WASHINGTON -- At a candidate forum, Anthony Williams makes a joke about Supreme Court procedure. Then he uses a Latin phrase in answering a tax question. And a bit later, he mentions his alma mater, Yale, when making a point about universities.
The scrappy urban political campaign has never sounded so Ivy League.
If this year's race for the Democratic nominee for mayor in the District of Columbia seems dry, academic or even a little dull, residents here don't seem to mind. After two decades of politics dominated by the wildly controversial Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr., the nation's capital is throwing its support behind a man whose skills as a budget-balancer and reputation for competence have made him the candidate even the veteran pols can't seem to touch.
So his greatest concession to personal flamboyance seems to be his bow tie. No matter. Williams, formerly the district's chief financial officer, has captured the enthusiasm of voters here by offering himself as the opposite of Barry, whose administration was troubled by overspending, a bloated bureaucracy and failed city services. Williams, like the other candidates in the race, is simply promising that he can be a good manager.
Barry, the so-called "mayor for life," decided not to run again after nearly two decades in office. It is now a watershed time: a new era after the Barry reign. And it may be the first time since 1995 that Washington will run its own affairs. The new mayor will likely see the resurrection of home rule, when the city will no longer be led by the federal government.
"It's about restoring good government," Williams said at a recent forum, describing his strategy for restoring home rule. "It's about commanding respect around the country."
Unlike Barry, who launched colorful campaigns steeped in inner-city pride and personal connections with voters, Williams is running on his record of budgetary accomplishments as chief financial officer. And unlike Barry, who turned to poor and working-class neighborhoods for his success, Williams developed a stronghold in affluent Washington.
Williams took a strong lead in polling and picked up a series of high-profile endorsements. Loaded with more than $730,000 in campaign donations, Williams took the rare step of launching local television ads.
Even in Barry territory, Williams has made inroads. His campaign was launched by a group of residents across the Anacostia River, not from the upwardly mobile haven of Northwest Washington. He is the only candidate with campaign offices in all eight wards.
For many voters, this is a decisive election. The control board, the federally appointed panel that makes key government decisions for the city, is to disband in October 2001, assuming the city keeps its budget balanced in the interim.
In this heavily Democratic city, primaries are critical. The odds will be stacked against the Republican nominee, Carol Schwartz, in the general election, even though Schwartz launched a credible challenge against Barry in 1994 and is running hard this year.
Among Democrats, the most serious challenger to Williams is Kevin Chavous, a City Council member and lawyer with a reform-minded reputation and a flashy speaking style. He describes himself as a mayor for "the boardroom as well as the street corner."
Two other council members, Harold Brazil and Jack Evans, are also running, assailing Williams as an outsider who has never held elective office here and voted only once in his 2 1/2 years in the city.
Still, the three City Council candidates have struggled, having been branded as the Old Guard and lumped together by supporters of the "outsider" Williams. Businessman Jeffrey Gildenhorn, with a Ross Perot-like political style, has remained obscure enough to be misidentified by a moderator at a recent campaign forum as "Jeffrey Gilderhent."
Weary of any leadership tied to the past, even longtime supporters of council member candidates are defecting. In one case, Brazil's office suggested that a reporter interview an old-time Brazil loyalist. But that loyalist turned out to be supporting Williams.
"I hate to say this, Mr. Brazil probably thinks I'm a traitor, but I have to face realities -- Mr. Williams brings more to the table," said Margot Kelly, the loyalist who lives on Capitol Hill, Brazil's old ward. "In this day and age, the city needs less charisma and more know-how. Williams is well-respected with Congress and the control board. And he's smart."
Williams came to be known as the surgeon who saved the district economy, which was bleeding when Williams became Barry's chief financial officer in 1995. Williams is credited with securing the district's first surplus since it was declared insolvent three years ago -- in part by cutting out jobs Barry had long allowed -- and now vows to take the same no-nonsense approach and apply it to problems of high crime and failing schools.
Before Williams entered the race, Chavous was thought to be the only candidate who could follow Barry in the city. But Chavous has not held on to the Barry strongholds.
Williams won support early in the race from two old Barry hands -- boxing promoter Rock Newman and the Rev. Willie Wilson, both influential local figures. Barry stopped short of endorsing Chavous, and instead kept a silence that could be seen as a tacit endorsement of Williams.
In approach, the candidates are starkly different. On the issue of restoring home rule, Chavous told a group of minority businessmen that, in negotiating with Congress, "we need to be in your face." Not Williams. He is known for a coterie of friends in the administration and in Congress, some of those relationships forged after he came to Washington in 1993 as chief financial officer for the U.S. Agriculture Department.
But even those who don't back Williams have difficulty imagining him losing tomorrow.
"He's not a Hollywood good-looks textbook-type candidate," said Terry Lynch, a Brazil supporter who runs an ecumenical consortium of churches in the city. "Still, he's hit the scene with the right message at the right time. And that's going to be hard to beat."
Pub Date: 9/14/98