The snow gods showed mercy on Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) last week. They dumped enough to provide a road test for the administration's beefed-up snow response but stopped short of creating an outright emergency that would have shone the spotlight on the fact that Williams was, yet again, out of town.
Being AWOL during a snow crisis is the kind of political sin that Washingtonians don't forget. Just ask mayor emeritus Marion Barry, whose R&R at the 1987 Super Bowl in Southern California was never entirely forgiven, coming as it did during a patch of wintry weather that brought the city to its knees under 20 inches of snow.
Williams was not in sunny California or even on the sunny coast of Greece, where he spent several days during the September budget crisis. He was in Salt Lake City, running for a leadership post with the National League of Cities. Over the past few months, that campaign also took him to Kentucky and Kansas.
The mayor's fondness for travel has been a back-burner issue for a while. Fairly or not, many people in the city's political community continue to regard Williams as a carpetbagger, with few roots in the community and insufficient love for the city he leads. As with the issue of the mayor's not owning a home in Washington, many voters are willing to give him a pass as long as they believe that government services are improving.
A five-day trip out of town during a true snow emergency could have moved the issue quickly to the front burner. Someone might have even noticed the unlikely fact that it was the mayor's second trip to Salt Lake City this year. He spent several days there during the Winter Olympics to boost Washington's since-defunct bid to host the summer Games in 2012.
But Williams caught a meteorological break. Only six inches of snow fell, and city crews managed reasonably well. There were even reports that snow removal was better east of the Anacostia River than west. His aides say the mayor was in constant contact and would have returned had conditions worsened.
In any case, Williams won election, becoming second vice president of the National League of Cities. That puts him in line to become president of the group in December 2004.
Administration officials have portrayed his election as a step toward putting Washington's lack of congressional voting rights on the national agenda. "The NLC has been a good friend of the District of Columbia," Williams said in the city's official news release on the matter. "They continue to assist us in our efforts to gain budget autonomy and full voting rights in Congress."
Yet the job also gives Williams a platform from which to rebuild his national image after last summer's scandal with nominating petitions. Who wants to be remembered as the guy who was kicked off his own party's ballot in an election in which he was, at that point, essentially unopposed?
Worth remembering, however, is a comment by Leslie A. Hotaling, director of the Department of Public Works, a week before the winter storm. "Snow can make or break directors or mayors," she said. "It's as visible as it can get."
Tickets Anger NW Parkers
Speaking of the snow, there are some very unhappy campers in Ward 1, where many residents near 13th Street NW awoke to find $250 tickets on their vehicles.
The offense was failure to move the vehicles off a snow emergency route. But Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) says city officials should have used more discretion in levying such hefty fines on a day when many residents went to sleep without seeing a single flake, then awoke to snow and tickets.
Graham noted that many newcomers along that corridor have never seen enough snow accumulate to merit invoking road restrictions.
"It's one heck of a wake-up call," Graham said. "This is the sign of a government becoming more and more efficient but not exhibiting a lot of common sense."
Ward 8 Democrats, Williams Feud
The mayor's often-rocky relations with the Ward 8 Democrats took another turn for the worse last weekend when the Williams political operation, such as it is, became entangled in the mundane task of reserving tables at the 20th anniversary cabaret fundraiser for the ward's party committee.
As recounted by ward chairman Philip Pannell, a former staffer for the mayor who has clashed with him regularly since, Williams met the ward's executive committee days before the Nov. 5 general election to smooth relations.
Williams, who typically has bought tickets for four tables at the committee's anniversary event, said he would buy enough for six tables this year. Each table had 10 seats, and each ticket was $35, so it represented a major commitment to the event.
Only two weeks later, the mayor's aides called back and pleaded poverty, committing to just two tables. Compounding the insult, they failed to return the 40 extra tickets until hours before the fundraiser.
That meant ward officials couldn't try to resell those tickets and recover the $1,400 in losses.
"I personally feel insulted, violated, betrayed and trashed," Pannell said.
The mayor's campaign manager, Theodore Carter, offered this alternative version of events: Williams never made a specific commitment but merely expressed a desire to support the event. When Carter realized that the cost of the 60 tickets that Pannell had literally thrust into his hands, Carter called to say that it was beyond the means of the financially struggling campaign and attempted to return 40 to a reluctant Pannell, who resisted.
"It's absolutely ridiculous," Carter said. "We were very supportive of the party."
The campaign remains in debt because of a $250,000 fine and more than $100,000 in legal fees stemming from the debacle with nominating petitions.