Ask D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams whether he deserves to be considered in the same league as reform-minded mayors like Ed Rendell of Philadelphia or Steve Goldsmith of Indianapolis, and he will tell you that it's too soon to tell because he has been in office a relatively short time.
Well, Tony, it's later than you think. And the challenges you face are, in certain respects, more intractable than the ones that other mayors have tackled.
The bow-tied financial maven, who was elected mayor of the District of Columbia last November after spearheading the city's financial turnaround, pledged to foster the same sense of urgency about improving public works, public safety and public schools that had worked so well for him as chief financial officer. But there is a big difference between the two jobs, and Williams has acknowledged spending too much time during his first months as mayor trying to do everything himself--an approach that left him weary, nursing a headache and without the momentum and politically sophisticated staff necessary to achieve rapid results across a mammoth bureaucracy.
Williams, who has learned more about pacing himself and recruiting fresh talent, is smart enough to have made a mid-course correction. But unfortunately, he faces a more formidable barrier.
As Washingtonians are well aware, the presence of the federal government presents unique and substantial obstacles to local change. While other mayors can tackle issues, cut deals and sign laws without federal interference, Williams, and the District he is attempting to transform, are constitutionally tethered to the federal government.
The result: Inaction or indifference in the face of crisis has become deeply ingrained in the culture of the District government because front-line employees, managers and elected officials know Uncle Sam will bail the District out in a real jam. That financial safety net may be reassuring to employees and residents, but it also breeds a sense of complacency that is a real impediment to change.
To make matters worse, locally elected leaders shy away from taking ultimate responsibility for the city's destiny because their most basic decisions about budgets and spending are often second-guessed and overruled by Congress, anyway.
If anyone needed proof of that, Congress has provided Exhibit A in the way it has treated the D.C. financial control board, the presidentially appointed panel it put in place to guide the city's financial rebound. Over the past few years, District budgets approved by the control board and the mayor have been tinkered with by legislators on Capitol Hill who hail from faraway places.
Does all of this mean Williams can't succeed and follow in the glorified path blazed by successful mayors of other big cities in the 1990s?
No. But it does mean that the challenge Williams faces in instilling a sense of urgency is far more difficult than it would be if the District of Columbia government operated thousands of miles away from the Washington Monument, rather than in its shadow.
David Vise reported on the District's financial collapse and comeback for The Post.