In D.C., a 'nerd' runs for mayor Chief financial officer seeks to connect with Washington voters

June 08, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Anthony A. Williams considers his Ivy League resume, his success as a government bean-counter, his oversized ears and his bow tie and identifies one of his biggest obstacles in his bid to become mayor of this city.

"You know," he says, "they're probably going to think I'm a nerd."

On the surface it's a joke, but at its heart is a real concern. After recently announcing his intention to run for mayor, Williams is searching for some way to go from chief government bookkeeper to man of the people. But can a financial brain with no campaign experience in Washington and no long-standing ties to district voters really stand a chance?

Williams, 46, the city's chief financial officer for the past three years, built a top-flight reputation by studiously sticking his nose into district government books until he found millions of dollars in waste. In doing so, last year he scraped out the city's first surplus since investigators declared the district insolvent in 1995.

But Williams has a battle ahead. His cool-handed recommendations for budget cuts and his swift firing of about 200 city staff members who handled financial matters infuriated labor union officials. It was the district work force that won Marion S. Barry Jr. so many elections, and Williams cannot afford to alienate that constituency by coming off as the government's grim reaper.

Part of new generation

Williams, a Democrat, hopes he can be seen as part of a new generation of city leaders, an African-American who was never answerable to the Barry administration. An outsider, yes, but one with a high-octane background who oversaw the city's financial recovery.

Williams plans to formally start his campaign this week, and will leave his $118,000-a-year post today. He believes he is singularly qualified to be mayor, and not simply because he says he overhauled the city's tax operation, made sure vendors were paid and developed a balanced budget.

"I think I bring a sophistication on these issues that you're not going to find on the rest of the racetrack," Williams said in an interview. "You've got to basically convey to your people that there's a sense of stability, that someone is in charge."

Williams is running during a time of high-voltage politics in the district, as Washington fights to win back home rule from the Republican Congress that controls it. Last year, the office of mayor was stripped of most of its powers by a federally appointed control board, installed in 1995 in the midst of the city's financial crisis.

"A mantle has been passed to a new generation of African-Americans in this city," Williams told about 150 supporters in a steamy church last week, his trademark bow tie knotted over a crisp cantaloupe-colored shirt. "We can show that the best road home to self-government in the district is reached by commanding respect."

Though Williams is trying to enliven his image as a bookish bureaucrat -- "they keep telling me I shouldn't use words like dichotomy," he quipped -- that may be just the thing that sells him to a public fed up with troubled schools, shoddy services, high crime and poverty.

"Some voters may be resentful of a Republican Congress, but their priority is nitty-gritty service delivery," said Jeffrey Henig, director of George Washington University's Center for Washington Area Studies.

Finding the right tone

Williams rents a home in affluent Northwest Washington, but he shrewdly held his first meeting of supporters in the working-class ward represented by rival candidate Kevin Chavous. There, Williams tried out some pithy metaphors and slipped into the cadences of a candidate -- closing his eyes and balling his fists for emphasis, speaking so loudly at times that his voice cracked.

But displays of passion may not be enough.

"Tony Williams is generally regarded as very shy and very aloof, and that doesn't sit well on the campaign trail," said community activist Dorothy Brizill.

Still, Williams has shown his comfort in city neighborhoods by attending 150 community meetings in his three-year tenure. And while Williams clashed frequently with Barry, who has said he will not run again, the mayor has not publicly ruled out endorsing him.

These days, Williams, a former Air Force sergeant, is trying to get folks to loosen up around him with his disarming humor and even occasional goofiness. In the interview, describing how critics consider his job easy enough for a trained Labrador to have done, he actually starts barking.

An admirer of colorful metaphors, he likened the response time of the city government to a satellite image of the earth rotating. But Williams is spinning analogies to a tough crowd. When he said the city's request for federal money was akin to a child's visiting Santa at Nordstrom, he was quickly reminded that the store was never in Washington. The next day, using the same metaphor, Williams changed the reference to Hecht's, which is downtown.

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