- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2000

The man labeled a novice, too nerdy and clumsy to get out of his own way, stumbling last year through class and racial denigration and watching the D.C. Council hijack his fiscal 2000 budget, this week flexed his political muscle. From the location and content of his first State of the District address, to the honored guests seasoning the audience, Mayor Anthony A. Williams made plain, sotto voce, his readiness to claim the authority and territory of his office.

"I am a politician; people don't want to recognize that," Mr. Williams asserted in response to a question about the political undertones of his speech and the event attended by more 800 residents, elected officials, and, attesting to the mayor's centrist appeal, Ethel Kennedy, wife of Democratic icon Robert Kennedy Sr., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican.

Ballou Senior High School in Southeast was the perfect venue for the mayor as he continues his unofficial campaign to recast himself as not only a pragmatic manager capable of repairing ancient government systems, but a politician of the common people, dedicated to improving the lives of residents who for the past two decades dreamed about the restoration of their deteriorating communities. "This school, these kids, and this community symbolize the state of the District. Ballou embodies our hopes and our most profound challenges; our deepest passions, our pains and our potential," Mr. Williams said. Minutes later, he tossed aside the prevailing pathological image and subtly recast east of the Anacostia River in a more prosperous light: a community of 50,000 households with a combined income of almost $2 billion. That kind of shift which empowers a community, endears the man to residents and piques without boast the interest of attentive business leaders.

But the crusade didn't stop there. Relying on the technique begun by former President Ronald Reagan that has become standard hardware in political speeches, Mr. Williams throughout various points in the evening identified citizens from the audience who are active in their communities. He acknowledged Allan Russell, John Parlow, Harold Parker, and Dayon Drayton, participants in the boxing tournaments run by the city's Department of Parks and Recreation; each of the youths won a Silver Glove National Championship. Then, there was Tre Aundra Stover, Ballou student body president, Gwendolyn Bacchus, principal of Burrville Elementary School in Northeast, Lopi Quinteros, a staffer with the Latin American Youth Center in Northwest, Fred Taylor, executive director of For Love of Children of Northwest, Gloria Robinson, the Rev. Anthony Motley and Winifred Freeman of Southeast. This Reaganesque roll call of ordinary folks engaged in exemplary work amplified the common-man persona and helped Mr. Williams tout key aspects of his fiscal 2001 budget which include increased spending for schools, more police officers on the street, revitalization of blighted communities, and improved services to the District's most vulnerable residents like those in foster care and government-subsidized mental health facilities.

But as much as Mr. Williams wants the title "Man of the People," he also wants to be exalted as "King of Politics," at least for the next three years. At turns during his address he stroked friends, slapped enemies and welcomed into the fold converts. He praised Kevin Chavous for his efforts to reform schools while wrapping the Ward 7 representative more tightly into the Williams administration education agenda. He attempted to snatch back from David Catania the lead on improving drug-treatment programs in the city. He recognized control board member Eugene Kinlow's work around health care, but offered only a perfunctory recognition of the group's chairman, Alice Rivlin. And in a transparent assault on Jack Evans, the council's lead for this year's tax-cut proposals, the mayor asserted, "Now is not the time." He reminded lawmakers there wouldn't be a repeat of last year's episode and that he had built an army of residents ready to stand beside him; 84 percent of the 3,000 residents who attended Mr. Williams' Neighborhood Summit said improving city services is more important than tax relief.

But while the poster boy for the new generation of savvy, sophisticated African-American urban mayors may be getting his political footing, stepping into a full peacock strut won't be easy. The city's fiscal recovery is fragile; the days of budget surpluses seem to be over. Mr. Williams has to find money to fulfill the bevy of promises made during his speech. Locating hundreds of millions of dollars and building a solid budget is further complicated by the presence of a very inept chief financial officer, Valerie Holt, whose failure to produce a year-end audit for fiscal 1999 is eroding overall confidence in the city's fiscal management. (Ms. Holt can only be fired by her friends at the control board.) The financial outlook for 2001 seems dismal, with flat revenue growth that will force further reduce spending, cut personnel, and possibly suspending the tax package approved last year.

With six council members up for re-election, a Congress focused on presidential politics, and a habitually disengaged control board chairman, Mr. Williams will need to maintain fighting condition. His newfound political muscle is sure to be greatly tested.

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