THE NOMINATION of the Rev. Willie Wilson as a trustee of the University of the District of Columbia has taken a nasty turn. On Monday D.C. Council member Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7) postponed a vote on Mayor Anthony Williams's nominees to the UDC board when it became clear that a majority of his education committee had serious problems with Mr. Wilson's nomination. They regard the 26-year pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast as a racially divisive figure and not a strong board candidate. The delay, predictably, is not going down well with community activists.
The controversy is covered with an ugly veneer of race. The three members questioning the Wilson nomination--Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) and Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) are white. The Rev. Wilson, pastor of a 7,500-member church bordering wards 6 and 8 in Anacostia, is black. Feelings are running high on both sides, with his supporters regarding the postponement as an affront to the black community. Faced with the possible defeat of his candidate, Mayor Williams has vowed to stand by the nominee. He needs to do more to stave off a committee rejection and a more inflamed situation.
Mayor Williams has said that he wants "the best people, people of national stature" to serve on UDC's board, and that his appointees must uphold his principles of inclusiveness and harmony. The mayor must show the council and the public how well Mr. Wilson measures up to those standards.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Wilson offered a stout defense of his role in the incendiary "Chinese carryout incident" of 1986, which helped earn him the reputation he now wishes to shed. That Wilson-led campaign took on the goal of driving a Chinese American restaurant operator out of business and out of Anacostia for ordering a grandmother out of his store at gunpoint. The Rev. Wilson contends that he was rallying to the defense of a helpless woman customer who, it turns out, later collected damages for the heart attack she suffered as a result of the incident. He said the ensuing boycott he ordered helped to defuse a volatile situation in which youths with gas-filled cans were getting ready to burn down the store. Mr. Wilson now claims his relationship has been patched up with both the merchant and area Asian business owners.
In a similar vein, he was unapologetic about once describing then-financial control board chairman Andrew Brimmer during a protest as a "foolish Negro at the top." There was "absolutely nothing racially divisive" about that statement, the Rev. Wilson said. Dr. Brimmer, an African American, was "acting foolishly" and against the city's and community's interest, he maintained.
Mayor Williams says he wants a leader from the city's faith community on UDC's board. The Rev. Wilson fits that bill. And as pastor of a church that has made huge financial and human investments in youth and community programs, he brings a perspective and experience in preparing the underserved. The creativity is there. But what about the sensitivity and respect for the views of others?
This is where the council's performance on Monday was disappointing. It was the occasion for critics to thoroughly examine Mr. Wilson on the issues that give them and others trouble. After all, that is the purpose of a public hearing. Lambasting him after he leaves the chamber hardly serves the public interest. Mr. Wilson said he was prepared to address all of the council's concerns at the hearing--including questions about unpaid real estate taxes and the ownership of slum properties, all of which he denies. Out of fairness, he should have been afforded that chance.
Maybe that's a starting point. Chairman Chavous should quickly schedule another hearing, make sure all committee members are on hand and get the issues aired. Then, for goodness sake, vote.