- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams last night pledged "to get back to the basics" of city services and offered new initiatives for education, health care and housing in his second State of the District address.

In a speech frequently interrupted by applause and catcalls, Mr. Williams hailed the city's recovery from financial crisis, invoking the biblical story of the prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt a city despite the ridicule of others.

Listing the District's improvements in services and development, the city's fourth mayor said, "There isn't time for excuses. There isn't time for those who would rather play politics than solve problems. There isn't time for anything but rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done."

Speaking at the historic Lincoln Theater on U Street in Northwest, the mayor said the city has weathered several tough challenges, especially in health care. His standing-room-only audience of 1,250 seemed mostly to favor Mr. Williams, but critics were loud and persistent, heckling during most of his 45-minute speech.

Nonetheless, a confident Mr. Williams said the city would begin "immediately HMO-style coverage to all of our city's uninsured," citing statistics about the District having the highest infant-mortality and HIV-infection rates in the nation.

The mayor also promised $1 million for prescription drugs for the poor. He did not provide cost figures for the HMO plan.

Greater Southeast Community Hospital would contract with the city to take over most of the services.

He was mindful of criticism of his health care plan, which includes essentially closing D.C. General Hospital, as about 50 protesters rallied outside during his speech. Many disrupted a town meeting Wednesday night, forcing the mayor to leave surrounded by his security detail.

An unidentified man delayed the start of Mr. Williams' speech by presenting a letter from a group of clergy who oppose closing the hospital, saying his aim was "to heal this city from the hurts we're in."

Some audience members cheered, others booed. The mayor appeared unflappable and allowed the man to give his presentation.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are not closing a hospital. We are opening the doors of care to the people who need it most. We're keeping our current clinics and adding 100 health care centers to the network," Mr. Williams said in prepared remarks.

"We're providing access to 1,000 more doctors and nurses. We're providing 24-hour trauma care at Greater Southeast. And we're working with local health care providers, people who know the District."

The plan would close all but a portion of D.C. General Hospital, which provides services to the uninsured, and transfer most services to Greater Southeast Community Hospital, leaving the city's poorest people vulnerable, opponents say.

Mr. Williams has the backing of the D.C. financial control board, which has the final say on the matter. Most D.C. Council members oppose the plan.

The control board is expected to announce in the next few weeks a final contract with Doctors Community Hospital Corp., which operates Greater Southeast.

Several audience members last night booed the mayor, and one man, who shouted out "liar, liar" as Mr. Williams spoke about health care, was removed by three police officers from the building. His was the only arrest last night.

"I know citizens feel strongly about this, but we need to be civilized," Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kathy Henderson said privately. "He's the mayor and he deserves some respect, regardless of what anyone thinks of his position on any one issue."

"I think some parts of the city weren't prepared for the changes," said city activist Omar Abdul Malik, referring to D.C. General. "That is being reflected here."

Among the audience were Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District; Rep. Joe Knollenberg, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on the District; and financial control board Chairman Alice M. Rivlin, who also was booed.

Mr. Williams expressed urgency for immediate action: "We've had two years to debate this, and every day we argue is another day that poor residents and people of color suffer and die at the hands of the status quo. It's time to stop debating. It's time to get it done."

Education will remain a top priority for the city, said Mr. Williams, who promised $1.2 million to help professionals from different occupations become D.C. teachers this summer.

In education reform, "I believe the right way includes teaming up with proven educational entrepreneurs to reform our most trouble public schools," he said. "The right way is giving parents more choices among public schools, including charter schools."

"If we are going to keep our promises, we must also fix what goes on inside the classroom for every child, every year starting with our lowest-performing schools," he said.

"I want to be clear. This is not about doing less for our best schools. It's about doing more for the children whose skills aren't being developed, and whose dreams are being deferred."

The mayor said several education reforms are under way, noting the city's new, hybrid school board composed of elected and appointed members, and Superintendent Paul Vance, a lauded educator and manager from Montgomery County, Md.

Mr. Williams also talked tough about home rule, saying the District "still has parents: overprotective parents, meddlesome parents." He called for ending congressional review of the city's budget and for full voting representation in Congress.

The mayor said he will announce next week a new housing initiative. The plan would increase affordable housing using a combination of tax incentives, more city authority to seize and fix dilapidated buildings and requirements that builders set aside housing for low- and middle-income residents, according to a prepared document.

The city will see its first Home Depot franchise open in Brentwood, which should provide about 200 jobs, Mr. Williams announced.

He also cited the city's success in clearing snow, filling potholes and cleaning streets, saying "that should just be the way things are in the District."

He announced last month that city agencies have met about 67 of 98 published goals.

"There were people … who thought that I was crazy when I started talking about publishing goals. 'Everyone will know if we fail, they said,' " the mayor said last night. "That's the point. People should know when we fail. They should know when we succeed."

But the city still is struggling to provide services to its most vulnerable citizens, such as foster children and the mentally retarded.

The agencies responsible for that the Department of Child and Family Services and Commission on Mental Health are moving out of court-ordered receivership.

Reaction among public officials was mostly positive, even with those who disagree with Mr. Williams on some issues.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican and chairman of the Public Works Committee, said, "I'm glad to see his back-to-basics approach to services."

"It was a good speech that covered all the bases," said council member Adrian M. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat. "There was too much disruption, but I guess that's politics."

City activist Dorothy Brizill said Mr. Williams "had a moat around him," referring to the mayor's Cabinet at the front of the theater. "There was a lot less meat to this speech than last year," she added.

"I think he handled the hecklers well, but it's clear that he has to deal with the D.C. General issue soon," said council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat.

Mr. Knollenberg said Mr. Williams "has done the right thing" by taking an unpopular but firm stance on the hospital.

• Jabeen Bhatti contributed to this report.

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