- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

With today the last day in office for Tony Williams, there is but one question that matters concerning his legacy: Is the nation’s capital better off? There is but one definitive answer: Yes.

Tony Williams became the city’s chief financial officer at the right time and the right mayor at the right time.

As CFO when the city was drowning in red ink, Mr. Williams vowed to voluntarily leave town if he failed to produce clean audits, restore financial credibility on Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Both were accomplished in less than three years’ time. And when D.C. property owners and voters saw what he had done, they rewarded Mr. Williams with a mayoral victory — twice.

A brief look at the legislative and policy highlights that led to the city’s resurgence as a financially viable city and fiscally responsible government.

The early years

Tony Williams entered City Hall at one of its darkest hours. The city’s coffers were empty and its bond status was “junk.” In 1995, the 104th Congress passed the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Act to rid the District of budget deficits and cash shortages, and re-establish government accountability. (We even encouraged the city’s new to not trust any numbers offered by D.C. government; the books were so poorly kept we urged them to start from scratch.) Then-Mayor Marion Barry hired Mr. Williams as chief financial officer, and his responsibilities included establishing fiscal discipline.

Often sparring with Mr. Barry as he tightened his grip on the purse strings, Mr. Williams became the subject of death threats after he fired more than 160 employees for incompetence. “We have to hold people accountable,” Mr. Williams said. After establishing a team of professionals, the payoff began, with Wall Street raising the city’s bond rating for the first time in three years. The mayor, the council and the control board begin the second phase of restructuring, which entailed asset management, procurement and personnel reform. Ecstatic stakeholders, meanwhile, mounted a Williams for mayor campaign. Mr. Williams beats several veteran council members in the Democratic primary and claims victory in the November general election.

The first term

One month after his January swearing-in, Mr. Williams won from Congress the authority to direct the day-to-day operations of the city — authority that previously was in the hands of the control board. As Mr. Williams began to lay out his key policy objectives, he drew fire from liberal special-interest groups, poor people and blacks when the city’s closes its public hospital. Instead the mayor favored clinics and establishing health-insurance programs for the uninsured and underinsured — policies that proved to be beneficial for those demographics in later years. Two events proved most challenging during the mayor’s first term. The first occurred in the summer of 2002, when the Board of Elections denied Mr. Williams a spot on the ballot for the Democratic primary because his campaign had submitted petitions with fraudulent signatures. But Williams supporters recouped, launching a massive write-in campaign. The mayor won hands down but in October faced another challenge: The Office of Campaign Finance found that Mr. Williams and current and former aides violated personnel rules by fund-raising for political and civic events. Nonetheless, the mayor won re-election in November.

The second term

Education and Baseball dominate Mr. Williams’ second term, despite visible signs citywide of the economic rebirth of the capital.

Long before Mr. Williams announced his proposal in 2003 to take control of D.C. Public Schools, opposition had mounted. Much of that opposition came from the “educrats” and anti-school-choice movement, which already felt defeated by the burgeoning charter school movement. D.C. lawmakers fell completely in line with both status quo groups, rejecting for the second time in 2004 the mayor’s school takeover plan.

The mayor then jumped from the proverbial frying pan into the fire when he unveiled planned to revitalize the Anacostia waterfront and build a new stadium for the city’s new baseball team on the banks of the Anacostia. Reaction was swift and decisive: Bring on baseball, but the team — not the public — should pay for the stadium. Disappointingly, the mayor plugged his ears. He even ended up outbidding himself to bring a ballclub here. Alas, the poor negotiations between City Hall and wealthy baseball owners mean the done deal really and truly won’t be a done deal until several years down the road.

In September 2005, as the 2006 mayoral took shape, Mr. Williams announced he would not seek a third term after many years in public service (in the Air Force, in St. Louis, in Connecticut, at the Department of Agriculture). His legacy goes beyond budgets and surpluses, though. The Williams administration and key council members (with immeasurable help from CFO Natwar Gandhi) have laid a solid foundation that increases housing options for singles and families, establishes unprecedented economic development east of the Anacostia River, encourages suburbanites to make more leisure trips into the capital, and boosts job growth and the real estate market. That the mayor failed to turn around the failing public schools and gave away a new stadium is regrettable.

The mayor said he wants to move on and we don’t begrudge him. In fact, we thank him. Adieu, Mr. Mayor.

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