After being elected the District’s fourth mayor since home rule was enacted, Anthony A. Williams told me that, among other things, he wanted to prove an African American could successfully run the nation’s capital. That statement was an acknowledgment that his predecessors had derailed black political empowerment and advancement in the city. The nerdy, bow-tie-wearing politico felt obligated to rescue that tarnished legacy while ensuring that a competent government delivered quality services to the people who needed them most.
Back in 1998, many D.C. residents were deeply troubled by the state of D.C. affairs: “It made me angry,” recalled Logan Wiley, a former city employee and Ward 7 resident. “We had fought to have black political power and to have a government that included marginalized people, and Marion [Barry] and his cronies were behaving like they were in some corrupt dictatorship.” I spoke with Wiley and several others after the release of Barry’s autobiography, “Mayor for Life: The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr.,” written with novelist Omar Tyree.
This is not a screed against the former four-term mayor and current Ward 8 D.C. Council member; we all know his record and the potential he squandered. Barry has a right to tell his story — although the book is poorly written and includes breathtaking examples of revisionist history.
I am more fascinated by the concept of “mayor for life.” Ken Cummins, a former Washington City Paper columnist, bestowed the title on Barry. “It was meant to be satirical — not flattering,” Cummins told me this month.
If the phrase were an accolade, as Barry has tried to recast it, who would deserve it?
The physicality and personality of a city often reflects its executives. Each leader puts something in the kitty. Invariably, however, one person stands out. The city sings his name.
Barry had “a social and cultural impact. But he didn’t move the city forward,” said Cummins. “Williams gets much credit for what’s going on now.”
Williams (D) began reshaping the city in 1995 as its first independent chief financial officer. Upon becoming mayor in 1999, he created a durable municipal government and infrastructure that have enhanced the character and quality of life in the nation’s capital. This legacy will continue to have influence for at least the next 10 or 20 years.
In other words, the real “mayor for life” is Tony Williams. The term many used to describe him is “transformative.”
“He didn’t just change the characters on the playing field, he changed the field,” said Douglas Patton, who served during Williams’s first term as deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
“We pulled our heads up. We pulled ourselves from bankruptcy. D.C. is now a cool place. Tony is the person who put us on the track. He allowed us to reach our aspirations,” said Rich Bradley, executive director of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District.
“Being such an intellect, he could get in the weeds. But he also had a much grander sense of what the city should be, how it should evolve over time,” said Gregory McCarthy, former deputy chief of staff to Williams and current vice president for government affairs and community relations for the Washington Nationals.
“During those eight years, there was a lot going on,” said Bryan Weaver, a Ward 1 resident and former advisory neighborhood commissioner. Weaver said that as progress was made during the term of Williams’s successor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), he sometimes found himself asking “how much something was the brainchild of . . . Fenty and how much was continuing the work of Anthony Williams?”
Williams’s imprimatur is on everything. He introduced professional management and dramatically changed the processes of government, installing performance measurements, compensation systems and program evaluations. “The greatest cultural shift had to do with the way people are treated when they go into agencies,” said Weaver. The government “became more customer-friendly,” continued Weaver, citing as examples the reforms at the Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
“He placed a big emphasis on new technology,” said Wiley, who worked for both Barry and Williams. The incorporation of technology altered not just how employees work but also how residents interact with their government.
Williams launched the renaissance of the District’s public library system. He began the process of renovating the city’s recreation centers. He created a new vehicle for building affordable housing, then oversaw construction of tens of thousands of units of mixed-income housing, including Henson Ridge in Ward 8. He and his planners developed the blueprint for nearly every major development project of the past decade, including Nationals Park and Center City, plus some of those expected to come on line within the next 10 years, including the Southwest Waterfront and Skyland Shopping Center.
He revolutionized the city’s health-care system, ensuring that low-income and working-class residents had insurance and were assigned a primary physician. He was the first executive to seek, albeit unsuccessfully, mayoral control of education. At least a half-dozen social service agencies, including foster care, mental health services and public housing, were taken over by the courts during Barry’s tenures, but Williams started bringing them back under the District’s control.
He also set a goal of attracting 100,000 new residents. Those “net-payers — people who kicked in more money than they required in services” were critical to financing the improvements Williams wanted to make, said Wiley. Considered far-fetched at the time, by the end of last year, the city was only about 17,000 short of that goal, according to the Census.
Williams wasn’t perfect. “He was awkward and didn’t have much charisma,” said Weaver. He could be politically tone-deaf, and he had a few duds in his administration. “[Still,] he lifted us out of thinking we couldn’t have the best,” said McCarthy. Mediocre meanderings were fashioned into a new narrative of daring and excellence.
Williams — not Barry — is the architect of the once and future District. But you won’t hear Williams make such a pronouncement. That’s not his style.