Candidates Clash Over Fiscal Rebound
By Michael Powell and Hamil R. Harris
"I spearheaded the effort that resulted in home rule returning two years earlier than expected," Williams, a Democrat and the city's former chief financial officer, told a crowd of several hundred at a mayoral forum at First Baptist Church in Northwest Washington's Petworth neighborhood.
At that, D.C. Council member Kevin P. Chavous jumped up and cut off Williams: "That's absolutely ridiculous." Chavous (D-Ward 7) accused Williams of going behind the mayor's back to Congress to gain more power as chief financial officer and said such behavior was "an insult to each and every one of us."
The dispute over who can take credit for Washington's fiscal turnaround has simmered since Williams jumped into the race early this month. But last night, it erupted.
Chavous and fellow candidate and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) argued that balancing the budget has been a collaborative process among the financial control board, the mayor and the D.C. Council, with the chief financial officer as an adviser and manager.
Evans said the restructuring of the city's costs and responsibilities, led by Congress and President Clinton last year, resulted in a balanced budget. Williams "didn't balance the budget," Evans said. "The president's budget balanced the budget."
Under the terms of the federal law that created the control board, Washington must have a balanced budget for four straight years before it can regain home rule. The city had its first balanced budget last year -- before the president's plan took effect and two years ahead of schedule.
The control board has many of the powers that traditionally are held by the mayor and the council -- overseeing the city's finances, its contracting and its nine largest agencies.
But Williams argued that without his straightening out the city's finances and taxes -- and putting his own job on the line -- the city would not have had the revenue to balance its budget.
He conceded that he may have overreached when he went to Congress seeking control over city contracting -- a power that Congress eventually gave to the control board -- but he said he acted out of frustration. Mayor Marion Barry (D) and senior city managers sat atop hundreds of millions of dollars in unprocessed contracts and unspent federal grants for years, he said.
The burden of such problems, Williams argued, fell on the poor and the sick who depend on prompt and effective city services. "I accept responsibility [for mistakes], but what I was trying to correct was the tyranny of incompetency," he said.
For his part, Democratic candidate Harold Brazil, an at-large member of the D.C. Council, charged that Evans and Chavous had voted for the unbalanced budget in 1995 that prompted Congress to impose the control board.
"I would not vote for that irresponsible budget," Brazil said.
The hot words came in the second of two mayoral forums yesterday. The first forum, sponsored by an accountants organization in the cloistered confines of the University Club in downtown Washington, elicited broad agreement among the mayoral candidates, as they embraced a "no new taxes" regimen.
Chavous, in particular, sounded markedly different themes in the two debates. At the accountants' forum, Chavous spoke of cutting taxes and never mentioned his opposition to the planned new convention center in the Shaw neighborhood or his stance that downtown developers should help pay to rehabilitate run-down commercial strips.
However, at the later forum in the working-class Petworth community, Chavous returned to pounding away at the convention center and what he says is the downtown focus of the other candidates.
He attacked his main rivals -- Brazil, Evans and Williams -- for supporting the proposed convention center and ridiculed Brazil's assertion that the project would create 10,000 new jobs.
"Folks, you all buy that 10,000 people if you want to," Chavous said.
Brazil rose from his seat and, staring at Chavous, rejoined: "To my brother here, he's going to talk the talk, but I'm going to walk the walk."
Throughout the two debates, Evans, Williams and Brazil emphasized Washington's long decline, saying that 20 years ago the city was known as a model for workable government and had a generally strong business climate. That has since eroded, Evans said.
"We have to work so that businesses won't avoid it as a place that's business-unfriendly," he said.
Businessman Jeffrey Gildenhorn, a Democrat, championed a one-year sales tax cut for any business that agrees to move into Washington and sign a six-year lease. And he would offer a 25 percent tax rebate in the form of a voucher to buy services in Washington.
John Gloster, a candidate for the D.C. Statehood Party, talked about education issues and proposed cutting class sizes in D.C. schools in half, at a cost of $200 million.
Republican candidate Carol Schwartz did not attend the debates, which were scheduled before she formally joined the race this week.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company