The D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved the turbulent nomination of the Rev. Willie F. Wilson to the board of the University of the District of Columbia yesterday while two dissenting members answered critics who accused them of racism in opposing the activist minister.
Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said Mayor Anthony A. Williams's nomination of Wilson was "a racially divisive act, in and of itself." Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she was not willing to forget some of the "divisive rhetoric" that Wilson has used. They were the dissenters against Wilson's nomination, which was approved by a vote of 11 to 2.
The council approved four other nominees to the UDC board yesterday in its first legislative session of the new year. The 15-member UDC board has struggled for the last year because of vacancies. The other new members are Reginald E. Gilliam Jr., a managing director at public affairs firm Hill & Knowlton; Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard law professor; Mark Palmer, a venture capitalist and former ambassador; and Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the National Association of Gifted Children.
Williams, in a statement, said his nominees represented "a well-balanced leadership team" for UDC. "The board will uphold my principles of inclusiveness and harmony while its diversity will help this institution reach its full potential," he said.
Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church, sat in the front row in the council chambers as members tooks turns praising and criticizing his activities. Cora Masters Barry, the District's former first lady, sat next to Wilson. When the council finished the vote, she embraced him. Several other supporters who attended the meeting rushed toward Wilson with wide smiles and open arms after the vote.
Outside the council chambers, Wilson said he had not spoken with Patterson and Schwartz about their concerns and saw no need to approach them now. "Obviously there's some need for understanding," he said. "To the extent that we can change that through dialogue, through working together, most definitely we're going to try to do that."
Yesterday's action brought to a close a two-week debate over Wilson's nomination, touched off when Patterson, Schwartz and Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6) raised objections and the matter became stalled in the council's education committee.
Patterson and Schwartz said they could not ignore some of Wilson's past racially charged rhetoric. He has clashed with a Chinese restaurant owner and with the former head of the D.C. financial control board, who is African American. Ambrose initially questioned whether Wilson or the church owned run-down properties in the historic Anacostia neighborhood the church is located. But after talking with Wilson, Ambrose decided to vote in favor of his nomination.
Wilson's supporters countered that the three council members, who are white, were attempting to block the appointment because Wilson is an outspoken black man. On talk radio and in two rallies, some activists suggested the majority-white council was insensitive to the residents of this predominantly black city.
Patterson (D-Ward 3), who backed Williams over three of her council colleagues and endorsed him in the 1998 primary, yesterday blamed the mayor for fanning racial flames with the nomination.
"The mayor knew full well the controversy of his nominee. He shared those concerns with me privately," Patterson said.
Since the nomination, Patterson said, she has received "ugly" letters, phone calls and e-mail messages "claiming that I and others are racists, based solely on the color of our skin and the fact that we disagreed with a nominee to the board of trustees. For this, the mayor is responsible."
She further criticized Williams for not defending her: "There has not been, to my knowledge, a word from the mayor or from his nominee suggesting that such ugly rhetoric might, perhaps, be wrong. But it is wrong."
Schwartz said she could understand that Wilson's supporters would would be "mad" at her for opposing his nomination. "But to brand me as a racist because I do not support it is not fair," she said.
Schwartz noted that she supported the nominations of four other African Americans and a Latino who were nominated to the UDC board in recent weeks.
Although Wilson has never supported her political campaigns, Schwartz said, they had enjoyed a "cordial relationship."
"I have never taken it personally that Rev. Wilson has not supported me, and I never called him a racist because of it," she said. "Now that I am not supporting him, I hope that he, too, will not take it personally."
CAPTION: The Rev. Willie F. Wilson gets a congratulatory hug from former District first lady Cora Masters Barry.
CAPTION: Council member Sharon Ambrose voted in favor of the nomination.