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  Williams Aide Resigns in Language Dispute

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 1999; Page B1

Williams to Investigate

By John P. Martin Staff Writer

Mayor Anthony A. Williams said Wednesday that his office will investigate whether David Howard uttered the racial slur or was the victim of unfair rumors.

If the rumors prove false, Williams said he would consider disciplining or firing city workers who spread them.

"I find that repugnant," he said, "because people make mistakes, but to fan the flames is indefensible."

The incident has drawn national publicity and caused Williams to address it outright when he met with reporters to unveil new initiatives.

He said he neither asked nor encouraged Howard to resign and would "be shocked" to discover that Howard used "such a word in any setting." But he agreed that the resignation was necessary and that Howard could no longer be effective as a public advocate.

"It’s a matter of good judgment," he said. "I liken it to, here we are in a refinery and you shouldn’t smoke in a refinery. I think what David did was [to] get caught smoking in a refinery, which would result in an explosion."

Williams said Howard could return to the administration in another position, but one that did not require as much constituent contact. The mayor also insisted the incident will not send a chill through his administration or lead to an overly sensitive workplace.

But, he said, it is reflective of a city steeped in a "a racial climate that needs a lot of work."

The director of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams's constituent services office resigned after being accused of using a racial slur, the mayor's office said yesterday.

David Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate, said he used the word "niggardly" in a Jan. 15 conversation about funding with two employees.

"I used the word 'niggardly' in reference to my administration of a fund," Howard said in a written statement yesterday. "Although the word, which is defined as miserly, does not have any racial connotations, I realize that staff members present were offended by the word.

"I immediately apologized," Howard said. " . . . I would never think of making a racist remark. I regret that the word I did use offended anyone."

When Howard, who is white, noticed the reaction to his use of the word, he apologized to his three-member staff, which is made up of two blacks and another white. It is unclear which two employees he was addressing when he used the word.

Soon after the remark was uttered, the rumor mill started churning that Howard had used the word "nigger."

Howard said he has received numerous telephone calls since Jan. 15 from people in the community who had heard "I had made a racist remark . . . [which is] in fact unquotable here."

The Barnhard Dictionary of Etymology traces the origins of "niggardly" to the 1300s and the words nig and nigon, meaning miser, in Middle English. It also notes possible earlier origins in languages including Old Icelandic, Old English and Middle High German. There is no mention of any racial connotation.

Howard said the rumor that he had used a racial slur "has severely compromised my effectiveness as the District's Public Advocate and in the best interest of my office, I resigned," effective Monday.

Howard is the second mayoral appointee in two weeks to quit, and his resignation comes at a time when Williams's administration is being bombarded with questions regarding race relations -- his "loyalty" to his race as well as the diversity of his staff. Williams (D) is black; Howard was one of four white men Williams appointed on the first official business day of his administration.

Five days after Williams named the senior policy advisers, a group of residents from east of the Anacostia River -- many of whom had been part of the Draft Williams Committee -- complained that the mayor had "missed a unique opportunity" to name someone who lives in Southeast Washington to his personal staff. And they questioned whether Williams would be responsive to the predominantly black and working-class communities of the city.

The issue of race continued to dog the mayor the next week, when a D.C. resident wrote an opinion piece in the Jan. 17 Washington Post questioning whether Williams is "black enough."

Williams said that he was "confused" by the opinion piece and that he had a track record of helping minorities. Williams said he recognized during his campaign that race was creating a "great divide in the city." He said his campaign was a diverse coalition that represented people across the District.

"While I'm troubled by recent news stories concerning race -- questions about whether I'm black enough or have too many advisers who are not -- I understand that they reflect a great hurt within our city," Williams said in a written statement last night. "I am committed to representing all of the people of our city and making sure my administration truly reflects the city's diversity.

"I am particularly sensitive to the need to include people that have felt excluded from the political process and governance of the city, such as residents east of the Anacostia River.

"One thing I've learned, we will never relieve the pain or heal a hurt if we refuse to talk about the cause," Williams said. "We need to get issues around race relations out in the open."

Williams said yesterday that he accepted Howard's resignation after reports that Howard had made an "inappropriate racial comment."

Howard's resignation follows that of scheduler James Day, who left after a salary dispute.

Howard served as the volunteer coordinator and office manager during Williams's mayoral campaign, overseeing 1,600 volunteers. When Howard was appointed to head the office that responds to residents' complaints about services such as trash pickup, welfare benefits and police protection, the mayor's office put out a brief biography that said Howard was "often referred to as the 'glue' that bonded everyone together." He was to be paid $58,148 a year.

According to the biography, Howard graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in economics and has managed several top restaurants in the city.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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