Democrats effectively elect Williams mayor, end Barry era Washington D.C.

Primary 1998

September 16, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After nearly two decades of the flamboyant and controversial Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., District of Columbia Democrats have voted to replace him with a technocrat who never fully joined the Barry establishment and campaigned almost as the mayor's alter ego.

Anthony Williams, the city's former chief financial officer, trounced his opponents in the Democratic primary yesterday -- the key election in this one-party city. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore called him with their congratulations last night, shortly before Williams addressed a crowd of exuberant supporters.

"You have achieved a tremendous victory," Williams said in his victory speech. Outlining the challenges ahead, he added, "We've got to work even harder to bring everyone in this city together."

Barry vowed last night to help Williams in the general election. Unlike Barry, whose trademark was his emotional connection with Washington's inner-city neighborhoods, Williams offered himself as a by-the-book numbers man who would take a studious approach to management.

Williams still faces Republican Carol Schwartz in the November general election, but Democratic voters outnumber her party by more than 10 to 1.

The Democratic nominee resoundingly defeated his three major challengers, city councilmen Kevin Chavous, Harold Brazil and Jack Evans.

Williams campaigned on his record of cleaning up the district's financial mess, while promising to improve city services and government accountability.

Williams, who is black, tapped into votes from affluent, largely white Northwest Washington, but also made a strong showing in working-class African-American neighborhoods.

It was a tough campaign for the three principal challengers, who felt Williams stole their message of reform and left them with the scraps. No matter how progressive some of their agendas may have been, many constituents linked these candidates with an impotent government of the past.

With all precincts reporting, Williams claimed 50 percent of the vote, compared with 35 percent for Chavous, who represents a largely impoverished area and was deemed Williams' stiffest rival in this race.

Chavous, who campaigned in struggling neighborhoods across the Anacostia River, tried to portray Williams as the anointed choice of affluent Washington -- a man who ignored the needs of residents in the city's impoverished black neighborhoods. But the strategy didn't work and Chavous conceded Williams gave the disenfranchised power in this campaign.

"Look we have really found a voice in this campaign, a voice for people who are looking for leadership that looks out for the least of us," Chavous told reporters.

Although Williams was never embraced by the Barry regime, he won the early endorsement of key Barry supporters, who believed he could help the city win back home rule. The city's self-government powers were stripped in 1995 when the district was declared insolvent.

The three councilmen who ran for mayor essentially canceled out one another. Evans, who represents well-to-do Georgetown and was the only white council member in the race, lost much of his base to Williams. But he and the others will retain their council seats.

This year's race is particularly significant since the winner will benefit from the likely restoration of the mayor's broad powers. The federally appointed control board, which oversees most city spending and government functions, is expected to expire midway through the next mayor's term, restoring oversight authority to the mayor and City Council.

The election is also noteworthy for the absence of Barry, who decided not to run for mayor again after serving in that post for most of the last 20 years. He did not endorse a candidate but has said he will back the Democratic nominee in the general election against the GOP's Schwartz.

A Los Angeles native, Williams came to Washington in 1993 as the U.S. Agriculture Department's chief financial officer. In 1995, with the city in a financial shambles, Barry named Williams to the same post in the city. At times the two clashed, but Barry lacked the authority to fire Williams, who reported directly to the control board.

During his tenure, Williams won praise for correcting problems, including cleaning up a tax collection system in disarray. Last year, the city submitted its first balanced budget since the crisis began, and yielded a surplus of nearly $186 million.

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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