D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams wolfed down two turkey dogs slathered with vegetarian chili and surveyed the scene in the back room of Ben's Chili Bowl. An expectant crowd sat around a long red lunch table littered with baskets of hot dogs and cheese fries. The oldest among them was 8.
"Let me tell you what being mayor is like," Williams began, likening himself to a shepherd who must lead his flock "to a better place, even though there are wolves out there and hawks want to eat us."
"Is it fun being mayor?" asked a 7-year-old named Cierra.
"Pretty much. Most of the time," Williams answered. "About 75 percent of the time, yes."
Lately, the fun-to-glum ratio seems to be rising for the mayor of the nation's capital. After starting the year in a bit of a funk thanks to a bruising political battle over baseball, Williams (D) now finds himself with a massive budget surplus, a raft of popular policy initiatives and a Cinderella ballclub drawing thousands of fans to his city to watch the team's astonishing climb to the top of the National League East.
With his political fortunes rising, Williams has been venturing out to public events more often over the past few months, sometimes spending entire days hopping from community meetings to store openings to honorary receptions.
Yesterday, for instance, Williams spent more than an hour at the landmark hot dog emporium on U Street NW dining with second-graders from Shepherd Elementary. After lunch, the mayor participated in a ribbon-cutting for a new furniture store in Adams Morgan, spoke to graduates of the District's Tuition Assistance Grant Program at a restaurant on the Southwest waterfront and hailed the opening of a new recreation center at First and N streets SW.
Mayoral spokesman Vince Morris, munching his own chili dog, said the busy public schedule is just part of the ebb and flow of being mayor. "During fights over the budget, baseball and other big initiatives, so much of his day is involved with nuts and bolts that events like this get pushed back to a time when there's less going on," Morris said.
But Williams acknowledged that his busier schedule is part of a broader political strategy. With two council members already running for his job, "you want to have yourself in a position" to enter the campaign, he said.
Williams has repeatedly declined to say whether he will seek a third term, and he refused to shed any additional light on his intentions yesterday. Although he is trying to raise his visibility, "I wouldn't take more than that out of it," he said.
Williams's two declared rivals said they aren't impressed. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) noted that Williams has taken several trips out of town in recent weeks, including journeys to London and China, "so I don't see a sustained presence in the community."
And council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the mayor's schedule pales in comparison to his own frenetic itinerary, which included 10 community events over the past weekend and five high-school graduation ceremonies in a single morning last week.
"Whoever wants to win this race is going to have to be out there seven days a week, all day, every day," Fenty said. "Not just at big public events, but really in the field, in the neighborhood, on people's blocks and people's doorsteps."
Still, some of the mayor's supporters are optimistic that his busy schedule is a sign that he plans to run.
"The last time I saw him doing this much retail, on-the-street kind of stuff was when he was running for reelection," said Tony Bullock, Williams's former communications director. "I think he actually surprises himself at how much he enjoys that kind of contact. He might dread the thought of it, but when he's actually doing it, he's good at it and he likes it."
Williams certainly seemed to be having fun at Ben's Chili Bowl. His lunch date with teacher Michele Thurber's second-grade class was the product of a PTA auction in May. Lunch with the mayor was offered to the highest bidder. Vincent H. Cohen Jr. paid $400 so his nephew, Kyle Hudson, 8, and his class could chew the fat with Williams, according to PTA president Barry Hudson, who is also Kyle's dad.
The children -- little girls in white polo shirts and elaborate braids and little boys with close-cropped hair -- chattered excitedly while they ate their food and waited for Williams, who arrived about 15 minutes late.
"Here he comes. There he is!" Thurber told the children as Williams and his security detail entered the room.
Williams ate, answered the children's questions and praised them effusively for their interest in reading, math and public service. Then he wandered out to the restaurant's crowded front counter and started shaking hands.
He looked for all the world like a politician on the campaign trail. Was it another sign?
"No, no, no," Washington's famously reticent mayor objected. "I always do this."