Just-business D.C. mayor seen as re-election shoo-in

Williams' achievements make win easy, some say

May 25, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Mayor Anthony Williams strides into the community meeting all business, no handshakes, no Pepsodent smile. "As I look out in the room ... " he begins, a curious way to start since he hasn't actually looked into the room yet. So far, he has only looked at his notes.

Soon the questions come. Can he fix a crumbling retaining wall? What will he do with a dilapidated recreation center? When will more senior citizen housing get built? He shoots back statistics and instructs his staff to follow up, answering every question until his audience finally tuckers out.

Nobody seems too spellbound, but not a single person complains about his performance in the job running the District of Columbia, either. The folks in this northeast neighborhood, once a bastion of support for the charismatic former mayor, Marion Barry, have settled down with somebody sensible - a politician who hasn't quite swept them off their feet, but one they can definitely take home to Mom.

"Marion was a lightning rod - people felt all these extremes," Natalie Greene, 40, a lifelong Washington resident, says after the meeting. "There were such highs and lows. Now, with Tony, things are very calm."

In fact, an unusual calm has settled over this city's local politics - so much so that you hardly notice it's now campaign season. No major candidate has stepped forward to challenge Williams, though an opponent has until July 3 to declare.

Even his political rivals say he will win re-election this fall.

"It's almost impossible to run against him successfully," says Jack Evans, a Democratic city council member who ran against Williams in 1998 and seems unlikely to resurrect his mayoral ambitions this time around. "The field is not in any way, shape or form open to another candidate."

It has been four years since Barry, who staged a remarkable political comeback eight years ago after serving jail time on misdemeanor drug charges, decided not to seek an unprecedented fifth term as mayor. Williams, a 50-year-old, bow-tied Yale alumnus, took his place.

Now, Williams is running again, looking for a mandate - a vote large enough to give him muscle with a sometimes truculent city council and with critics who say he simply coasted through his first term on a strong national economy and a forgiving public eager to put the Barry era behind them.

"I don't think that I just happened to be here and things just turned out nicely - I think a lot of what's happening is because of hard work that I've put into the city," Williams says in an interview.

"It's not so much that people feel completely satisfied," he adds. "But there's a sense that things are going in the right direction - it's that sense of promise and potential."

Under Williams, the former chief financial officer for the district, the local government has posted four balanced budgets in a row - a feat for a city whose finances were so dismal that Congress appointed a control board to ensure fiscal stability here. That control board was disbanded last year.

"Ultimately, Williams is making the city more powerful," says Francis "Buck" Clarke, who heads the city's Federation of Citizens Associations. "There's been a renaissance here."

Williams presents himself as a tidy taskmaster who keeps the books balanced, the city services running reasonably smoothly and the late-night comedians looking elsewhere for material. The mayor, who formally enters the race next month, has amassed $1.2 million for the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, the only election that usually matters in this liberal city.

Williams is expected to spend many evenings in the two predominantly black wards east of the Anacostia River - the only two of eight wards where he was soundly beaten four years ago.

While he reaches out to those who feel disenfranchised, it's less imperative that Williams lobby Establishment Washington - those moneyed residents, business interests and national leaders who already support him as a kind of anti-Barry.

Williams has fit in nicely with the capital elite: Whether for state dinners or private meetings, he has visited the White House about 10 times since President Bush took office. Both men "like each other enormously," says Williams spokesman Tony Bullock. "Obviously they have some political philosophy distinctions, but they're not shrill."

Such tete-a-tetes might seem tough to imagine between Bush and Barry, who flirted briefly with running for a council seat earlier this year but dropped the idea after police allegedly found traces of marijuana and crack cocaine in his car. Police said the amount was too small to support prosecution. Barry denied possessing any drugs.

"The best political thing about Tony Williams is that he's not Marion Barry," says Terry Lynch, a community activist. "He's had this honeymoon. That specter of Barry always works as the balm to his political woes."

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