Willie J. Hardy was upset the other day at the turn a City Council debate on higher gasoline taxes had taken. As usual, she spoke her mind.
"We've got to look at this thing," she told her colleagues in a voice whose edge had been serrated by years of cigarette smoke, a down-to-earth growl that filled the council chambers.
"For the poor people who can't afford to put gas in the tank, we've got a public transportation system out there," Hardy said. "We'll use it."
The remark was in many ways typical of the 56-year-old widow, who announced last Monday that she will not stand for reelection to the council this fall. It was blunt and forceful, and while seemingly callous toward the plight of the poor, in the same breath Hardy counted herself as one of them.
Hardy has represented Ward 7 on the elected council since its inception in 1975. Like many of the council's charter members, Hardy made her political name in the streets -- she had run a storefront program in far Northeast that provided shelter, clothing and legal advice to poor people, and led demonstrations for housing, police protection, civil rights and a host of other issues.
Her departure, in many ways, highlights a gradual evolution of the council. The street activists, like Hardy and Douglas Moore and Marion Barry, are giving way to professionals like attorney John L. Ray, former school board member Betty Ann Kane and researcher Charlene Drew Jarvis. For the most part, the newcomers have a sophistication that many of the charter members have lacked.
Hardy's earthy speech -- "Honeys" and "babys" and an occasional dash of profanity -- and her penchant for loud clothes were considered out of place by some colleagues. She also had a reputation for being unprepared for debates and unfamiliar with the details of the issues at hand. One former council worker recalled, "She always started out by saying, "I haven't heard the whole bill, but . . ."
She gambled -- she won about $2,380 in 1977 at area race tracks -- and was proud of it. When a reporter reminded her than an important group of black clergymen opposed gambling, Hardy said, "They don't represent all the ministers, honey," and added that her most recent trip to the track had been sponsored by a local church.
However, if her style sometimes shocked the District Building it seemed "The feeling was always that she had her finger on the pulse of the community," said one former employe of the City Council. "I don't know if that's changed, or what."
Increasingly over the past months Hardy has taken positions identified with the business community. She took positions opposite those of many tenant groups on both rent control and condominium conversions, and new D.C. workers' compensation laws she offered last year turned out to be written by the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, the city's largest business association.
"The Board of Trade doesn't have a pocket big enough to fit me in," she said in an interview last week, defending her move to restrict workers' compensation benefits as a way of helping small businesses be able to afford to stay in the District of Columbia.
Nevertheless, council observers have been wondering if Hardy still has a constituency in Ward 7. They suggest her probusiness positions and sometimes unorthodox views about poverty may have cost her support in the public housing projects and low-income areas of far Northeast, while her down-home style draws few raves from the affluent young black professionals who have moved into the southern end of the ward -- what Hardy calls "my little Silver Coast."
Lorraine Whitlock, Mayor Barry's chief operative in the ward during his 1978 campaign, told a reporter last year that the area is now "operating more at an intellectual level than an emotional one." She suggested that the ward's next representative on the council "ought to be elected on competence and performance rather than on popularity and name recognition."
Hardy says her decision not to run again was based on her desire to get out of elective politics and start a consulting firm, and not founded on any thought that she could not win again.
Three contenders have filed to run in the Sept. 9 Democratic primary for Hardy's seat. All three -- H.R. Crawford, Johnny Barnes and Emily Y. Washington -- are cast from the new mold of the polished professional.
During her years on the council, Hardy took strong, often controversial, stands on family issues. In a sense, she was the "mother" of the council, "I've had seven children [one adopted] and raised 20 as my own," she said last week. "I know kids. They talk to me, they trust me."
In 1976, Hardy sponsored a bill that would have set an 11 p.m. curfew for teen-agers and imposed fines or jail terms on parents whose children were out later than that.
Hardy said last week that she believed the unsuccessful proposal was "ahead of its time." But she said she still is concerned about keeping families together, and believes some federal programs - such as those that offer jobs to, young people only if their family's income is low enough -- hurt families more than help them.
Looking back on her five years on the council Hardy said she's proud of her record. "If I'm criticized, then I've been heard," she said. "If I'm not criticized, then I have a silent voice."