Already, it's being called the end of an era -- no more bow ties, no more high-water pants, no more obscure Shakespearean references. As Mayor Anthony Williams prepares to depart the District scene he has dominated for a decade, a "ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead" chorus is reveling in the prospect that the city will now shed the dry-as-dust persona he brought to its politics. At last, the District will return to the mayoral model of yesteryear, to the archetype of the politician as charismatic leader who can really get close to the people. To, in other words, the Marion Barry model.
"I think in the next election the anti-Williams [contingent] is going to come out strong," says Terry Lynch, executive director of the nonprofit Downtown Cluster of Congregations.
Not so fast.
Sartorial choices and intellectual preferences aside, there's no real reason to believe that the District is soon going to head back down memory lane. Passionate speeches about bird-watching and the Anacostia River may be headed for the "out" list, but after 10 years, the Williams ethos of politician as chief performer -- not to be confused with entertainer -- appears to be embedded in the city's psyche. And a raft of other factors -- from demographic shifts to control board-era structures to the mayor's own achievements -- makes it more than likely that local politics in the nation's capital won't be very different in the future from what they are today, and that substance will continue to win out over charisma, symbolism and rhetoric.
Williams hasn't decided to bow out because his political style is falling out of favor. A student of political history, he understands that third terms can be hard and often less than successful. And he wants to find his place in the private sector to guarantee a comfortable retirement.
Williams's critics don't see it that way, however. They're convinced that he's leaving because he's increasingly unpopular. They say he is out of touch with the community and that he long ago abandoned the poor. Lately, they've used Katrina-ravaged New Orleans to highlight the race and class divide that exists in the District as well, and for which they blame Williams. His legacy, they think, will prompt residents to reject Williams's more conservative, "business-like, Federal City approach" to governing, as Lynch put it. They expect the city to follow in the footsteps of Detroit, where the businesslike Dennis Archer was replaced by the younger, more charismatic Kwame Kilpatrick, and Philadelphia, which also reverted to a more colorful mayor in John F. Street after the pragmatic Ed Rendell rescued the city's finances.
But don't expect that to happen here. "Anthony Williams will not be a one-time wonder," asserts Paul Savage, a resident of Hillcrest and one of the leaders of the 1998 Citizens Committee to Draft Anthony Williams for Mayor, which catapulted Williams into the mayoral suite after he had served as chief financial officer for only three years. In next year's election, "the question residents will be asking is can [a candidate] think through problems, can you do the dancing act with Congress and the White House? And at the same time, can you satisfy the aspirations of the citizens to keep the city moving forward?"
"Charisma -- without substance, an understanding of government and the ability to deliver -- just won't make it," agrees Michael Rogers, who served as city administrator during Barry's final term and helped pick Williams for the CFO job.
Predictions that the District is fated to return to its politician-as-thespian roots are not new. They percolated in 2002, when Williams was kicked off the ballot in the Democratic primary for having fraudulent signatures on his nominating petitions. The Rev. Willie Wilson, the controversial black nationalist pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, was persuaded to run against him by those who insisted that the city wanted to replace the cool, calculating style of a numbers cruncher with someone who could feel their pain. But even in a race where Williams was clearly handicapped, residents decisively chose Brooks Brothers over dashikis.
Truth be told, the political leader as municipal manager was in fashion even before Williams. It was the style of Andrew Brimmer, the first chairman of the financial control board created by Congress to get the District's finances in order. With significant powers and sweeping authority, Brimmer served as de facto mayor from 1995 to 1999 and brought a clipped, cold military style to the job, pushing performance over personality and demanding results instead of rhetoric. He was the antithesis of the political style exemplified by Barry and later by Sharon Pratt Kelly, of which many District residents had been enamored.
Brimmer and his band of auditors, accountants and government consultants stole the minds -- if not the hearts -- of residents by rescuing the city from the brink of bankruptcy. Williams is Brimmer's heir -- even though Barry frequently tries to lay claim to Williams because he hired him as CFO.
Many recent arrivals to the District have never known any mayor other than Williams. All they know is the chief executive as provider of substance -- not as charismatic agent. The short-lived RunTonyRun Web site that sought to encourage Williams to run for a third term underscores the satisfaction of these new District residents, many of whom are young professionals who represent an ongoing shift in the city's demographics. The site's creators are a multiracial group that lavished praise on the executive despite his enigmatic personality and his inability to spout touchy-feely axioms. These residents, like many longtime citizens, want a professionally, effectively managed city. They don't care if their mayor can't do the electric slide. They are more concerned that the District's credit rating not slide and that their property values not take a nose dive.
"They say they are Democrats, but these are not your granddaddy's Democrats," says the Rev. Lionel Edmonds, one of the leaders of the Washington Interfaith Network, who deals with many newcomers to the city and whose organization is involved in everything from affordable housing to education and neighborhood economic development.
Even if residents were inclined to shift into reverse, the control board structures left intact by Congress would make it difficult. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which is independent of the mayor and the city council, controls the city's purse strings. Opposition from this office could halt a politician's ascent. The current CFO, Natwar Gandhi, has made it clear that he will not allow the city to run a deficit, nor will he allow the District's bond rating to be eroded by any politician's theatrics.
One need only review how Williams used his authority as CFO to redirect the city's public policy priorities and alter the activities at various agencies to understand the enormous power the office wields. Ultimately, Williams created an environment in which his style became accepted above all others, including that of Barry and three popular council members -- Kevin Chavous, Harold Brazil and Jack Evans -- against whom he ran for mayor in 1998.
This same almost imperceptible foundation-laying has been at work throughout his seven years as mayor. He "has put a structure in place that would be very difficult to untangle," says Rogers. "He has locked the District into a strategic direction; the government is aligned with that direction." Rogers cites the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. -- which will determine what housing, office buildings, entertainment centers and parks are built along the river -- as an example of the strategic planning that has locked in the direction of the city's economic development for the next 20 years.
"You have a new agency with a portfolio of land and a mission that's been approved by the council. In order for that to be undone, it would cost a lot of political capital that most politicians would be unwilling to expend," says Rogers. "[This] makes it difficult for a new mayor to come in and start all over."
So the chain is created: The inability to alter the course on which Williams has set the city is likely to perpetuate ongoing changes in the city's socioeconomic dynamics and landscape, which will in turn drive further demographic shifts and guarantee the survival of Williams's style as the city's prime political model.
It's a beautiful, intricate political design. And they called Tony Williams an amateur.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com
Jonetta Rose Barras is political analyst for WAMU radio's "D.C. Politics Hour with Kojo and Jonetta."