WASHINGTON -- For someone eager to rebuild the District of Columbia's image, it was ironic. Anthony A. Williams, the reform-minded mayor, was acknowledging to residents that he could not deliver the most basic symbol of any well-run city: paved streets.
"You have a lot of reason for looking at me skeptically," Williams told a group of testy merchants last week, after failing to fulfill an earlier vow to coordinate a schedule of road excavation that has since wreaked havoc on downtown. "You're saying, 'I have no reason to believe him.' You have reason to be skeptical. But you will see, there is intelligent life downtown."
When Williams strode into the mayor's office more than a year ago, he vowed to halt these very sorts of customer-service nightmares -- woefully delayed tax refunds, streets unplowed during snowstorms and other indifferent city services that saddled Washington with dismal public relations.
Lately, however, Williams' extended honeymoon with district residents is hitting some bumps. Besides the criticism he has faced over trench-riddled streets, the mayor has endured other sniping -- over his failure to win key allies on the D.C. City Council during budget talks; about the threat of budget shortfalls this year; and the claim that too many district outsiders are running the city.
The road construction, in particular, points to a unique city predicament: The district enjoys both a flourishing economy and an infrastructure stressed beyond capacity to accommodate it.
Cable and utility companies are so eager to capitalize on the region's technology boom that they have virtually taken over the downtown streets to lay cable for high-speed Internet connections. Not only has the digging damaged tires and snarled traffic, but the city failed to charge fees for the work. Now, the mayor has had to halt the construction temporarily to straighten out the mess -- and plans to start collecting fees when the work resumes.
Even in a crisis, however, the mayor gets good marks, and the city continues to be seen as a national example of municipal reform. Williams' approval ratings in recent polls are high, and he wins praise for keeping the local economy thriving, working to revive struggling neighborhoods, improving constituent services and owning up to his government's mistakes.
He is clearly galled by bureaucratic excuses when crises arise. In the case of the streets, blame was deflected with the plea that the city lacked a system to synchronize the roadwork. "This isn't rocket science," Williams blurted empathetically to the merchants. "You don't need a system. Even if it's index cards in a shoe box, you can keep track of construction."
Since his election, Williams has begun to put agency staffers closer to the communities they serve, and to offer conveniences such as online auto registration. Nearly every department head has been replaced from the administration of the previous mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., and Williams has led widely attended summits to generate ideas for better schools and safer streets.
When crises do arise, Williams nearly flogs himself in public. It is the paradox of his job that constituents are impatient and want efficient city services immediately, but then some of them call Williams "trigger-happy" when he takes aim at city workers he considers incompetent.
The mayor, who was unavailable for an interview, has fallen on his sword more than once. During this winter's snowstorms, when the city failed to plow snow and collect trash on some streets, he telephoned a taped apology to 100,000 households.
Still, some critics ask how Williams allows such problems to reach a crisis point in the first place.
Williams, a 48-year-old Yale- and Harvard-trained financial specialist with little political experience, is on a crash course in deal-making in a town famous for it. All the while, he is reminded how easily the city's weakened service structure can fall apart.
"He scores high on saying the right things; he scores low on getting them done," says Terrence Lynch, a district activist. "There's a way of doing things here that he hasn't learned. You have to be accessible, you have to be seen as working with people."
As a case in point, Lynch notes Williams' defeat by the D.C. City Council in his first budget negotiations as mayor. The council aligned behind a $300 million tax-cut plan he opposed. Having failed to horse-trade for allies, Williams was forced to yield to the council.
Another concern: budget shortfalls. The meticulous numbers guru is trying to address an estimated $70 million in projected shortfalls across a dozen city agencies.
His defenders argue that the mayor, though a political neophyte, is too smart to repeat his early mistakes. They say he has generated more public trust than the city has seen in years.
"There's a real sense that the mayor has tried to move aggressively with his reform agenda," says Curtis Etherly, a lobbyist for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "He's restoring confidence in leadership here, and we're seeing more respect than ever for the city."
In the Williams era, supporters say, the district has speeded up licensing for new companies, continued a real-estate boom and phased out the influence of federal regulators controlling its finances. Along the way, the mayor has fought for an appointed school board to raise education standards and used customer-friendly techniques to help deliver city services.
While his predecessor, Barry, used political savvy and an outsized personality to get by, Williams projects a less glamorous image -- a technocrat who gets things done. At the roads meeting, for example, he makes only fleeting eye contact with people in his audience. He is unabashedly cerebral: A discussion of the city streets elicits an impromptu description of the thoroughfares of ancient Rome.
In the city's struggling, largely black communities, some critics feel that Williams fights hardest for the wealthy. Articles in the Washington Post detailing unaccounted-for deaths in the city's group homes for the mentally retarded have provided grist for such charges. Another brewing issue: Critics contend that Williams' efforts to overhaul dilapidated housing are displacing poor residents and paving the way for gentrification.
But supporters say the mayor is making strides in poor neighborhoods. East of the Anacostia River, D.C. City Council member Sandy Allen's ward saw up to 300 new houses built in 18 months -- the biggest development boom, she says, that area has undergone in 20 years.
"He has pulled the people together here," Allen says, adding that Williams will soon deliver a long-hoped-for grocery store to the neighborhood. "When he was chief financial officer, he saw things in terms of numbers, and now he sees the impact of what we're doing on people's lives."
Max N. Berry, a Democratic lawyer who is an informal adviser to Williams, remembers telling him it would take at least two terms to effect substantive change. Now, he says, Williams is deeply enmeshed in that task -- learning from mistakes and digging in for a long fight.
"With that bow tie he always wears, I told him he almost reminds me of a turtle in a Disney movie," Berry recalls. "And he says to me, 'Remember. The turtle won the race.' "