She's the campaign guest who's still here, having come from California to Washington last summer because her son wanted her, a 70-year-old widow, to add some zip to his run for mayor.
Now, nearly eight months after Anthony A. Williams took office, Virginia E. Hayes Williams--known in the mayor's office as Nana--is having the time of her life as the mayor's Representative Without Title at functions across the city.
She breezes around town in a red Dodge Intrepid driven by her new friend, 83-year-old Carol Parris. Williams's warm, hugs-for-everyone personality--quite a contrast to her more reserved son--has made her such a popular proclamation-reader and speech-giver that a mayoral aide now handles her schedule.
And then there's the singing.
Williams, trained in opera and a former studio singer for Ray Charles, was a frequent guest performer in D.C. churches during last summer's campaign. Her surprisingly powerful appearances in churches were a blessing for her son, who had been viewed with suspicion by some working-class residents for his moves to fire hundreds of city workers when he was the District's chief financial officer.
Virginia Williams still drops in on Sunday services and chats with parishioners about Anthony, her adopted son. The mayor credits her with breathing life into his admittedly wooden image.
"When I first came on the scene in D.C., people thought the only way they could find a soul in me was to do an X-ray," the mayor said. "[That was] until they saw my mother."
Virginia Williams has become enough of a community presence that--apparently to avoid any appearance of impropriety--she says she signed an agreement with her son's administration in which she stated that all her efforts were voluntary and that she would not seek compensation.
It has all led to some speculation over exactly how much influence Virginia Williams has in her son's administration. She plays down her role as mayoral adviser, saying only that she tells her son about things she sees in the community, particularly on issues that affect children and the elderly.
"I tell the world that nobody voted for me," said Williams, who lives in the Northwest Washington home of one of her son's supporters. "Tony makes his own decisions. What would I look like, telling Tony what to do?"
But Virginia Williams does acknowledge that when her son took office in January, she wanted him to appoint Abdusalam Omer, then a city budget official, as chief of staff. The mayor chose Reba Pittman Evans, who was quickly ousted as a result of staff infighting. Her replacement? Omer.
Williams said the most political advice she has ever given her son came about 1 1/2 years ago, when friends were trying to persuade Anthony Williams to run for mayor. "I told him to think twice before you do it, because being an elected official is a tough job," she said. "You can't out and quit."
Parris, Virginia Williams's close friend and chauffeur, offers another view of Williams's relationship with her 48-year-old son. Like most mothers, Parris said, when "she gets him in a corner, she'll fuss at him. He's the mayor, but she's still his mother. She'll tell him, 'I don't think you should do that.' "
For her part, Williams says she's happy to attend events that her son can't and that her daughter-in-law, Diane Simmons Williams, doesn't. "They asked the mayor to do it. And when he can't do it, he calls on me," a smiling Williams said after a recent appearance at a children's play at the Carter Barron Amphitheater, during which she sang "You Can Make a Difference" with characters called BungleBug and HoneyBea.
Diane Williams, an accountant at the Greater Washington Urban League, has so far avoided the spotlight during her husband's tenure as mayor, leading some community leaders to see Virginia Williams as the District's de facto first lady. Diane Williams did not return several telephone calls seeking comment on her relationship with her mother-in-law.
Parris says she's heard some criticism in the community that Virginia Williams is trying to take over her daughter-in-law's role as first lady, but says it isn't so, and that both Diane and Virginia Williams are simply doing what they feel most comfortable with.
Parris recalled one D.C. resident telling her that Virginia Williams "should go back to California and let the mayor's wife do it, [that] his mother shouldn't be here, all around. I said, 'You don't know his mother. People ask for her. She's more of a politician than he is. She's more into it than Tony, and her personality is different.' "
Virginia Williams, whose political experience includes an unsuccessful run for the Los Angeles City Council in 1971, shrugs off any suggestion that she's trying to step on her daughter-in-law's toes.
"We each have a role to play," she said. "I don't think many [mayors'] wives have gotten around as much as I have, not to mention mothers." She added that Diane Williams, who is in her mid-forties, is "not old enough to be bothered with [the concerns of] old folks. When I say my knees are gone, [senior citizens] know I know what I'm talking about."
Her candidness in talking about seniors and healthy living, combined with her having the mayor's ear, make Virginia Williams a coveted guest for community groups. Thomye Cave, executive director of the Downtown Cluster's Geriatric Day Care Center, invited Virginia Williams to the center's Spring Fling, which the mayor did not attend.
"She can go back and tell him the kinds of programs [that are] here," Cave said. "She helps give a voice to elderly issues."
Daryl Pennington of the Baptist Senior Adult Ministries of the Metropolitan Washington Area said that unlike many politicians who visit her group, Virginia Williams wasn't there merely for grip-and-grin photo opportunities. She talked with them, shared concerns and laughs, and listened to what they had to say.
"It wasn't like, 'Hello; goodbye,' " Pennington said.
Virginia Williams's whirlwind of appearances during the past year included a singing performance with the D.C. Youth Orchestra. Before that, she went to a gala at the Kennedy Center and to another for the NATO summit. She was even called to Capitol Hill to testify about post-menopausal health care issues at a hearing with members of Congress and a former U.S. surgeon general. On the agenda, she was listed simply as "Virginia Williams, Mother of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams."
At the hearing, Virginia Williams was "poignant, down-to-earth, appropriate and insightful," said Jim Wareck, of the city's intergovernmental affairs office. People swarmed her after the speech, and Williams gave a big hug to former surgeon general Antonia Novello.
Virginia Williams, a Paducah, Ky., native and one of eight children, was adopted at age 12 by a childless uncle and aunt who lived in Englewood, N.J. After high school, she received a scholarship to the Julliard conservatory, but her family discouraged her from going there because, she recalls now, there was "no place for black women in opera."
She moved to California in the 1940s and eventually landed a postal job. She was looking for a way to make some extra money when a friend told her that Ray Charles needed some strong voices who could record music overnight in a studio. She was hired.
She had six children and, along with her husband, Lewis, adopted three more. Anthony was one of those; Virginia Williams said she took him in part because she feared he'd wind up in a home for retarded children--he was 3 years old and not yet talking.
"Anthony is God's child," Virginia Williams said. "I really feel he was born for a special purpose. He's one of those people who works hard and you never know what he's thinking. The only thing that hurts me is when people misunderstand him."
After Virginia Williams arrived here last year, Parris noticed Anthony Williams loosen up on the campaign trail. "Momma came to town," Parris said. "She started making him. She told the story of Tony. She made people realize this is a real man. He's not stiff like that."
Virginia Williams says that it's her son who has given her a new outlook, particularly since the death last year of her husband of 50 years.
"My life was over," she said. "I was ready to go into the sunset. I wasn't going to die, but quietly do volunteer things here and there. I wasn't going to be this busy."
CAPTION: Virginia Williams takes part in "The Bea and the Bug," a special show for children at Carter Barron Amphitheater earlier this month.
CAPTION: On the agenda for the mayor's mother: visits to city schools, including a stop at Tri-School Learning Academy at Eighth and T streets NW, where she promotes children's literacy by reading "My Dream of Martin Luther King," by Faith Ringgold, to the students.
CAPTION: In June 1998, candidate Anthony A. Williams gave his mother, Virginia Williams, a hug as he kicked off his campaign for mayor. "I told him to think twice before you do it, because being an elected official is a tough job," she said.
CAPTION: The mayor's mother, who has a special touch with older D.C. residents, drops by events such as the 35th annual Senior Citizens' Day.