District Mayor Anthony A. Williams spent yesterday morning doing interviews on national news shows and the evening dining in a downtown restaurant in an effort to convince local residents and the nation that Washington is "a safe city" despite fresh threats of a terrorist attack.
"We can't assure absolute safety. Nobody expects that. But we're going to do our damnedest and do our best and get almost near that," Williams said. "And, in any event, as Americans and particularly here in the capital city, we've got to show that we can continue our way of life."
Williams (D) waged his one-man public relations campaign one day after federal officials announced that al Qaeda operatives have been targeting five buildings in three cities, including those of the World Bank headquarters and the International Monetary Fund in downtown Washington.
In an interview in his office in the John A. Wilson Building two blocks from the White House, Williams said public appearances by the city's chief executive are critical to keeping people informed and heading off the kind of precipitous drop in tourism that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
Already, barely 24 hours after news of the latest terrorist plot was announced to the public, Williams said Kinkead's, a longtime restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue NW near the World Bank, was seeing canceled reservations and a sharp drop-off in business. So Williams moved a 6 p.m. meeting with his planning director to the restaurant and invited members of the media.
With the city expected to remain on high terrorism alert through the Nov. 2 election, Williams said he plans to spend a good part of the summer on similar, very public outings.
"We're going to be spending a lot of time and effort -- and I know this is going to be coming -- talking back up the city in light of this higher alert to keep the tourists here and the businesses here and the investment coming," Williams said. "I heard some congressman say the politicians ought to get out of the way and not make public statements. Well, that may be true for congressmen. But when you're a mayor, you have to let your people know what's happening. That's a lesson I learned from Sept. 11."
Williams said his second priority is monitoring deployment of city police forces, which were stretched so thin that after Sept. 11, enforcement in many neighborhoods suffered. Williams said Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has assured him that police can handle the strain of providing extra security near downtown targets if it receives federal funds to cover overtime. But Williams said he warned Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge that the day may soon come when the city will need additional reinforcements.
"I don't want to have the same thing happen that happened on Sept. 11 when, despite our best efforts, we lost some of that [neighborhood] coverage," Williams said. "This is something I'm going to be monitoring every day. . . . And if it looks like we need additional resources and strategies to cover the neighborhoods as well as these specific sites, I'm not going to hesitate to do it."
Williams spoke directly to Ridge late Saturday after receiving a phone call at his home during dinner. Williams rushed to the Reeves Center on U Street NW, where he spoke with the secretary on a secure line.
Williams said it was the first time the city had received direct notification from the federal government about heightened security. In the past, he said, he has learned about changes in the security code from CNN.
The phone call touched off more than 24 hours of "briefings, consultations and conference calls." Various city agencies prepared responses to various pieces of the threat. The mayor and transportation officials fought to prevent federal agencies from "shutting down every street within a four-block area," Williams said. And the Department of Mental Health put out a fresh announcement about a 24-hour hotline for jittery city residents: 1-888-7WE-HELP.
At 8 a.m. yesterday, Williams launched his public relations blitz, making the rounds at CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. The mayor also attended to the regular business of the city, speaking at the funeral for Myesha Lowe, a 15-year-old who was shot while sitting in a car with friends, and later attending a meeting with school officials about candidates to head the city's troubled school system.
By 4 p.m., the mayor looked a bit winded, and his voice sounded a bit hoarse. But there was still a mountainous stack of legislation to sign and, after that, the dinner at Kinkead's.
He offered a reassuring smile. "The wheels of government are turning," he said.