gloster, of the Statehood Party.
The rhetoric was often sharp, as the three council members staked out different positions on the financial control board, the University of the District of Columbia and the proposed convention center in the Shaw neighborhood. But they directed their most pointed thrusts at Williams, whose entry into the race has threatened to complicate their campaigns.
Evans seemed to speak for all three council member candidates when he went after Williams's reputation as the city's fiscal savior. Evans argued that he and others on the council had tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to change the direction of a tottering D.C. government before Williams took his job with the city three years ago.
"We were the junior officers who were telling the captain to slow down and avoid the iceberg," Evans said. "You will discover who actually made the tough decisions."
Chavous, too, peppered his comments with shots at Williams, accusing him of working behind the scenes with Congress to undermine democracy. (This was a reference to Williams's attempt last year to gain some control over city contracting; Congress later explicitly gave this power to the control board.)
"We can hire numbers-crunchers, but we need someone to speak for the least among us," Chavous said.
He added that Williams has taken too much credit for the city's fiscal recovery.
"The relief we've found in the past four years is not attributable to any one person," Chavous said. "It is attributable to democracy working."
This latter point took some in the audience by surprise, as Chavous often has described the control board period as one in which democracy has been all but suspended.
Williams rejoined that his rivals might look and sound nice but that they lacked the management expertise to turn the city around. And he framed his toughest decisions -- specifically his move to lay off nearly 200 employees in the finance and tax department -- as prompted by the near-mortal wounds afflicting the city.
"How did we get to the point where we had the city near death?" Williams asked, adding that his stewardship had left the District with a budget surplus the last two years. This money, he said, meant that D.C. government could give employees their first raise in many years.
Williams also came out against a proposal by control board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer that would hand much power over city government to an appointed triumvirate of city managers. Under Brimmer's proposal, the mayor and D.C. Council would appoint the managers to six-year terms and have little day-to-day responsibility over city government.
All three council members attacked Brimmer. Chavous called on him to resign immediately. (Brimmer will leave the control board at the end of the summer.) Brazil wondered aloud about Brimmer, an economist: "How can anyone be so smart on economics and so dumb on democracy?"
And Evans combined a shot at Brimmer with another one at Williams.
"We shouldn't have an appointed government, because you know what will happen: These people will turn around and run for mayor."
The council members, however, did not hold a united front all evening. Brazil, who often is seen as a lone wolf on the council, noted that he cast the only vote against the final city budgets that helped pitch the city into fiscal insolvency three years ago.
Essentially, he -- and Williams -- argued that the city's fiscal profligacy and managerial ineptitude all but killed home rule.
"I'm the only one who didn't vote for an unbalanced, irresponsible budget," Brazil said. "Over and over again, I've been the lone voice against budgets that broke the back of home rule."
For his part, Chavous offered a populist thrust, arguing that he would relegate the control board to "bean-counting" status and lead an administration that forced downtown developers to pay for neighborhood projects.
But Evans and Brazil assailed that as just pretty rhetoric that would delay the return of home rule.
"Let's be realistic: We will work in a coalition [with the control board] for the next two years," Evans said. "If we deviate from that course, I can assure you that . . . we won't get home rule back for a generation."
Williams, too, said that a well-meaning government also must deliver services.
"We can all talk about love of neighborhoods and love of people, but you have to ask: Can that person take us there?" he said.
Gloster argued that urban government should, first and foremost, protect workers' rights and not "worship at the altar of efficiency." He said he would rather be led out of his house by his feet than execute the inhumane orders of the control board.
Gildenhorn, meanwhile, often agreed with his rivals. "No wonder I didn't get into law school," he said at one point. "Let me make it real simple: I agree with Tony Williams."
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