D.C. Mayor Acted 'Hastily,' Will Rehire Aide
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 1999; Page A1
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday that he will rehire a former top aide who resigned last month because some city employees were offended that the aide used the word "niggardly" in describing how he would have to manage a fund's tight budget.
Williams, whose quick acceptance of David Howard's resignation last month led to a national debate over racial sensitivity and political correctness, indicated in a statement yesterday that he had made a mistake and "acted too hastily" in allowing Howard to resign as head of the city's constituent services office.
The mayor said that an internal review had "confirmed for me that Mr. Howard did use the word 'niggardly,' but did not use a racial epithet" during a Jan. 15 discussion with two employees of the Office of the Public Advocate. "Niggardly" means miserly and has no racial connotation.
Williams said that one of the employees, identified by Howard as Marshall Brown, interpreted Howard's remark as a racial slur. Brown has declined to comment on the incident.
In a private meeting yesterday, Williams asked Howard to return to the Office of the Public Advocate. Howard declined but said he would accept another job in Williams's administration.
Howard, 44, said yesterday that he never felt "victimized" but that the experience has given him "a certain awareness" he did not have before the incident occurred.
"I just feel very pleased that this whole thing has a silver lining," he said. "The silver lining is that this has led to a discussion that can help everyone understand each other better. . . . I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind. That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day. An African American does."
Howard's resignation Jan. 25 made him the subject of dozens of television and radio broadcasts and newspaper columns across the country.
Locally, it focused attention on Williams's discomfort over criticism from some black residents that he has brought in too many white department managers who have little feel for their community. Williams also drew criticism from gay activists for allowing Howard, who is gay, to resign.
Many of those who blasted Williams focused on his management of the situation and how he accepted Howard's resignation before reviewing the circumstances that created the furor. Political pundits and linguists alike debated whether an employee's resignation should be accepted merely because a colleague did not understand a word used in a conversation.
"While it is important for a mayor -- or any leader -- to act decisively, make bold decisions and create a sense of urgency, it is not always necessary to act hastily," Williams said. "I believe I acted too hastily in accepting David's resignation."
Williams added that his chief of staff was working with the office of personnel to find a new position for Howard.
Howard said he was reluctant to return to the same office, not because of any potential conflict with employees there, but because he believed the public would focus too much attention on him.
"It has nothing to do with other people in that office. It really doesn't," Howard said. "People are so interested in this thing that it will get in the way of the business we have to do in that office. I told the mayor it would be best if I do something out of the public eye."
Williams's decision to rehire Howard pleased the former aide's supporters.
"It's to the mayor's credit that he offered to reinstate him," said Philip Pannell, a gay activist. "I think it's very big of him and prudent. I hope this is a situation where everyone at large, as a community, learned from this."
But Ronald Walters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, said that Howard is best suited now for a government job "where he's not in the public face."
"This is a problem of political inexperience on all sides compounded by culture ignorance on all sides," Walters said. "The mayor can't afford to have an aide in a town that is 63 percent black making this kind of mistake. I think he did the right thing [accepting the resignation]. Williams sent a message that racial insensitivity won't be tolerated in his administration."
Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, commended the mayor for being "forthright and brave enough to admit he's made a mistake and to seek to correct it." He said two basic questions need to be asked: What was learned from this situation, and how will Williams make sure it doesn't happen again?
"One hopes that this administration doesn't have a tendency to be termination-happy whenever there's a problem," he said. "Creative management means that you counsel people, warn them and deal with the problem. You do not solve the problem by putting them out on the street."
NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who in criticizing Williams last week said that people should not have to "censor" their language to meet other "people's lack of understanding," praised Howard's reinstatement.
"I'm happy to learn that this episode has come to some happy conclusion and that the citizens and the government of the District of Columbia can get back to talking about real issues," he said.
Anatomy of a Controversy
David Howard, a top aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, resigned last month after being criticized for saying the word "niggardly" during a meeting with two city employees. Howard's resignation, and Williams's decision to accept it, raised questions about whether the mayor acted too hastily and fueled discussions across the nation about appropriate word usage. A look at the key dates in the Howard situation:
Jan. 15: In a discussion of how little money his office would have to serve residents, Howard, the head of the mayor's constituent services office, tells two associates that he'll have to be "niggardly" with his agency's budget. Niggardly, meaning miserly, has no racial connotation, but soon rumors begin spreading among some city workers that Howard had used the "N-word."
Jan. 25: Howard offers his resignation to Williams, who accepts it, citing the District's sensitive climate for race relations.
Jan. 27: Williams, under criticism from some black leaders as well as the gay community, says he will review the circumstances that led to Howard's resignation. Howard, a former restaurant manager who is active in the gay community,
says that he alone decided to resign and that Williams should not be criticized.
Jan. 28: Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP, says Williams overreacted in accepting Howard's resignation.
Sunday: During a commencement speech at American University, Williams acknowledges he might have acted too hastily in agreeing to Howard's resignation, adding that the episode has taught him that "if you are driving down the road when it's raining, you ought to slow down."
Monday: Reba Pittman Evans, Williams's chief of staff, completes her probe into the Howard incident.
Yesterday: Williams issues a statement saying he has asked Howard to withdraw his resignation and return to D.C. government. Williams says Howard has agreed to do so, but in another job.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company