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LEARNING TO BE MAYOR

Tony Williams shares personal perspective of his job

(Published January 10, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Mayor Anthony A. Williamsí first year in office has been an education for him, both about D.C. politics and the true nature of a job that he was widely viewed as having little regard for when he was the cityís chief financial officer.

To mark his first anniversary on the job, Williams recently sat down with the editorial staff of The Common Denominator to assess how his personal perceptions have changed over the past year.

Williams was drafted from his job as chief financial officer and elected mayor with unprecedented citywide support. After taking office a year ago, he quickly discovered that life as mayor was much different than as the cityís fiscal overseer.

"I was elected as a non-politician, but Iím being held to the standards of a veteran politician," Williams observed. "Thatís -- personally -- a difficult adjustment to make."

He said the biggest challenge heís faced has been learning to deal with the cityís other elected officials and agency heads as a politician, which he never had to do before.

"The hardest part of the job ó itís a necessary part, Iím not saying it shouldnít be there ó but the hardest part of the job is the minuet of Ďinside baseball,í" he said. "Thatís the hardest part.

"Thatís where youíre going from non-politician up to advanced level very, very quickly. Itís basically -- we go to a ski area, Iím at the triple black diamond, Iíve never skied before and you just push me down the mountain and here I go, you know?"

Williams said his first year in office has given him a greater appreciation for what the cityís former mayors experienced -- in particular Sharon Pratt Kelly, who was elected as a reformer and left office discredited.

"Sharon I have more and more sympathy for all the time," Williams said. "She came in during a recession, she had her problems with the councilÖI sympathize with her. She ran against the council and then had to pay a price."

Williams even offered his assessment of former mayor Marion Barryís three terms as mayor.

"Marion, Iíve always said, was a Shakespearean tragedy," he said. "Essentially he came in (with) enormous political skills, charisma, charm. He had a lot of assets going for him -- a base in the community. He knew how to use that base and connect it. You could argue that it was really a consequence of lack of full representation, he couldnít really advance. So he just kind of got tired of being mayor, and I think got distracted, and the train ran off the track ó ran off a cliff."

Williams said his opinions of the two former mayors have softened over the past year.

"I criticized them both when I was CFO," he said. "Iím less prone to, now. When you become mayor you tend to just respect other mayors, but also I understand the difficulty of the job.

"I certainly understand with Marion having an independent CFO," he said as a joking reference to his former job and his reportedly rocky relationship with current CFO Valerie Holt.

He said even though his job as independent CFO was good preparation to be mayor, in many ways that job was easier and less intense than the mayorís job.

"When I was CFO, clearly you want to avoid abuse of discretion, but you didnít worry as much about political considerations because you werenít a politician," he said.

Many of the mayorís major political stumbles in his first year came at the hands of the city council, which flexed its political muscles by forcing the mayor to acquiesce to tax cuts in the fiscal 2000 budget and most recently chided the mayor as fiscally irresponsible for his proposal to use tobacco settlement money to fund bonuses for unionized city employees.

Williams said heís sure he and most members of the council are in "philosophical agreement" about reforming the city government and, despite their frequent clashes, they are both moving toward the same ends.

"People didnít elect me to get along with the council and they didnít elect me to simply fight them all the time," he said. "What they elected me to do, and I think they elected them to do, was for us to get things done. Iím not the first mayor whoís had issues with the council."

Williams credited the council for its more prominent role in the city government, despite his many public fights with them.

"She drives me crazy, but I think Kathy (Patterson, D-Ward 3) provides good oversight on the council," Williams said. "And while they drive me crazy, I think the council emerging as a separate branch of government thatís respected is good for the city coming out of the control (board) period."

He also said he is trying to work beyond the initial expectations placed on him and is trying to show people that he canít turn the city government around all by himself.

"I think a lot of the people who elected me Ė and, fortunately, I believe continue to support me -- have to make this less of a personal messianic thingÖand more of a coalition thing."

Williams said he thinks most people still have confidence that he and his administration will be able to fix the cityís many dysfunctional agencies.

"I think when youíre mayor, no oneís ever (completely) satisfied. Itís a question of whether they think you can satisfy them or not," he said. "You know youíre in trouble when the tone of it is, ĎWell hereís my complaint, but I have absolutely no expectation youíre going to fix it.í"

Williams said he was also surprised to learn how time-consuming the job of mayor is. Aside from the long office hours, he estimated he attended more than 1,100 public events in the past year.

"When youíre mayor, you canít just go to an event and just stand there," he said. "You have to go to the event, talk to every person there and do a customer service kind of routine with everybody."

He said he often struggles with the repetitive nature of these public appearances.

"You go to these different events and youíre expected to speak. Fifteen people will speak ahead of you and then youíre expected to say something enlightening and inspirational after theyíve been sitting there for an hour. Theyíre bored stiff, theyíre ready to die."

Williams said the amount of time devoted to the mayorís job has taken its toll on the quality of his personal life.

"Youíre simply not home, and even physically when Iím home Iím psychologically not home," he said. "My wife will ask me about this question or that question, and I give her a grunt answer because Iím just so tired. Itís like Iíve talked to 50 people about this subject and now my wife innocently just wants to know about that subject. Iíve got to gear up and give my wife a really good answer."

He said that even though his wife Diane is warming to the idea of him being mayor, he plans to scale back the number of events he attends.

He said his wife doesnít attend many public events with him because she has her own responsibilities at home and at her job with the Greater Washington Urban League.

"She will attend things with me where sheís really needed, requested and will add value," he said. "If they really want her and sheís supposed to speak or do something, then sheíll go. But sheís not going to go and then just sit there looking at me."

Williams also said the demands on his time have prevented him and his wife from looking for a house in the District. The couple currently rents an apartment in Foggy Bottom, but he said they are committed to becoming homeowners in the city.

Williams admitted that occasionally he has second thoughts about having sought the mayorís office.

"Thereís some days when you walk down the street or youíre riding around in the car and youíre going ĎI canít believe I did this. What a thanklessÖí"

But he said those thoughts donít discourage him and despite his political stumblings to date, he said he would still do it all again if given the chance.

"Absolutely -- itís an incredible honor to be mayor of the city."

Staff writers Emory Julian Mills and Kathryn Sinzinger contributed to this story.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator