Tony Williams enjoys what comes with no longer being D.C. mayor. He teaches, travels, jaywalks occasionally, avoids people who recognize him on the street and recently took up tennis.
“I’ve got the legs for it,” he said this winter at a buffet-style cafe near his downtown office. “I don’t feel 65.”
Williams’s preference for staying out of the limelight seemed to fit perfectly with his job at the Federal City Council, the historically insular group of business executives, when he took the helm in 2012. The idea was to influence policymaking behind the scenes, building on a tradition of guiding ambitious civic projects that can reshape the city over a generation or longer. The group has pushed for school reform, for example, and long ago championed the building of the Metro system.
But in an era of hashtags, viral videos and online petitions, Williams is stepping out from behind the curtain again. This time, it’s to expand the group’s mission to push out research and lobby on behalf of big business in front of D.C. Council.
His group has sized up a powerful rival in the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a think tank on local issues that was established by the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
To the chagrin of Williams’s executives, the District has advanced a series of the think tank’s priorities, passing a major increase to the minimum wage and proposing family leave and other worker protections that, if approved, would rank among the strongest – and maybe most expensive – in the country.
So Williams is striking back. City officials say they’re already seeing more of the former mayor. Williams aggressively and publicly backed the proposed Pepco-Exelon merger (apparently to little avail), traveled with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to China and dispatched a staff member to testify against the family leave bill as proposed.
“Tony is taking his role to a new level in terms of attracting members and in terms of creating a more pro-business agenda for the city,” said Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who serves as the group’s president. “Occasionally the council will go off the deep end on something, and Tony has the reputation with the council where they listen to him. They know this is someone who has been in their shoes.”
Many of the ideas the Federal City Council is backing — major infrastructure improvements, cleaning the Anacostia River and promoting tourism — are the types of large, civic efforts the organization has supported since its founding by business leaders including then-owner of The Washington Post Philip L. Graham.
Because the District has no voting representation in Congress and is subject to federal oversight, the Federal City Council has filled a role defending the District’s rights from federal intrusion and convening support for projects like the renovation of Union Station in the 1980s. A newly planned $10 billion expansion of the station, backed by Williams, would sharply increase rail capacity and prepare Washington for high-speed trains that could connect to New York in 90 minutes.
“Their ideas were they were going to do the hardest projects that had a big impact, where we could make a difference,” Williams said. “Where you don’t make a difference, or there isn’t a big impact, or it’s not really that hard, then it’s not worth it.”
‘A true beacon of what is of consequence in Washington’
As mayor for eight years, Williams chafed under media scrutiny, especially during his second term, when he says he traveled abroad too much. “If I had to do it over again, I would have cut back on the trips,” he said. “They were all legitimate trips and some of them were very prestigious, but they didn’t elect you to be secretary of state; they elected you to be mayor.”
He is widely credited with having balanced the city’s disastrous budget and attracting new investments. Since leaving office, he’s worked in real estate and at the law firm Arent Fox. He now serves as a non-political sage for all manner of projects that need a reliable name or a steady hand — so many that he is trying to cut back.
For former Mayor Vincent C. Gray, he led a tax commission that reworked the city’s tax code. For Bowser (a fierce Gray opponent), he has just begun co-chairing an education panel that’s studying traditional and charter schools. He is on the boards of Freddie Mac, Catholic University, the Fight For Children charity, the Bank of Georgetown and the Calvert SAGE Fund, a socially conscious mutual fund. He owns a stake in the planned redevelopment of the West Heating Plant in Georgetown.
“He has a true beacon of what is of consequence in Washington,” said Richard Bradley, who ran the Downtown Business Improvement District from 1997 until last year. “At the same time, he recognizes that you have to invest if you’re going to build an economy. You don’t have a state here, and the federal government doesn’t pay its share, so [the Federal City Council] is a lot of people who have quite a bit of influence, and Tony is there to kind of organize them.”
But where the efforts of the Federal City Council and other groups have fallen short in some eyes is in combating the expanding influence of Ed Lazere, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s leader since its inception in 2001. Along with his staff, Lazere frequently publishes blog posts and white papers and gives testimony supporting expansion of the District’s safety net and casting a skeptical eye toward financial incentives for businesses, such as Nationals Park and D.C. United’s planned soccer stadium.
Lazere’s is a frequent, prominent voice in D.C. Council hearings, and his former staffers now hold top positions in District government – notably Elissa Silverman, an at-large council member; Jennifer Reed, deputy budget director; and Angie Rodgers, an economic development official.
Williams has a much more expansive lineage of disciples in the D.C. and federal governments, but that hasn’t benefited Federal City Council members, among them insurers, telecom firms, utilities and general contractors.
“I’m very disappointed in the leadership of the business community today. There doesn’t seem to be a plan at all for anything,” said Barbara Lang, who was president of the DC Chamber of Commerce for 12 years. She called Walmart’s decision not to open two planned stores a “first salvo” from businesses that find operating in D.C. increasingly burdensome.
Lang said she tried to create a research and policy initiative like the one Williams is building and applauded him for taking on the project because of changes to the D.C. Council. Four council members, three of whom took office after 2013, have aggressively opposed Exelon’s proposed utility merger with Pepco, a Federal City Council priority that now may be doomed.
(Williams reviewed terms of a proposed agreement between the mayor and Exelon. He also wrote an op-ed in support of the merger, published in The Post, saying: “The acquisition of our electric utility, Pepco, by Exelon, is in the public interest of residents, businesses and organizations.”)
“I used to say I could count on five votes and I had to work for two,” Lang said of the 13-member council. “Now I think you can only really count on Jack [Evans of Ward 2]. I think I got out at the right time.”
Lazere, who got to know Williams on the tax commission, said he thinks an opposing voice could advance some of his positions.
“Informed public discussions are a good thing,” Lazere said. “Sometimes I actually wished that there were an organization with a different perspective so that we could have richer debate. I think it would actually give us a stronger platform to make the case for the issues that we care about.”
Building a new role
In the group’s nondescript 15th Street NW offices, Williams sits in a cubicle out in the open with his staff. He’s brought in people he’s relied on in the past, including Chief Operating Officer Kevin Clinton, who was a senior mayoral aide to him, and Emeka Moneme, another former D.C. official who now heads the Federal City Council’s infrastructure initiative aimed at luring private money that could build bridges and a new jail and improve the city’s free public golf courses.
As he re-enters the city’s legislative battlefield, where he won approval for Nationals Park and a new convention center, Williams says he has no interest in running for office again and would not even agree to be interviewed for this article before emphatically making one point: “I don’t want to appear like I am stepping on the mayor’s toes.”
He explained that a critical part of his work is supporting Bowser, whom he did not endorse until after the Democratic primary two years ago but whom he said has proven in 13 months that she is deserving of a second term.
“I want to be helpful and supportive because I think it’s good for the city,” he said. “I’d like to have the mayor re-elected again because I think it’s good for continuity; I think that’s good for the city.”
To this point, Williams has spent considerable time at the Federal City Council growing the budget and expanding membership. Although the group does not disclose the dues its 224 members pay, its cash on hand has increased while its liabilities have shrunk under his stead, financial documents show. Its 2014 budget was $2.2 million, up from $1.5 million the year before.
Although it has typically remained behind the scenes, the Federal City Council has not always avoided controversy; critics sometimes call out the group’s shepherding of “urban renewal” in the 1950s, in which it supported bulldozing thousands of homes of mostly poor, black residents to make way for new development.
Critics also question how long Williams will stick with the job, especially given his grand plans — massively expanding Union Station, cleaning the Anacostia River — and his reputation as someone who sets projects in motion but often passes the torch to others to finish them.
Former mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who followed Williams into office, simply picked up existing Williams-era plans for riverfront development, CityCenter DC and a convention center hotel and executed them while using the slogan “Moving Forward Faster.”
Williams says he has considered other opportunities, such as emergency city manager in Detroit, but is committed to the job and wants to “put some points on the board” before he tries something new.
He said changes to the group’s secretive posture would be incremental.
“I think we’re effective when we operate with a low profile and on the Q.T., really, for a lot of different reasons,” he said. “One, for our members – they feel that their discussions are candid and open and engaging, so you’ve got a certain level of vitality to the conversations when they’re not public. I also think it would undermine what we’re trying to do if it looks like we’re trying to run everything. I don’t think that would be helpful. So we are more of a public organization – but more of a public organization is not a public organization.”
However difficult it is walking that line, the work probably won’t consume all of the former mayor’s time. There’s too much else to enjoy. For instance: organizing a round-the-world trip to retrace the record-breaking and harrowing path a Boeing 314 crew flew 75 years ago when it was diverted by the attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s a hobby that combines two of Williams’s preferred post-mayoral pursuits: history and international relations.
“Wouldn’t that be incredible?” he said. “I would really like to find a way to make that happen.”
This story has been updated to include the number of Federal City Council members.
Follow Jonathan O’Connell on Twitter: @oconnellpostbiz