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A Day in the District

Mayor Anthony Williams steps out, digs deep, shapes up, takes pride, and takes charge on the streets of Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, July 11: It is barely 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C., and a crowd has already formed in a room on the tenth floor of Judiciary Square, the District's equivalent of city hall. Williams shovels dirtMayor Anthony Williams '87 has called a press conference to announce the selection of his new chief of staff. Nearly 100 people have gathered, more staff than press. This cheery, talkative crowd greets Williams as he steps into the room, shaking hands and smiling on his way to the front.

Dressed in a dark gray suit, crisp white shirt, and his trademark bow tie in blue and white, Williams steps to the podium and simply stands in silence. He might as well have blown a whistle; the room instantly comes to attention.

Williams then proceeds to acknowledge the presence of various political allies and staff, the city council, the local Democratic committee, and his family, including his mother, the "First Lady of the District."

"To everyone else here, if I haven't recognized you by name, consider yourself recognized," he says to light laughter.

Speaking without notes, Williams talks of the District's improving financial situation. He says his new chief of staff, Kelvin Robinson, has the "best skill set" to work productively with the city council, a group that Williams is known to clash with on a regular basis. What he says next hints at the heat he took for hiring Robinson, a Florida transplant, over a local official. "In a perfect world, we'd have [those skills] in a person who's been in D.C. a long time, but it's not a perfect world."

It's not an apology. Williams is, by now, used to controversy and the criticisms that come with what he will tell you are tough policies and decisive action. Since taking office in the District in January 1999, Williams has streamlined city services, reduced the bloated municipal payroll left by his predecessor, Marion Barry, and held all city agencies publicly accountable for improving budgets, services, and systems. He's led the District out of receivership--one of Barry's legacies--with full control of the city's finances to be returned to the city council this fall. He'll also take credit for improving school facilities and teaching programs, increasing the number of affordable housing units, and attracting significant commercial investment in the District's poorer neighborhoods.

"I have this saying, that James Brown is the hardest working man in show business, and I'm the hardest working man in the country," Williams says later in the day, in a conversation with the Bulletin. "I'm not entitled to this; I don't have any grant to do this. Every day I'm doing this is really a privilege and an honor, and I've got to maximize my time in it.

"That's why I've taken a lot of tough stands," he continues. "I actually don't consider losing the next election to be the worst thing in the world. I mean, I can live another life. I think that's a healthy attitude. I'm totally subservient to the people that I work for--the citizens. I work for them and they're the boss. I'm not saying I'm some saint or something. But I believe that there are certain key decisions where you have to stand up and be counted, and be willing to take short-term pain for long-term gain."

Privatizing the District's public hospital, D.C. General, was one such controversial decision. Another was moving the city's school board from an all-elected board to one that is partly appointed. "I'm proud of that," he says. "That took an enormous amount of work."

Back at the press conference, Williams wraps up his remarks by quipping, "I'm not going to be like Fidel Castro, who passed out after a two-hour speech. I'm going to stop now." He likes this joke, according to one of his press assistants, and he's likely to use it again in another speech, maybe today, maybe later this week. Then he'll find another joke and start all over.

The mayor's next stop in this tightly scheduled day is a huge empty lot in the District's Brentwood neighborhood, where a car impoundment lot is being transformed into a major shopping center, anchored by retail behemoths Kmart and Home Depot and the supermarket Giant Food. Though backhoes and dump trucks are already chugging around, preparing the site for construction, Williams is holding a groundbreaking ceremony to mark this major economic victory for the city.

While crews hurry to erect a stage and podium, a strong hot breeze toys with their progress, tipping flagpoles and unfastening corners of store banners. They are running a little late, and a member of the security team radios ahead to the mayor's official SUV to tell the driver to take a detour, so he won't arrive before everything is ready.

Area residents gather quickly in the lot, as do TV crews from three local stations. Members of the press mix with staffers they clearly know well. Employees from other Home Depot and Kmart stores collect in clusters of orange aprons and blue shirts. A handful of photographers mills about in a crowd that has ballooned to nearly 200 people when the mayor arrives to join the half-dozen other city officials, store representatives, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on stage.

This is the mayor's chance to bask in the fulfillment of a promise he made in his campaign--to boost economic prosperity to every ward of the District. The Home Depot on Brentwood Avenue will be the first ever inside the beltway. According to the mayor's office, the retail center will bring 800 jobs and more than $5 million in tax revenues to the District, reversing what Williams calls the "hemorrhage of retail dollars out of the city."

When the speeches end, the crowd follows Williams and the others to a pile of newly arrived soil for the requisite photos. Standing shoulder to shoulder, each with a shiny new Home Depot-issued shovel in hand, the officials take a swipe at the dirt while grinning brightly for the cameras. Williams hams it up, shakes hands with his constituents, lets them snap their own photos of him. All around them, the din of construction already under way seems to punctuate a sense of action and effectiveness that Williams personifies. Things are happening now, not next year. Now.

Williams knows he's having an impact on D.C. because he goes to great lengths to measure it, through a system of performance management that is rarely applied so rigorously in the public sphere. To help his staff and city agencies set and reach goals for service, he developed a citywide "strategic scorecard" program that spells out specific objectives. At the end of a defined time period, a scorecard is issued to the public that reports on whether each goal has been met. Williams has not been afraid to say what hasn't been achieved and talks often about how the scorecards can help officials to learn and adjust efforts.

He also isn't afraid to hear directly from residents and keeps a close eye on the comments that come through a dedicated hotline.

"You know you're doing a good job because the complaints change," he says. "The character of the complaints tells you that you're improving. For example, if people were telling me there was a homicide down the street, some car was blown up, or just that there was serious crime on the street and the neighborhood was in mortal danger, that's one set of problems. If people are complaining about trees not being trimmed, or that we're not putting up signs quickly enough, or that phone calls aren't returned quickly enough--you know you're making progress. If you know where we've been in this city, going from bankruptcy to now, that tells you you're making progress. People aren't going to say you're doing a great job, they're going to always point out what more you need to do."

Williams--who rose to prominence in the District as the maverick chief financial officer hired in 1995 by then-mayor Barry and proceeded to publicly criticize his boss's management and fiscal activities--easily slips into a comparison of then and now.

"There's a tremendous amount of faith in what I can do," he says. "When Marion Barry was just about ready to leave, and the control board was in, and things were at their worst, we'd have a community meeting and there'd be five or six people there. No one bothered to come at that point. Now we can have meetings with 500 or 600 people. That's a sign that people have a high level of expectation, and if we can deliver on that expectation, that's a tremendous achievement."

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