Anthony A. Williams started his second life as Washington's mayor with a mix of vindication and exhaustion, relieved to have survived what he called "a galactic tour electorally" but weary from months of weathering opponents' attacks and the unwelcome consequences of his own mistakes.
At a time when incumbents typically begin contemplating their places in history, Williams (D) last week had the haggard look of a survivor. In a far-ranging interview conducted two days after his trouncing of Republican Carol Schwartz, he spoke of what he's learned about himself and the city, what he thinks about the scandal that knocked him off the primary ballot, and what he hopes to accomplish now that he has won a second term.
"We have a resilient city, and our people are a forgiving people, with limits," he said. "That's clearly the moral of this: People have been indulgent of me, and I wouldn't be sitting here if they weren't."
As for what's planned for his hard-won encore, Williams offered few details but said his legacy will depend on his ability to achieve several broad goals, including the improvement of public schools, the cleanup of the Anacostia River and the continuation of the city's fiscal stability in trying economic times.
He plans to recommit himself to winning a new payment from the federal government of about $400 million a year, which would be a crucial step toward steeling the city's finances against the troubles that nearly bankrupted it in the mid-1990s, he said. It also would help pay for other second-term goals, such as better job training for the chronically unemployed, more comprehensive police protection and expansion of the city's stock of affordable housing.
Williams cautioned, however, that nearly four years as mayor has helped him understand the gulf between what citizens expect from their government and what government officials can practically accomplish.
"People across the country have unrealistic expectations of what government and mayors can do," he said. "That's our lives, and there's nothing we can do about it."
Williams recalled his eagerness four years ago as a new mayor to demonstrate results quickly, sometimes without finesse or sufficient consideration. When he thought that the University of the District of Columbia might spur economic development in far Southeast Washington, he simply proposed moving it -- failing to understand that the shift would be seen by some as marginalizing the university, not sprucing up downtrodden neighborhoods.
He vowed a more deliberate style in his second term, drawing on the lesson that sometimes it is better to take "a bank shot" to get something done indirectly, with community input. He promised an end to the string of ethical problems that diverted attention from his major goals. And Williams said he has begun to engage on a more personal level with Washingtonians "in my own strange, nerdish way."
"When you're mayor, you're really counselor, too, and this is one area where I can do better," he said.
As an example, he said that when an intoxicated man would accost him on a city sidewalk, he would offer a phone number to a shelter or to a detox clinic. Now, he said, he understands that is not enough. So he will stop and talk, seeking to understand and connect even with a resident whose problems are beyond the help of most government policies.
"I don't have the luxury of just ignoring him," Williams said.
In the mayor's second term, which begins in January, he will oversee a bureaucracy that functions better than it did four years ago, particularly in such basic service areas as garbage collection and street repair. And the city, despite recent economic stagnation, has seen an overall decline in crime and a remarkable surge in tax revenue and property values. Major housing and retail developments, such as the Home Depot in Brentwood, are beginning to happen.
Williams takes credit for much of this and said he owes his comfortable margins in both the primary and general elections to a widespread sense that Washington is headed in the right direction.
Yet he acknowledged that he probably will face a second term without the cash infusions made possible by the boom of the past several years. And though his relations with the D.C. Council are improved, they remain strained. Members are awaiting clear signals from the administration about the mayor's priorities for a second term, which they as a group anticipate with little enthusiasm.
"He needs to set that agenda," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has often clashed with Williams and harbors ambitions of being mayor one day. "He has between now and January to say where he wants to go. . . . This is the time."
Though Williams has not fully formulated his second-term agenda, he did unequivocally vow to bring a "zero-tolerance" policy to ethical issues so that his second term can be free of the scandals that muddied his image during his first term and turned his cakewalk reelection into a costly, time-consuming slog.
On the same July day when it became clear that no major political figure, Democrat or Republican, would challenge him, his campaign submitted thousands of fraudulent and frequently ridiculous signatures on nominating petitions. By the time the debacle had played out, it had cost the mayor upwards of $350,000 in fines and legal bills and a spot on the Democratic primary ballot. His political fight to survive ended only with last week's election.
Though he accepts responsibility for not heading off that scandal and others, Williams also persists in seeing them as events visited upon him. He rejects the contention of Schwartz and other critics that he was the main agent in causing the ethical failings of his administration or his campaign.
As the FBI investigates the nominating petitions, putting several former campaign workers under a legal cloud, Williams said he would like to know the identity of the forgers but "I'm not holding my breath."
"I'm moving beyond this," he said. "I've asked the U.S. attorney to prosecute this, and let the chips fall where they may. But I'm moving on. I think I've paid my penance, I've paid my dues. This has been fully explicated. People have said they want you to continue, and that's what I'm doing."
As for the prospect of running for a third term in 2006, he said he is keeping his options open, but added, "I haven't seen many third terms that are worth a damn."