Williams, Anthony 1951–
Anthony Williams 1951–
Mayor of Washington, D.C.
When Anthony Williams was elected mayor of Washington, D.C. in 1998, it marked another chapter in a life dedicated to public service. Before succeeding Mayor Marion Barry, Williams served as the District of Columbia’s chief financial officer. He had also been selected previously as the first chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With his trademark bow-tie and no-nonsense attitude, Williams seemed poised to lead the troubled District of Columbia into the 21st century.
Born Anthony Stephen Eggleton in Los Angeles in 1951, Williams did not begin speaking until the age of three and his foster parents considered placing him in a home for the mentally retarded. His foster mother worked at the Los Angeles post office with Lewis Williams III and his wife, Virginia. Virginia could not stand the thought of the toddler being placed in an institution, and decided to adopt him. “You should have heard my husband when I first brought this up,” she told Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post. “He was like, ‘Virginia, have you lost your mind?’ But eventually, he came around.” The Williams’s took Anthony into their home and eventually parented a total of nine children.
The Williams’s renamed their new son Anthony Allen Williams. Within months, Williams began speaking and quickly developed into a bright, independent child. His parents were deeply committed to education and struggled financially in order to send all of their children to Catholic schools. Although he received good grades, Williams was easily distracted and would often daydream in class. He was interested in going to college and was committed to pursuing a life of public service. Williams graduated from high school in 1969 and, after flirting with the idea of becoming a Catholic priest, enrolled at Santa Clara University.
As a student at Santa Clara, Williams became actively involved in anti-Vietnam War protests and often travelled to San Francisco or Berkeley to join demonstrations there. He was elected president of his sophomore class and worked for an organization that helped draft dodgers who had fled to Canada. Williams eventually decided to quit school and joined the Air Force. “I can still
At a Glance…
Born Anthony Stephen Eggleton, July 28, 1951, in Los Angeles, California. Adopted son of Lewis Williams III and Virginia Williams, both postal workers. Married Diane Simmons Williams. Children: Asantewa Foster. Education: Santa Clara University; Yale University, B.A., 1983; Harvard University, law degree and graduate degree in public policy, 1987. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1971-74.
Career: Head of neighborhood housing and development at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, 1988-90; executive director of the St. Louis’s Community Development Agency, 1990-91; deputy state comptroller of Connecticut, 1991-93; chief financial officer forthe U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1993-95; chief financial officer for the District of Columbia, 1995-98; mayor of Washington, D.C., 1999-.
Addresses: Office— Office of the Mayor, 441 4th St., NW, Ste. 1100, Washington, D.C. 20001.
picture Tony coming into my frat house,” Williams’ brother, Lewis, reminisced to the Washington Post. “Here he was, head of the draft resistance unit or whatever at college, and he was in full Air Force uniform. I couldn’t believe it.”
Williams volunteered for duty in Vietnam, but remained in the United States as an administrative aide. In order to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot, he applied to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Because of his dismal academic record at Santa Clara, he was sent to the academy’s preparatory school. He excelled at the preparatory school and earned admission to the academy, but had lost interest in the Air Force. Although he was eligible for an early discharge, Williams considered leaving the Air Force as a conscientious objector. “I wanted to make a statement,” he told the Washington Post.
Williams was granted an honorable discharge from the Air Force in 1974. He spent the following year giving piano and art lessons to blind children and counseling Vietnam veterans. A conversation with an admissions officer at Yale University convinced Williams to apply to the school, and he was quickly accepted. He used his veterans benefits to pay for his tuition and spent most of his free time working with youth programs. After two years, he quit school again to start a business that sold antique maps. The business failed, and he was forced to borrow money from his parents in order to get out of debt.
In 1979, Williams returned to Yale and paid his tuition by working as a pizza deliveryman. He also ran for and won a seat on the New Haven Board of Alderman. Paul Bass, associate editor of New Haven’s weekly, The Advocate, remembered Williams as a man who was willing to challenge the city’s African American political establishment. “He was one of the best elected officials I’ve seen in 20 years here,” Bass told Vernon Loeb of the Washington Post. “He had the most integrity, the most independence—and he was the smartest.”
In 1982, one year after winning reelection, Williams resigned his seat on the board to attend school. He enrolled at Harvard University and earned both a law degree and a master’s degree in public policy. In 1988 a former Harvard classmate, Chris Grace, hired Williams to serve as the head of neighborhood housing and development for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. As part of his duties, Williams managed a program for developing low-income housing through the use of federal money and neighborhood renewal contributions from developers.
In 1990, Grace became the director of development in St. Louis and persuaded Williams to take a job as executive director of the city’s Community Development Agency. Early in his tenure, Williams refused to pay two city contractors because he felt they did not do their work sufficiently. The men responded by attacking Williams and breaking his nose. They were arrested and convicted of assault.
Williams left his job in St. Louis in 1991 to become deputy state comptroller in Connecticut, a move that placed him in the world of public finance. He began working in his new post just as Governor Lowell Weicker, Jr. shut down state operations because the legislature had failed to approve a budget. During the tense months before a new budget was approved, Williams was unfazed. “Tony was completely the operations guy,” his boss at the time, Bill Curry, told the Washington Post. “But at the same time, Tony was collaborating with me every day in brainstorming where we were taking [the office] and what issues we were doing next. Tony was a manager with a vision—and also a pretty good sense of politics.”
Through Bill Curry, who had worked on President Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Williams came to the attention of the new administration. In 1993, he became the first chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this role, Williams managed the funds of a $62.3 billion network consisting of 29 agencies located throughout the United States and around the world. By 1995, Williams became a prime candidate to fill a newly created position, that of chief financial officer of Washington, D.C.
During the 1990s, the financial state of Washington, D.C. was dismal. The city’s budget deficit ballooned to over $300 million and the public school system did not have enough money to repair its aging school buildings. In 1995, Congress and the Clinton administration intervened and established an unelected financial control board. This control board took over many of the duties assigned to the mayor, the city council, and the school board. They also created a process by which a chief financial officer would be selected to address the District’s financial crisis. Mayor Marion Barry would nominate a candidate and the financial control board would then approve or veto that candidate. Once the candidate was approved, he/she would report directly to the control board. The control board would remain in place until the District could deliver balanced budgets for four consecutive years.
Williams sent Barry a letter in which he formally applied for the position. Barry nominated Williams and his candidacy was approved by the control board. Barry seemed pleased with the board’s decision. “I’m excited about this,” he told David Vise and Howard Schneider of the Washington Post. “This is not going to be a panacea, but Williams is a solid public servant.”
Despite this harmonious beginning, Barry and Williams were soon at odds. One bone of contention centered around the issue of vendor payments. Barry wanted to control which city contractors received overdue payments first, a condition that Williams would not allow. In early 1996, Williams insisted that the control board fire the District’s budget manager, who was an ally of Barry. He also took issue with Barry’s projected 1996 deficit figure of $59 million, noting that it would be closer to $200 million. “Everything is a fight,” Williams told the Washington Post. “The mayor does not support me.” Williams briefly considered quitting, but concluded that if he could find a way to work with Barry, the city would benefit. “The mayor is like nuclear power,” Williams remarked to the Washington Post. “Properly channeled, he can light the city. But without the proper safeguards, it is bad news.”
In April of 1996, Congress approved Washington, D.C.’s fiscal 1996 budget. It also transferred control of the District’s 1,200 government employees from Mayor Barry to Williams. Williams, who once compared the city payroll to a free jobs program, began to dramatically cut staffing levels. “We’ve got a huge, massive personnel problem…,” he told Vise of the Washington Post. “…One-third to one-quarter of the people need to find another line of work.”
In January of 1997, Williams angered union leaders when he fired 165 city employees. He defended the firings as essential to solving the District’s budget problems. One week later, he announced that if he could not solve the city’s budget problems within one year, he would resign. Throughout 1997, Williams continued to battle both the mayor and the control board as he called for accountability on all fronts. “People have got to stop whining and recognize that there is a sense of urgency in fixing the internal operations of the D.C. government,” he told Hamil Harris of the Washington Post. “I will always accept my share of the blame, but I am not going to pull the whole wagon.”
The District of Columbia, which had projected a 1997 deficit of $74 million, ended the year with a surplus of $185.9 million. Although a strong national economy and increased tourism in the Washington D.C. area were strong contributors, Williams received much of the credit for the District’s incredible financial rebound. The budget surplus also marked the first step toward the return of home rule to the District of Columbia.
With his success as chief financial officer, Williams was tapped as a potential mayoral candidate. In February of 1998, Williams announced that he would not run for mayor because his work as chief financial officer was unfinished and his family did not support the idea.
However, in May of 1998, Williams reconsidered and announced his candidacy. He appeared confident that, as mayor, he could provide the same type of effective leadership he had shown as chief financial officer. “The District is at a crossroads in terms of moving from the old generation of black leadership to the new generation that still inspires hope but also delivers results,” he declared to the Washington Post. “I believe I am the best person to be mayor, and I agree with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton that this is the most important race in the District in probably 100 years.”
Williams soon resigned as chief financial officer to devote his energies to the mayoral campaign. During the campaign, he was attacked by his fellow Democratic candidates as a carpetbagger who hadn’t lived in the city long enough and a man who took too much of the credit for the District’s financial turnaround. Despite these attacks, Williams won the Democratic primary in September of 1998 and went on to defeat the Republican candidate, Carol Schwartz, in the general election. “Our citizens deserve the best city in America,” Williams said in his inaugural address. “Strong schools, safe streets, clean communities, affordable housing and reliable transportation.” He also pledged to work toward the return of home rule to the District of Columbia once the conditions enacted by Congress were fulfilled.
Early in his mayoral tenure, Williams became embroiled in a controversy that sparked a national debate and ignited racial tensions in Washington, D.C. A white aide, David Howard, had used the word “niggardly”—a synonym for “stingy” or “miserly”—to describe his department’s funding levels. An African American staffer mistook the word for the similar-sounding racial slur. Howard immediately apologized for using the word, but the situation spiraled into a public relations nightmare. Howard tendered his resignation, which Williams accepted. Language purists, homosexuals—Howard was Williams’s only openly gay appointee—, and others defended the use of the word. Many people felt that Williams had overreacted and was trying to win the favor of critics who claimed he wasn’t “black enough” to lead the city.
Eventually, Williams admitted that he had acted too hastily in accepting Howard’s resignation and asked him to return. Howard indicated he’d like to return to a city government job, adding that he was satisfied with how the issue was resolved. “I think a lot of good came of this,” Howard told Michael Janofsky of the New York Times. “It has fostered a discussion, not about racial tensions but about racial perceptions. It can only help us understand each other.” For his part, Mayor Williams told the Washington Post that he had learned from the incident. “While it is important for a mayor, or any leader, to act decisively, make bold decisions and create a sense of urgency, it is not always necessary to act hastily.”
Economist, September 19, 1998, p. 37.
Newsweek, February 8, 1999, p. 39.
New York Times, January 3, 1999, p. A-18; January 5, 1999, p. A-12; February 5, 1999, p. A-18.
Time, September 14, 1998, p. 49.
Washington Business Journal, September 4, 1998, p. 58; October 30, 1998, p. 82.
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