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Going for Broke

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 1998

  Style Showcase

The bow-tied chief financial officer, the self-described buttoned-down, big-eared bean counter, is sitting in a cafe outside what passes for city hall in Washington, sipping espresso and talking about his late entry into the mayoral sweepstakes.

    Anthony Williams Starting from scratch in the race for mayor. (Sarah L. Voisin/For The Post)
He's trying to be sensible, trying to talk about how you raise money and hire staff. How you take a mayoral campaign from zero to 65 miles an hour in about eight milliseconds.

Then he starts bouncing up and down in his plastic green chair.

"It's like we're in this old turbo-prop plane."

He pulls hard on an imaginary lever.

"And we're just hoping to get it off the ground."

He glances at his imaginary instrument panel.

"The fuel light is on red. That's your campaign funding." He flaps his arms. "And your wing flaps don't work. That's your campaign organization."

He's still bouncing. A waiter gives him a strange look.

"You've got no brakes. But we're going down the runway, and we're going faster, we're bouncing, we're going to try and take off."

Anthony Williams is airborne, if just for a second. The 46-year-old is running for mayor, throwing his life, wife and rivals – a trio of D.C. council members named Jack Evans, Kevin Chavous and Harold Brazil – into gong-show overdrive.

It's been a heady three weeks, the adrenaline rush and editorial huzzahs. His track record – in three years Williams took city finances and taxes from emaciated to plump and happy – inspired a cross section of citizens, black and white, to draft him into the race. The press celebrated his quirky jokes and recounted his duels with Mayor Marion Barry. And otherwise level-headed politicians declared him – virtually sight unseen – a frontrunner.

But as Williams stares across a deserted Judiciary Square plaza, he acknowledges the difficulty of the metamorphosis from polymath technocrat to candidate.

He has no campaign money, no personal wealth, and his campaign "headquarters" is still an aide's living room. He's a relative newcomer to the city and has spent much of his time as pack leader for the green eye-shade brigade, working in the rarefied atmosphere of the tax and finance office. And, as an upper-middle-class black technocrat, Williams already has heard some liken him to Sharon Pratt Kelly and her disappointing mayorality.

Nor is his silver tongue road tested. As though to underline this point, Williams stepped into the debating ring last week with three experienced rivals. He was flat, his metaphors sodden, his timing off. And Evans, Brazil and Chavous bounced sound-bite barbs off his balding head.

"Obviously I don't have a problem with figurative language," Williams says, "but I might want to think more carefully about putting in a beginning, a middle and an end."

He smiles that ironic, inward-looking smile of his. This whole thing plays to his rather strong sense of the absurd.

"My goals are pretty clear: Collect signatures for the petition drive, focus on real issues in a way that the city hasn't seen in years and try to connect with the breathtaking 70 percent of the electorate who doesn't know who the hell I am."

Willing to Take a Chance


Why take the jump off the high career ledge? You're a mid-career, high-level, $118,000-a-year technocrat, your resume holds the holy trinity of meritocratic achievement – Yale, Harvard Law and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government – and private sector riches lie ahead once you leave city employment. So why subject yourself to the hurly-burly of electoral politics?

Maybe the question holds the answer. Maybe life gets too predictable.

Williams played with a mayoral run for months, talked about it abstractly with aides, friends and his wife at dinner, rehearsed the reasons a bit before the mirror during the morning shave. Then he said no, even issued a Shermanesque declaration of utter disinterest. But he harbored those second thoughts – his decision was so damn tame and middle-aged.

And the city's needs seemed so great.

"This city is like a little precious baby, a little precious baby that keeps getting its butt kicked," he says.

His reversal came a couple of weeks ago.

"I was driving around the city to check out food stamp offices and I'm bouncing over these potholes and I thought, 'You aren't running because you're afraid of losing, you don't want to be without a job' . . . " he recalls. "Well, that's ridiculous. I always can get a job and a career wasn't supposed to be the goal."

Williams's life decisions don't fit a linear narrative. The road from his Los Angeles childhood to his Ivy League degrees to his mayoral run is marked by all manner of detours and cul-de-sacs.

The only adopted child in an African American working-class family of eight children, Williams went to Catholic schools and attended Santa Clara University. With his grades low and his interest in left-wing politics high, he did just about the strangest thing possible for a college kid in 1971: He enlisted in the Air Force – and volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Today he explains it by talking of the influence of his father, a decorated World War II veteran, and his own aimlessness. "I was seeking a sense of order and public service," he says.

The Air Force told its polysyllabic recruit to forget Vietnam and sent him to edit the Valley Bomber, the newspaper of the 93rd Bombardment Group at a nuclear air base in California. "Peace was our profession," Williams notes. "Bombing was our hobby."

His Air Force exit strategy was no less quixotic. Eligible for an early discharge, Williams instead filed for conscientious objector status, infuriating his father. "I wanted to make a statement. When you are younger, you take a more complete, absolute view of the world," Williams says. "After a couple of years my father and I put that decision in a drawer and decided just not to go there."

Williams hung around Berkeley, Calif., for a while, with all that implied in the early 1970s. He did a little truck driving and ski patrolling, a little organic crop spraying. Ask about that time and he gives a bemused smile and wobbles his hand off into the distance. He can wear irony like armor when he wants to.

In 1975 his life picked up a more predictable momentum: Yale as a 25-year-old freshman, two terms as a left-leaning Democratic member of the New Haven City Council, degrees in law and government from Harvard, clerk to a judge and community development chief in a couple of troubled cities during the 1980s. In 1993, he went over to the Agriculture Department as its first chief financial officer.

Then came another strange career move. In the fall of 1995, Williams half-conned his way in the front door as Washington's chief financial officer, promising to serve as "navigator" on the good ship Marion Barry.

Barry was convinced he'd found a compliant bureaucrat who would do his bidding and help subvert his nemesis, the financial control board. Barry was wrong.

Williams's first days had a frontier quality, as this slightly awkward technocrat in the bow tie walked amid the detritus of a city in free fall. He looked into the belly of the beast and found pure indigestion: contracts unprocessed, money unspent, taxes uncollected.

And he came to see his boss's commitment to reform as a bit, well, problematic.

"Our most unique contribution to modern finance had been to place tax returns in tubs and throw the tubs in a back room and forget about them," Williams recalls. "It was like 'Wild Discovery.' "

Williams's wiseacre routine, and his willingness to fire the mayor's friends and torpedo their bloated city contracts, earned him the enmity of the Barry circle, especially the mayor's wife, Cora Barry. She gave him the derisive appellation of "Mr. Bow Tie."

Williams grooved on that.

"It was me and a couple of others against the world," he says. "I'm comfortable with that. And that's what we're back to now.

"I'm in my little frigate against the Spanish Armada."

Building a Cohort

It's June 1 and Williams drives to Holy Comforter Church in far Southeast Washington to meet with his mayoral draft committee. He's decided to take his $118,000-a-year job and shove it. He's running for mayor.

He cleared the last hurdle a couple of days earlier, when his wife, Diana, CFO of the Washington chapter of the Urban League, agreed to play along with his ambitions. "She wanted to know if I'm delusional as usual or focused for a change," he says.

Then he sees the church parking lot and alleys jammed with cars and his nerves start doing scales.

The church meeting room is aglow. About 200 people, black and white, middle- and working-class, some longtime community activists and some not, have jammed the room to cheer a technocrat in a bow tie.

Williams presses his lips together and massages his temples with his wrists. He peers at the crowd with that opaque Zen stare of his.

"There is stark panic initially," he says. "Then you hope it connects, converts. You look around the room, you make contact, you start to roll . . . "

Sometimes Williams can be too cerebral, too clever by half. When he talks of "blowing up" bureaucracies, for instance, residents who depend on the city for employment may fear their names will be on the explosives box.

But not now. This night he will strap the crowd into the roller-coaster car with him and take off.

Some see a discontinuity in Williams's personal tale, a disconnect between the Gandhian hippie and the numbers-and-accounting-ledgers technocrat. He feeds this stuff by poking fun at himself as a "nerd with big ears." But if every campaign is about the tension between self-definition and the image imposed by opponents, Williams grabs the first chance to stitch his story together.

He speaks of straightening out a broken vending system and saving the lives of hundreds of AIDS patients. Of fixing property taxes and helping thousands of working-class homeowners. Of finding millions of unspent federal dollars that will help mothers move from welfare to work and rehabilitate crumbling apartment buildings.

Numbers equal lives saved equal the lifeblood of government in his equation. "To look at the finances of the District is to be touched by the human suffering," Williams says.

He finishes and the air inside the church is a white-noise buzz of contribution checks proffered and people pulling on his sleeve. There is more than a hint of a children's crusade to Williams's candidacy. Enthusiasm is great – all week people from homeless men to buppie lawyers walk up to him on the street and offer to contribute and work for him.

But coordination is a bit slap-dash. Few know where the next meeting is. With 90 days to go until the primary, his opponents have campaign headquarters, paid staff and established electoral bases. Evans has raised more than $500,000; Chavous more than $260,000.

And city labor chieftains haven't forgiven him for summarily firing 230 employees in his finance and tax departments, after his own audits found those divisions rife with incompetence, and perhaps worse. "I'm not writing off Anthony Williams but he's going to have to do a lot of explaining," says David Schlein, national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees.

Williams is a political neophyte but no naif. He's already chatting with labor, intent on repairing relations. And he has spent the past weeks interviewing experienced campaign managers and fund-raisers, talking with Chamber of Commerce types and dialing for dollars from an aide's living room.

But for now he's flying solo.

"It's the draft committee and yours truly," he says. "I'm just surfing the wave."

That surfing thing is very California. But the trouble with waves is that sometimes they crash down on you.

Chewed Up by the Pros

Williams arrives at his first debate wearing one of those fashion-challenged gray pinstripped combinations. And the bow tie.

"You'd be reaching to call it a style," he says. "The good news is I never exactly go out of style."

With that, this most verbally adept of men steps into the debating ring at the Tenley Circle Library and gets his head handed to him. His rivals, articulate men all, have done six years on the D.C. Council. They're club pros primed for the kid from the Golden Glove ranks. The haymakers come from all directions.

Williams is a numbers-cruncher. He went to Congress behind the backs of elected officials to get power over contracts. He wants to close the University of the District of Columbia.

Williams is off balance. He responds with three- and five-point plans. He speaks too fast. He seems rattled by a few black activists who hold "Anthony Williams: Enemy of the People" signs. It's not fatal but it's your basic car wreck.

The next day, the phone rings. It's Williams.

"Hear that banging?" he asks. "We're in the garage knocking the dents out of the car, but we'll get it back out on the road. I mean, welcome to the campaign."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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