The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg
Anthony Williams: The Mayor
Chuck Rosenberg: Welcome to The Oath. I’m Chuck Rosenberg, and I’m honored to be your host for another thoughtful conversation with a fascinating guest. Tony Williams grew up as one of eight children in the Los Angeles home of Lewis and Virginia Williams. Adopted at the age of four by the Williams family, Tony had a self-described circuitous path that took him from the Air Force to Yale College, and then to Harvard Law School. Tony had a deep background in public policy and financial control issues, but a relatively brief connection to the District of Columbia as its first chief financial officer. In that role, he rescued the city from fiscal ruin. In 1998, Tony was quite literally drafted to run for mayor. Remarkably, he won two terms as mayor and led Washington D.C. from the depths of overwhelming deficits and entrenched mismanagement to the heights of financial stability and civic success. Tony Williams was one of the best and most successful mayors in US history. He has a deep appreciation for the virtues of cities and a clear plan for how to run a complex enterprise and a deep reverence for public service.
Tony Williams welcome to The Oath.
Tony Williams: Pleasure to be here, Chuck. Great program up until this point.
Rosenberg: Well, it may well be a great program even after this point.
Williams: OK. We’ll see. But happy to be here and I’ve listened to the show. Wonderful guests, great program, proud of you.
Rosenberg: Thank you my friend. Tell me where you grew up.
Williams: I grew up in what is called the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. It is probably one of the oldest neighborhoods in LA. It became, in the 50s, an African-American neighborhood. So, the West Adams neighborhood really changed after the ruling by the Supreme Court: Shelley vs. Kraemer. All of our deeds of houses that we own have these various clauses in them that are called covenants and servitudes. And under the law they can do a lot of different things. They can say you can’t have bikes in the driveway. You can’t keep your garage door open, all different things purely constitutional. But one thing you can’t do that Supreme Court ruled in 1948 was you can’t in one of these clauses restrict the property as to race. Now, it would be broader than simply race but then it was race and that was what Shelley vs. Kraemer was about. And when you could no longer restrict your property as to race it didn’t really solve the problem of segregation it just rearranged a lot of the deck chairs, and as deck chairs were getting rearranged, you had outmigration of a lot of inner-city properties like the neighborhood of West Adams in LA. One of the things I witnessed was, like we’ve seen in many communities around the country, an interstate highway was put right through the neighborhood, but it was a very robust, vibrant, great neighborhood with beautiful old craftsman houses. It was a great place to grow up. It really was, and my parents did a wonderful job raising us.
Rosenberg: Talk about your parents.
Williams: So, I always like to say that I got to where I am because of the Civil Rights Movement and government doing the right thing and loving parents who adopted me at an early age about four and a half years old, I came to the Williams family. My dad was a decorated military officer out of World War II. His name was Lewis, he had two Bronze Stars. He was a captain in World War II. To be an African-American and get two Bronze Stars and be a captain in World War II is a big deal, because I figure he probably was discounted for one of those medals I’m sure–
Rosenberg: On account of race.
Williams: My dad was really dedicated to raising his family. He worked in the post office for 35 years. He probably took one day off sick leave. He was very rigorous about vacation. I think that was because he was one, a dedicated person, but I also think it was because he had eight kids at home and he probably wanted to get out of the house. But my dad really taught me a lot about determination and conviction. My dad died in 1998. So, I was the independent CFO of D.C. He had been reading about that. My dad, you know, always thought I was kind of a walking debris field and kind of inattentive and a lot of points. But he had a lot of faith in me. I could hear him talking my mother sometimes at night. He had a lot of faith and belief that I would be something big. When I was wrong my dad would call me Anthony. When I was OK, he would call me Tony. And when I was really in a groove he would say Tone. And the last time I saw him he says, hey Tone. So that was a good point.
Rosenberg: You knew he was happy with you.
Williams: Yeah, he was happy with Tone.
Rosenberg: How about your mom?
Williams: You know my mom is known around D.C. She was kind of really the de-facto first lady, and my wife Diane would readily concede this. She relished the role of being kind of my better half in terms of she loved to talk on the phone. She was a real people person. Being mayor of D.C., one of the disabilities I had was you know I had a dad who had been raised in St. Paul Minnesota. My dad probably made about, I don’t know, five phone calls his entire life. Well, coming into politics and not liking to talk to people on the phone is not a good thing. So, my mom really compensated for that. My mom loved people. She never met a stranger. You know, people like Bill Clinton loved my mother, because she was just such an exuberant person. And one of the reasons my mother was such a spectacular person was she had a singing career, she had sung in choruses, community orchestras. She was–growing up she made money for her family. By singing at everything from weddings to bar mitzvahs, I’m not kidding. All over the place in the LA area. She would sing recitals and whatnot to make money for her family. If she were sitting here talking to you now, she would be talking and then she’d break into a song and then she’d reference another song and sing that and then start talking again. That’s—I grew up with that kind of mother. Imagine that. Our house was kind of rolling opera.
Rosenberg: I never had the pleasure meeting her father, but I had the pleasure of meeting your mom, and if I remember correctly she sang at your inauguration.
Williams: She did. All verses I’d never heard of the Negro National Anthem my mother sang, 18 verses, whatever it is.
Rosenberg: Even in her later years she had a spectacular voice.
Williams: She really did, yeah. She was a great lady, my mom. So, she really imbued in me a real belief in public service that government can be a force for good. That belief is a good thing. So, she was a great motivator in that way.
Rosenberg: You said that they adopted you at about the age of four, four and a half. Did you ever find out anything about your biological parents?
Williams: Well really not until recently, because growing up I felt that my parents were such loving parents. Again, I was not the most mild-mannered child growing up. I got into trouble a lot but, none of my brothers and sisters ever—not once, which was really amazing—brought up me being adopted. So, and certainly my parents didn’t with the exception of just one occasion. So, I thought you know I’m not going to embarrass my mom. I’m not gonna embarrass my dad. I’m not one of these people because this is my dad and me I’m not going to. You know, I don’t want to be on TV talking about my long lost brother and now I’m crying where she is. It was a suck it up, is what it is. But you know, now that both of my parents have died, I kind of thought about it. And so, I did DNA and I figured that well you know I’ll find out who my biological mother is, you know, maybe she’s in the West Adams neighborhood, maybe she’s from Burbank or something. Well I find out lo and behold my mother was from Turkey or Armenia, which is a big leap. But I think I might try to visit the village or something.
Rosenberg: You’re still processing that.
Williams: Yeah. It’s a lot to process because you’re talking about different religions, languages, cultures, civilizations, again like I’m saying it’s not like another part of town. I mean it’s a whole lot to get your arms around.
Rosenberg: And what about your biological father?
Williams: I don’t know. I really don’t know. There’s you know again I haven’t really poked in there. Part of the reason I even poked in there is because I was mistreated at some point growing up before I was adopted by the Williams. So probably part of me doesn’t really want to go there you know.
Rosenberg: Mistreated in what way, Tony?
Williams: I think it was neglected, not really properly cared for. When I came to the Williams family for whatever reason they say I didn’t talk. There were a lot of issues like that going on. I think there were some trauma going to I’m clearly not a shy person but I clearly had trouble early on communicating that. God bless my adopted parents and teachers I clearly have gotten over, because I don’t have any problem talking to people.
Rosenberg: You thrived. I mean you ended up going to Yale College and Harvard for both the graduate school and law school. You clearly thrived. But the path to that was somewhat circuitous. Is that fair?
Williams: I always like to say I took the county roads and the scenic route, and a lot of my colleagues were taking the interstate, and I got on the interstate and kind of passed a lot of people but yeah I was slow at beginning.
Rosenberg: You said that before you got on the interstate you took a bunch of scenic routes. Would you describe that?
Williams: Yeah I mean I went to a great high school. My parents sent me to a school called Loyola High School, which was a very prestigious school in L.A. probably one of the oldest if not the oldest school in L.A. You know, great training and I did well in school. I ended up going to the University of Santa Clara where I was the freshman class vice president and the sophomore class president. I remember I left office early as sophomore class president because of some—I forget the reason why, but—it was some social issue involved that I was protesting. But I was so involved in all these various student politics and activities I wasn’t really involved enough in my academics.
Rosenberg: Your grades had suffered.
Williams: My grades had suffered at the end of that second year. I had a very high draft number, so I had no worry about getting drafted, but I had a friend who had a lower draft number. He decided to enlist in the Air Force, and I told him, well look let me go with you to make sure they don’t snooker you. I went with him to the Air Force recruiting office and I started talking to a recruiter as my friend’s representative and I ended up joining and he ended up not, and I ended up in the Air Force, and I loved the Air Force because one of the things my dad did to entertain us growing up as he always took us to the beach, pretty much three or four days each week during the summer. And he would sleep at the beach and let the life guards kind of watch us. You know we’d eat sandwiches with the sand and the sandwich and sand between the kernels and the corn and all that, and we had it was a great growing up, and then a couple days you go to camp, or something. And then another thing he always did that was low budget to entertain us, in addition to camping around, which really had an influence, going around the country camping places. He had this big thing about taking us to the airport, and we would watch planes take off. This is before you know all the security at 9/11 you could walk right up to the fence and watch these beautiful planes taking off. So, I loved airplanes. And my first job in the Air Force I was working in a command post as an aide to the battle staff and the people in the command post you know in the movies were the you know low-ranking person with a squeegee on the board ranking the status, that’s me. You know, when handing the memos out? I had a great time in the Air Force, and I got deployment to the Air Force Academy and I was ready to go to the Air Force Academy.
Rosenberg: Where were you stationed at first?
Williams: I volunteered to go to Vietnam, but I was posted in Myrtle Beach, I must admit, which is not exactly heavy lifting. And then I served in Colorado Springs went to the Air Force Academy Prep School. Because my grades at Santa Clara had been bad. I did very well at the prep school, I got an appointment to the Air Force Academy but then as part of my scenic tour I decided that I really believed this at the time. I can’t say I believe the same way now and I love to talk about it, but I declared myself a conscientious objector. So, on the way to getting a judgment on that I served at an Air Base in California called Castle Air Base, which was the training base for Strategic Air Command.
Rosenberg: That’s interesting to me Tony because you had served honorably in the Air Force. You had graduated from the Air Force Academy Prep School your appointment to the Air Force Academy—
Williams: I was a student Officer Cadet Officer, I was, I did well in the Air Force.
Yeah, I love the Air Force. One of my biggest regrets was leaving. So, when I got out, anyway, when I got out of the service I felt it was even though I got out later and I could have gotten out just on an early out because it was toward the end now of the Vietnam period. They had an early out program I worked for a year with handicapped or blind children at that place called A Foundation for the Junior Blind. I thought it was important to kind of have a full term of service at some level, and I still believe that it’s important for people to serve their country in some way. Maybe not in the military but in some way. Again that’s larger than their own personal needs. I got accepted to Yale. I went to Yale as an undergraduate. I was involved in a lot of student activities and then—
Rosenberg: But you took a leave—
Williams: To sell maps. So I had a friend who had a one of the big, world’s biggest collections are certainly the country’s biggest collection of 19th century rare maps. We had a business selling these. This collection of old maps. Business didn’t do very well because we did a good job of curating the maps. I did particularly love curating maps and learning everything about the maps. It’s just not enough people wanted to buy the maps, which is a key part of business. I went back to Yale, and I got involved then in politics of New Haven government. That was a point where I would say I got back on the interstate.
Rosenberg: As a student at Yale you were actually elected to the New Haven Board of Aldermen.
Williams: Right. President pro tem. This vice president, if you will, of the Board of Aldermen and chair of a major committee. I didn’t represent the Yale campus, I represented a regular neighborhood, a distressed neighborhood, and I learned a lot about government and public policy from that experience from mentors I had like Stan Greenberg. I took his class, Politics of Divided Societies, and he felt that I was one of the students who actually understood what he was talking about. But then I got to know his wife Rosa DeLauro, because I served with Rosa DeLauro as mother Luisa DeLauro on the New Haven Board of Aldermen. So, the DeLauro family and the Greenberg family became good friends for a long time.
Rosenberg: And Rosa DeLauro, Stan Greenberg’s wife, went on to become a Congresswoman from Connecticut.
Williams: Her dad, her family, were big supporters in the preservation of Worcester Square in New Haven. She served as Chris Dodd’s Chief of Staff and then went on to her own great career.
Rosenberg: From Yale, having ultimately graduated, you went on to Harvard. Why do you go to Harvard?
Williams: Well I done well as an undergraduate at Yale. I did really well grade-wise and I had the opportunity to go to Yale Law School. But I felt that it was important to get out of New Haven because I didn’t think I would do well in school while also in graduate school is different from undergraduate. I felt it would be really hard to be a good graduate student and also be involved in local politics. So that’s the reason why I left New Haven and I had the opportunity to go.
Rosenberg: Shortly after I was admitted to Harvard, I got another letter and said we welcome you to our class of 1985, there is a problem. And we need you to do what, Tony? Because you’ve got the same letter.
Williams: Yeah—Welcome, we look forward to your success, but to ensure your success we really strongly advise, hint, hint, hint, that you attend math. There was some formal title but essentially, Math for Dummies.
Rosenberg: Well that was a three-week workshop for those of us who had nothing beyond high school algebra.
Williams: That’s right. That’s right. It was great.
Rosenberg: I’m not sure that it really helped me. I’m quite positive it helped you, I recall one of my midterm grades in operations research as the teacher was walking around the class and putting papers face down in front of each student. I received mine and flipped it over, and in the top right-hand corner where the grade ought to be said “please see me.” I figured that was either really, really good or really, really bad. It turned out to be really, really bad.
Williams: No, but you know what I learned from the Kennedy School that was really, really important was how to talk about public policy issues, explain public policy issues. Hire the right people to tackle these issues, understand these issues at the right level of management, and I think I did a great job in doing that. Another person who was really I think very, very supportive of me in our law school, who went on to be dean of Stanford Law School, Kathleen Sullivan—great professor, great litigator, appellate lawyer. I first met Kathleen Sullivan because she was responsible for a litigation workshop where we had some mock trials or mock presentations and she thought I did a good job.
Rosenberg: At Harvard Law School
Williams: Harvard Law School. She was a professor at Harvard Law School.
Rosenberg: Shortly after you graduated from Harvard Law School a law student just a few years behind you came and paid you a visit. Who was that law student and tell us about that visit?
Williams: So I had, yeah, I graduated from law school I had opportunity to work for a number of you know federal district judges, and I decided to work for a judge in Boston, David Nelson. Was a real leader in Boston and he was instrumental in me getting the job at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, where I thought I was taking time out until I practiced law, which I never went to do as it turned out, but it has another story. So, I’m sitting here in my office and I get a message that a student from Harvard Law School wants to visit me and I’m like OK whatever. And what’s his name? And she said it was Barack Obama. I go what? She said Barack Obama. Great. So a handsome young man comes in, very light, fit, you know, head on, and I think he had on a leather jacket. You know, he comes in and he starts asking me all these questions about my background and what I did, and I was asking him—
Rosenberg: You had not met him before.
Williams: I had never met him before, and I was asking him you know, where he was from and he gave me the story of where he was from, and I’m thinking oh this is interesting and he tells me that he’s interested in public service. And that was Barack Obama. And I thought, I just thought looking back in retrospect, amazing that he would have the presence of mind to go out, because that’s always sitting there talking I could see he was he was totally absorbing everything I was saying. I think he, you know, good leaders are a good listener. Very, very good listener.
Rosenberg: Had you seen Obama again later after he became President?
Williams: A couple instances before. As a senator where we were at the same event I went to congratulate him after his breathtaking talk to the Democratic Convention. History will show that he served our country honorably and with distinction. It’s a real honorable man.
Rosenberg: So, first job out of law school was with the Boston Redevelopment Authority?
Williams: Right. And Steven Coyle who is a Category 4 storm. I met when I came to the BRA, and it took me about four or five months to figure out what Steve was about. And once I understood it, and started applying it. I think the rest speaks for itself. He’s totally results-oriented. A man of great compassion and incredible intellect.
Rosenberg: And then after Boston you had a similar post in St. Louis.
Williams: My biggest accomplishment in St. Louis was I met my wife Diane. So that’s my ringing accomplishment in St. Louis. And I ran the Community Development Agency in St. Louis. And I think the thing that St. Louis taught me was that there I was running an agency, I was reporting with a few of my colleagues directly to the mayor. I really felt directly the challenges that American cities face. St. Louis is a noble city, it’s a beautiful city.
Rosenberg: After St. Louis you moved to Connecticut. What did you do there?
Williams: There I was the chief appointed deputy to the elected comptroller of the state. And on his behalf kind of acting is my friend Bill Curry’s chief of staff and general deputy managing the office for him. And I’d like to think that we put Bill in a position to run effectively as a gubernatorial candidate based on performance and accountability and fiscal stewardship using that office as a platform to push those things. And I learned how to think about a financial office and protect a financial office in a political environment because you know Lowell Weicker I’m sure—
Rosenberg: The former senator from Connecticut.
Williams: A senator who was a governor. We were doing a lot of oversight of his activities and he didn’t take kindly to it. I’m sure he would have liked to have had our office eliminated. I learned how an office like that should fend for itself, which was good training.
Rosenberg: Training for what?
Williams: To become the first chief financial officer of the Department of Agriculture. First, George Bush signed something called the CFO Act, which was to install in each federal department a CFO to act as a better fiscal financial steward of federal resources. Because certainly back in 1993, a big block of the federal budget really couldn’t be audited. That’s really breathtaking when you think about it. How much land does the Forest Service actually own? What is the value of the improvements on the land? Couldn’t really tell you.
Well that’s all that material is very, very important. So, you’re basically getting auditors in 1993 to look at the federal government and say you know what I can’t give you an opinion on the state because I don’t really know where to start. That’s really bad. Now the problem with the Department of Agriculture was that Department of Agriculture was a fiefdom of Jamie Whitten who was the all-powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and the College of Cardinals, and he was over Department of Agriculture and he did not like the CFO Act. So, what I love about this story is the irony of irony: Here you have Jamie Whitten who had been the patron of the Department of Agriculture. This is like Blazing Saddles and the first CFO is this African-American guy from L.A. You can’t make this up.
Rosenberg: Whitten was a member of the House from Mississippi.
Williams: From Mississippi for a long time. The people in the Department of Agriculture are a wonderful people. I had a wonderful time working in the Clinton administration and help with my friend George Munoz in the Treasury Department, and a guy named Ed DeSeve who went on to OMB who is at HUD to create the CFO console to coordinate the federal effort to improve its finances. I’m proud of that.
Rosenberg: You were the first CFO, so, right. You’re the one setting up the processes, you’re the one who has to figure out what the priorities are. You’ve never been in the federal government. You’ve never been in the Department of Agriculture. You have no idea how much land they have or what the value of the improvements are. How do you start that process?
Williams: I’ve always been a big believer in strategic planning and team building and breaking down huge problems into bite-sized chunks. And then, the federal government was certainly very, very important. And I heard a lot of your previous guest talk about this, and I would subscribe to what they’re saying, really respecting the people with the career staff of the federal departments and entering into an agreement with them. You know, for 80 percent of the things that you’re doing I’m supporting you, but I am the appointed leader and I’m going to need your support on say 20 percent of the things we do. And I need your support. You have that exchange that’s going to work. If I come in and say, I want you to change everything you’re doing and everything you’ve been doing up to no—makes no sense, that’s not going to work. And you’ve seen this in offices you’ve run in the federal government. You also can’t come in and say, well hey guys you know better than I do. I’m just here to cut ribbons. That’s not what you’re there for either. There is a tension there and there is a negotiation there. And if you get it right you’re gonna be a successful federal official or state or local official, and if you don’t you’ll be an abysmal failure.
Rosenberg: As an aside working at the Department of Agriculture was the first time you took the constitutional oath of office.
Rosenberg: But you have an interesting view on the oath, and I’d love for you to share that.
Williams: Well, I think that you know when the federal officers—and at the top, state and local officers—you take an oath. But I’m of a belief that just as it’s true that not only law officers but public officials, citizens in general, all have a duty to uphold the Constitution. Not just law officers, they have a special role, but everybody has a role to observe and uphold the Constitution. While federal officials you come into justice or you come into D.A. and you take an explicit oath. Everybody in a way is taking an implicit oath when they assume these jobs and it’s just understood as part of the public trust in accountability that they hold.
Rosenberg: Part of a compact between citizen and government.
Rosenberg: From the Department of Agriculture, Tony, you ended up working for then D.C. Mayor Marion Barry as chief financial officer for the District of Columbia. How did you get that job?
Williams: You know I was looking for real challenge you know so a control board was formed by the Congress which was acting as a state for D.C. in that role.
Rosenberg: Why is a control board constituted?
Williams: A control board as constituted when the city in question can no longer go to the credit markets to finance its activities. It’s like, I’m a family. All my credit cards are overblown and I no longer have any credit. I need some extra help. A city no longer has access to credit it can’t finance its core responsibilities. It needs some help. Well the only way you’re gonna get help is for your supervising authority, your state to create a control board to manage your affairs so that the additional money that’s provided isn’t basically wasted. And so a control board was created they were looking for as part of the act that created the control board a strong independent CFO. And that’s a job that I applied for and that’s a job that I took on.
Rosenberg: So not only were you the first CFO for the Department of Agriculture you became the first CFO for the District of Columbia?
Rosenberg: What is a control board and how does it work?
Williams: In the private sector when a company gets into financial duress it can do one of two things as you know under bankruptcy law. It can essentially liquidate itself and the companies ended or it can enter into what’s called a reorganization where under the Bankruptcy Act, the court can impose supervision of a kind of receiver trustee whatever you want to call it to manage the affairs of the company until it gets back on its own feet on a restructured basis. Because there is a growing concern there that can, that has a life after restructuring and bankruptcy. So, the analogy is in the government. Government really can’t liquidate itself because government has core responsibilities to meet. But it certainly can restructure. And the thinking is that under the right supervision again on an anti-democratic temporary basis, a board can come in take responsibility for restructuring the government—its balance sheet, its financial affairs—get it on a solid footing and then turn it back over to elected government. That’s what a control board is in the cities that I mentioned.
Rosenberg: And because of your work as the chief financial officer for the District of Columbia and as mayor, the control board eventually dissolved itself and returned those authorities to you and your office.
Williams: So, my good friend Alice Rivlin, who is no longer with us, a great director of OMB vice chair of the Federal Reserve. And, at the time we talked about, here was the chairman of the control board gave me back control of the government along the lines I’ve discussed, shortly before I took office two years ahead of schedule, so it was great. When I was elected, I went and had a meeting with a control board and she made it clear that they were gonna give me back the reins of government when I assumed office.
Rosenberg: Tony, you’ve spent a lot of time talking about how government works and democratic processes, but the control board is fundamentally anti-democratic.
Williams: That’s true. And I think when we as you know when we set up our Constitution at the federal level we created some anti-democratic elements in it. I mean, the Senate isn’t exactly democratic certainly because of its representation. Article 3 in the federal judiciary certainly isn’t directly democratic, because there is a belief that in a democratic system you need checks and balances and you need some controls and by their nature tend to be less democratic. And I happen to think that on a local level, while ideally in my opinion you’d like to have some frankly less democratic features of local government. I happen to believe that fiscal stewardship ought to be, ought to be a little bit immune from public whims than it is on local government across the country. What you found in Philadelphia, in New York, in Cleveland, and in D.C. is that all of us—George Voinovich, Eddy Rendell, Ed Koch, and yours truly—we saw our control board as a great opportunity. Here you had this kind of anti-democratic feature inserted into your normal course of business where some changes could be done on behalf of your people. Take advantage of that, don’t oppose that. Work in the kind of wake of that to create positive change.
Rosenberg: And when I say anti-democratic I don’t necessarily mean bad. I just mean anti-democratic.
Williams: It is anti-democratic. Yeah. A lot of my jobs didn’t really prepare me for this. And I had a lot of relationships that I had built up. I had good relationships with the Clinton administration, which strongly believed in the district’s recovery and supported me in what I was doing. The control board was indispensable. Went on to support people like Steve Harlan and Connie Newman. Enormously supportive of what I was trying to do, which really made a difference. Washington D.C. was created, and we found the country you know, as a compromise between slavery and antislavery. Strong federal government, weak federal government getting federal debt by those southern states and non-assumption. You know all this between Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, they agreed to locate the capital in Washington D.C. When they located the capital in Washington D.C., the way they designed it was to be a living breathing example of democracy. So, when I became mayor, I really took it seriously that I was a mayor at the turn of the century I was a mayor now coming out of the control board, and I had an opportunity by rebuilding the district’s institutions, rebuilding the public realm. If you think about the public realm as this joint shared community space that you’re trying to rebuild now. What’s the core of the public realm? In my mind it’s about accountability, stewardship, faith in the future, and then it’s about rebuilding the police department, public safety, you know getting people to answer the phone and come to the counter. Public services. And then you can start building other amenities in the greater city. Public education. You can fund education improvements and all the things that you’ve seen. But it started with restoring essentially full faith and credit that people believed again in the district.
Rosenberg: Your two terms as mayor were extraordinary in the history of the District of Columbia. But what was remarkable to me, Tony, was that though you had lived in D.C. briefly, you had never held elective office in D.C., hadn’t really voted in DC. You did a terrific job as the CFO of the Department of Agriculture. But that is not your typical breeding ground for D.C. mayor. How did you make that leap?
Williams: I was serving as a CFO. We had gotten restoration out of our access to Wall Street.
Rosenberg: Which is a very big deal.
Williams: It’s a big deal. That was in June of 1996, which was pretty much expected, although a big deal was made out of it because people just make a big deal out of controversy. You know, big deal fiscal chaos reigns in district, the district’s audit is still not an unqualified opinion.
Rosenberg: By unqualified opinion, Tony, you mean essentially a clean bill of health?
Williams: That’s right. An A-grade. Exactly. So, I had a press conference and I announce that we’re gonna have a clean audit for the next year. This would have been for fiscal year 1997. And if we didn’t have a clean audit, I would resign. Everybody was taken aback and then I went back to my office and I told my people now I’m going to resign. But this isn’t like an opera where I’m jumping off the building and you’re watching. My last act before I resign was I’m firing all of you. So there really was an electric charge through our office to really get this job done. Now what I really believe was that people were underestimating me and saying there was more chaos than there was. And I actually believe we could. I really want 70-30, that we could actually get this audit done. But because people had underestimated us I really played on that. And so, when we finally had a clean opinion in 1997, and we had a surplus it was a big, big deal. And during the whole time I had been CFO I had gone around the neighborhoods and I talked to all the neighborhoods about the problems that the district was facing. And you know my corny metaphor I used was said we’re a badly driven car on a bad road that’s overloaded and underpowered? And I would say you, know we’re badly driven because we have to improve our management. We’re overloaded because we’ve promised too many things by government than we have the resources to do. We’re underpowered because we don’t have all the resources at our disposal that we should because of the federal overlay and the lack of representation. And it’s a hard road because it’s hard being a city. It’s just hard. And the control board was improving the finances. But the citizens—these are the other things you need to do to see a full recovery of the district. And I would list the things in my opinion. And I think after a year I went around saying this, people decided well if you think this is what a full recovery is. It’s like the guy tells you that your transmissions out, and you also need this. And this is said, okay go ahead and do that, everything’s okay. These are all the other things you need to fix. Go ahead and fix them, you fix the finances fix this.
Rosenberg: But the gentleman who tells me what’s wrong with my transmission doesn’t become the CEO of General Motors.
Williams: That’s true, but I get to fix the rest of your car. The analogy I’m using so people allow me to fix the rest of the car, or at least start the rebuild of the whole car.
Rosenberg: There was actually a “Draft Tony Williams for Mayor.”
Williams: That’s true. There was a “Draft Tony Williams” movement from Palisades in northwest to Hillcrest all the way down in southeast east of the river.
Rosenberg: When did you decide you would run for mayor? When did the “Draft Tony Williams for Mayor” movement click for you?
Williams: In June of 1998. Late June of 1998. The election was in November of ‘98.
Rosenberg: So, you gave yourself all of about five months?
Williams: Yeah, you know, you need a good four, five months. Yeah.
Rosenberg: And how did you pull that off in four or five months?
Williams: Because I think the fact that we had—people could see that there was a trajectory of improvement, and there was a belief in what, you know, I was able to do. And it was one of these elections, I had great competition from some of the other candidates, all great people. But I think people believed in me. And you know it’s an election where you come in with a strong base of support and it’s really hard to un-shake that support, especially if you conduct yourself well and present yourself well, which I think I did, so—
Rosenberg: And in November of 1998 you were elected mayor of Washington D.C.
Williams: I had this notion of restoring this public realm, although I never really said that. It would sound ridiculous in public. But I had this notion of this is what I wanted to do and I’m a big believer in building political capital. My notion was what are the 10, 15 things we could do that were quick wins to restore political capital. And then how could we build forward momentum in the District based on performance, not on politics and cronyism?
Rosenberg: You said earlier it’s hard being a city, which is undoubtedly true. It’s also hard being a mayor. The things on your plate: transportation, jails, policing, schools, parks, sanitation, snow removal. I’m probably leaving 30 things off of that list. What do you do on day one, week one, month one? How do you get your arms around a task that large?
Williams: You create a set of things you want to accomplish. A map to get there. You try to hold people to account for that. Not just in getting to goals but also meeting their ethical and legal responsibilities. You know, find out a way to refresh this by talking to people outside, getting new ideas, and creating this positive cycle. But to get all that going, I believe the first six months while you’re starting all that, just find ten things that people really care about that are low hanging fruit. And show that you can get the government to move.
Rosenberg: Like what?
Williams: It sounds ridiculous now. Not very sublime but, one was reopening Massachusetts Avenue. Mass Avenue was closed at Thomas Circle. They were within about two weeks of completing the project, but the project had been stalled because of a contract dispute. So, it sat there for you know weeks with traffic blocked. Whether you’re trying to work out this contract dispute and then do the last week or two weeks of work. So my brilliant idea was why don’t we reopen the avenue? Even though we haven’t finished the last two weeks of work. And then once we complete the contract negotiations then we’ll close it for a couple of days and do whatever it is. Everybody thought that was this genius. Another example was we had a reputation for no one answering the phone, so we organize what is now 3-1-1. We organized a call center to improve customer service. That’s an example of showing people that you know the district has a commitment and is meeting its commitments.
Rosenberg: You can’t just change the culture by announcing a new number. How do you change the culture of an agency an organization or of a city?
Williams: In the city at large, I had citizen summits which everybody laughed about and said were a joke, but thousands of people came to spend eight hours at them. We had four citizen summits. Where people came in I spent eight hours talking about goals for the city and I actually followed those goals. Where that builds up belief, and people they actually see you following what you say you were gonna do. That was with a broader community. I was really a person who would say the same thing in Southeast D.C. that I would say in Northwest D.C. Maybe sometimes it wasn’t the most elegant. It certainly wasn’t maybe the most emotional, but I would say the same thing to everyone. I always felt respected by all my people. Maybe I wasn’t loved all the time, but I was respected. When you’re mayor your gold standard in my mind is being respected. You know when you’re up there, Chuck, where you are at the federal level, you guys are up. You’re on the Triple 7 and you’re looking for the Grey Poupon and the caviar and the champagne. When you’re the mayor, you’re down right down in a covered wagon. You know what I mean? It’s like, rough. It’s like, tough because, in the citizens’ mind, you’re responsible for everything except war and peace. Even ask you questions about Social Security. You know, you don’t have anything to do with Social Security. In their mind you’re responsible for everything. The person’s one point of contact for government.
Rosenberg: At the city level, or county level, or municipal level, this is where people contact their government. So, the citizen summits frankly strike me as a great idea and they obviously worked, but then you have to deliver. How do you ensure that you’re delivering? How do you know that the things you’ve tasked out to this large municipal bureaucracy are actually being done?
Williams: People say that when you’re the appointed person in a regular government agency where the vast majority of people are career servants, that no one pays attention to you, they ignore you. I don’t believe that. Again, I believe that you enter in a negotiation with your career people, and the negotiation is thus: I recognize that a lot of what you do is really kind of the accretion and the accumulation of practices that you have learned, and that are important, and have been going on for decades. I’m going to continue to support that, and as a matter of fact, as a district gets better I’m going to work with you all for better offices, because a lot of them were in horrible office facilities. I’m going to support you against public protests. When you want to go to legitimate worthwhile conferences, or when you want to get additional training, I’m going to support you for all that. Now what I need in exchange from you is I am the elected official, and I am steering this in my own incremental way, to be honest, and I’m going to need your support on one, or two, or three things. And that’s a bargain we have to have. And I think if you have that bargain down the line, you with your appointed officials, each appointed official with theirs. Next year when you work down the system it makes a difference. The other thing we had in D.C. that was very effective was in exchange for better pay a lot of our top managers accepted more flexibility in terms of performance. So that also helped rejuvenate the system and I encouraged that on other governments as well. So, you know that middle management in the federal government would be the career service SCS in exchange for more flexibility by management, got better pay and benefits. And that’s a good exchange, I think.
Rosenberg: D.C. went from being an impoverished city with a junk bond status rating on Wall Street to being one of the great success stories in the United States.
Williams: We’ve had a pretty much a constant upturn now, from around five hundred million dollars accumulated deficit too. When I left office, I think it was about a billion five accumulated surplus. We still had, and still have, one of the highest cash reserves of any government, period. Certainly, in the United States in terms of reserves for a rainy day and very, very sound fiscal stewardship in that. One of the things that just works has been very, very judicious about, and I applaud my fellow citizens, is keeping the CFO and his office strong. We went from junk bond rating now to Triple-A investment grade rating. That’s a breathtaking climb.
Rosenberg: And saves a ton of money for the city because the borrowing costs are driven down.
Williams: Where the district is under the stewardship of our latest CFO Nat Gandhi, an immigrant who comes here with nothing. I appointed Nat as one of my deputies when I was CFO. Now as CFO, he really did a lot of this work and you know I’m down in the engine room of finances of D.C. government. And now Jeff DeWitt put us on a path now where the district is really going to be able to fund its own capital. So yeah, talk about saving money. That’s huge. These are schools for our students. These are police cars for law enforcement personnel. These are parks for our children. All these are important. We’ve gone from most of the libraries shuttered and decrepit to some of the best neighborhood libraries in United States.
Rosenberg: One criticism, and I want your take on whether it is a fair criticism, is that this growth—the stunning growth—has led to a gentrification? And that lower income residents are forced out of the city and out of their home. Is that true, and is that a fair criticism?
Williams: The good side of the new investment is that when you go from junk bond rating to investment grade the financial standing that the district has, the surplus creation of public good and wealth, has gone too. Rebuilding our human service agencies in D.C., rebuilding our schools in D.C., which go to our poorest and our neediest residents in D.C. This is because we revive the economy and the finances of the district. That’s the upside, that’s the upside. The other upside is when I ride on the bus and they’re all mix of incomes on the bus that’s a good side. The downside is yes there has been displacement particularly by rental properties being quote unquote “flipped.” I’m not a big fan though of you know going before the tribunal and confessing for my sins. I think we did what we had to do to improve the district’s finances. But I am a big believer in learning lessons from the past so that as we continue to bring new investment. We minimize as much as possible displacement and see that everyone in the district is able to enjoy the new growth of all the things on a mayor’s plate.
Rosenberg: Of all the things on a mayor’s plate, and there are many, policing has to take up a lot of your time. Talk about your police chief and your approach to policing as mayor of Washington D.C.
Williams: Really, a number of people who were involved in the crime reduction in D.C. and better policing in D.C. And I would start with Steve Harlan and the control board and really giving us the resources to begin rebuilding the police force in D.C. We were considered a joke. We were one of the first police forces to enter into a consent agreement with the Justice Department, which is why you haven’t seen a lot of these issues you’ve seen in other cities in D.C. Which brings my next point, Steve hired, at the control board, brought in Chuck Ramsey and I kept Chuck Ramsey—
Rosenberg: As your chief?
Williams: And he continued building the department. And Chuck Ramsey really set D.C. out as a gold standard in managing not only national security issues at a local level but managing mass disturbances and protests. I mean, nobody better than Chief Ramsey. And then I give all due credit to my successor Adrian Fenty and Cathy Lanier. I think you know. It’s time for me to go. Time for Chuck Ramsey to go. Adrian brought in Cathy Lanier who was a fantastic police chief to build on what Chuck had done. And one of the things that Chief Lanier did, which was just one of the many things she did great, was you know when there was a death in Southeast, Chief Lanier would go and visit the family. She was a great chief and she was schooled in all the areas of policing from Special Operations. She was a 4D District Commander so she knew all the nooks and crannies and ins and outs of just managing that community policing. This is again where you’re building a virtuous cycle and positive momentum, as opposed to negative and vicious one.
Rosenberg: What frustrated you the most as Mayor? What was a thing you couldn’t do that you wanted to do?
Williams: I would have cut back on some of my trips, because people don’t elect you secretary of state, they elect you Mayor. I mean, I read right. In retrospect I would cut back on some of that. I think I thought it was important to showcase a district around the world, and one of the things, one of the reasons why, I think the district shortly after I left office was recognized as one of the number one places for real estate investment was because we were improving the fundamentals and letting everyone know, so I don’t begrudge that.
But we could have cut back a little bit on that.
Rosenberg: Anything else?
Williams: I really regret, we really didn’t spend enough time and effort on some of the remaining agencies that still bedevil us.
Rosenberg: Like what, Tony?
Williams: It’s called the Regulatory Agency, TCRA. It’s called Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is kind of Kafkaesque. You know, things like that still needed improvement, but overall over the great arc of things I have no regrets. Because what I think is I saw a great opportunity. You know in the kind of course of history and the way economics were going and everything I thought that music was poised for a great recovery and it turned out to be so.
Rosenberg: You decided after two terms not to run for a third. Now you mentioned earlier that there’s a value in change in retrospect, did you leave too early?
Williams: No, because I think one of the reasons why the district is doing well is me my successors Adrian Fenty, Vince Gray, Muriel Bowser. This is part of a virtuous cycle Warren Buffett talks about compounding in the economic financial sphere. Well you know from being a public manager compounding of good practices all creates great value over time and we’ve had mayors who have been steadfastly supportive of good management supporting the agencies not a lot of foolishness. And it shows.
Rosenberg: From a personal level Tony I’ve said this to you before: I’m incredibly grateful that you brought baseball back to Washington D.C. Can you talk about how difficult that was and how that happened?
Williams: When we first started out you know D.C. wasn’t considered one of the prime candidates for baseball. You know, obviously your reputation lags the fundamentals sometimes. You know, the district was getting better but we were still considered a basket case. Baseball with Baltimore and some other cities was getting out of the Suburban, you know, put the baseball park in the parking lot complex. But they were still a little leery of D.C. First step was to get baseball to buy into bringing the Montreal Expos here, which we were successful in doing. Were you there in the first game at RFK?
Rosenberg: I was.
Williams: People ask me, what are your highlights from public office? I go out there when they’re bringing baseball back to D.C., for the first time. I had invited Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona, because we were playing the Diamondbacks. I invited the ambassador of the Dominican Republic because as you know all the way back to Juan Marichal, Dominican players have been a big, big part of baseball. He really appreciated being there. We were sitting in our box and they say well, mayor, we want you to come out to be introduced to the crowd. And I’m thinking, oh my, it’s like one of these things. They’re going to introduce a politician in the crowd they’re all going to boo. Well lo and behold, I go out there and they go ladies and gentlemen Mayor Tony Williams and 35- 40,000 people give me a standing ovation for like two or three minutes. I’ll never forget that. I feel like you know Lou Gehrig or somebody you know Willie Mays. It was unbelievable.
Rosenberg: Well, my recollection, Tony, from the cheap seats was that I was cheering as loud and as long as anyone. There is a lot of affection not just for the fact that we had baseball in D.C. again but that you had done so much for the city.
Williams: You know the next step was getting support for a new stadium. And big leader in baseball, we had some people in the upper echelons of baseball, Bud Selig is a number two guy, was very supportive of us. And Jerry Reinsdorf of Chicago was a big champion for D.C. and decided that the site on the Anacostia River was the site for baseball. And people say well baseball brought all that development along the Anacostia River. We had already done a plan for the Anacostia River. I came in as mayor and people would always ask me, well how are you going to bring the city together? Told them, well the best way I think to bring the city together was I’m going to find a big project that I think can bring the city and people around the community together. And in my, our, mind the project to do that was the Anacostia River because as it turns out Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution had written a report called A Region Divided where he looked at regions around the United States where the metropolitan area was divided racially economically and true enough, the DMV as we call the District Maryland Virginia was really divided along all these lines really regionally going right down the Anacostia River. So I felt bringing in a great planner, Andy Altman, development people, Eric Price, that we could create a vision for the Anacostia River that involved not only development, but cleaning up the river and very importantly including citizens in the economic benefits from this development. So, into this mix you also added the baseball stadium and it was just a wonderful combination and you see the results all the way from the Navy Yard down through what are called The Yards the area around the baseball stadium you’re beginning to see it now farther down toward Buzzer- what’s called Buzzards Point and Fort McNair—site of the National War College created by Teddy Roosevelt. And strangely enough the Titanic Memorial which I have never understood why there is a Titanic memorial on the waterfront, but there is. Anywa,y around there, the what is now Southwest Waterfront at a new rebirth of that. So a lot of great stuff has happened. The challenge for the city is in all cities is promoting a climate for investment economic viability but doing it in an inclusive way in our capitalist system.
Rosenberg: You were the mayor of Washington D.C. on 9/11 on September 11th, 2001. Describe that day in that period in your tenure.
Williams: When 9/11 came, it was after a night I’d been a little ill. I’d kind of been worn down by just countless events and I was trying to take some time off that morning to kind of reconstitute myself when my wife ran in and said that there was something on TV—a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and then I turned the TV on you realized by looking at it, it wasn’t a small plane, and then just as I was trying to collect myself the lady down the hall screamed, and she saw the plane flying into the Pentagon because we had a view across the river. Really focused myself as a mayor you know trying to in the chaos that ensued you know constituting the emergency center and forging the right relationships with the federal authorities and getting our apparatus in place such as it was needed to be improved. And one of the repercussions would be it had to improve. But my initial reaction of the first three or four days was you know stay in the command center make sure that organization, people, process, systems were being put in place. And let someone else do all the public speaking, and all that. And then I realized that, no, my job was not just Chief Executive, it really was consoler in chief for people.
Rosenberg: That’s not a role that comes naturally to you.
Williams: No, it doesn’t. But that’s where I think a big, big part of being in any office really being mayor is to go from a meeting at 8:30 where people were telling you the world’s ending to a walking into a 9:30 meeting where you have a group of schoolchildren who were visiting the mayor’s office and being cheery and delightful to these children and in a way you are acting but that’s your job. So you feel run down, you feel threatened, you feel fearful, but it’s your job to get out of it and step it up and represent warmth and console in a safe haven for your people. And I think actually particularly when we had the anthrax attack, and I had learned my lesson from 9/11, and I think we did a good job with anthrax on both the execution front and on the messaging and getting our arms around our people.
Rosenberg: The anthrax attacks came several months after the attacks of 9/11 and a number of the anthrax laden letters were delivered to addresses in Washington D.C. And–
Williams: That’s right.
Rosenberg: And processed through Washington D.C. mail facilities.
Williams: Because my mom and dad had worked in the post office, my mother said, well why do we go and visit a post office? So we went and visited the post office and it turns out that that post office might have been contaminated. So my mom and I went down to the dispensary we had created with Homeland Security for prophylactic antibiotics. And I’ll never forget we were going through the line. My mother, in only the way she could, God bless her, she walks down the line and she says, honey you better give me some of that because you know I don’t want to catch Amtrak. My mother was a great. Unforgettable line.
Rosenberg: You now serve in a different capacity. You’re part of the Federal City Council. You’re its chief executive officer. What is the Federal City Council and what do you do?
Williams: Federal City Council was started with the lessons learned from a great group called the Allegheny Conference in Pittsburgh. The leading corporations and families in Pittsburgh late ‘40s, early ‘50s decided you know what the rivers, the Allegheny Monongahela origin of the Ohio are a polluted mess. We got to clean up the rivers around Pittsburgh and we need business leadership to inject itself into public policy to help make this happen and do other good things not lobby for ourselves because we have that covered, but make a difference. And so Phil Graham the—who is then publisher of The Washington Post in the early mid 50s—did a series of articles about how Washington was in decline economically and at the same time was becoming a very unequal city. He created a group of the biggest players who would attack the biggest problems with the biggest impact where they could make the biggest difference. If they worked really hard, and it was a real consequence if the nongovernmental leadership really couldn’t make a difference they weren’t interested. But over the years, the revitalization of our Union Station the creation of the Metro, education reform, the control board, the convention center, Verizon, Reagan Building, major ethical projects were sponsored and supported by the Federal City Council and since that time we’ve supported revitalization of Union Station, tax revision, creation of a policy center refunding of the Metro, creating a coalition to do that a lot of great stuff. So, I love the Federal City Council and the way we can fill the gap in public policy.
Rosenberg: Tony, D.C. residents don’t have full representation in the house and none in the Senate. Can you say a few words about that, please?
Williams: Well again, when I was mentioning earlier when Jefferson and Hamilton agreed to have the district the capital of government located where it is, they talk about in the Federalist Papers, the problem created because the district would have no rights for itself. This is because on the way to locating the government in Washington D.C., the Congress was located in Philadelphia, I think during the confederation. There was a run on the federal government by the Revolutionary war veterans and they asked for help from Pennsylvania and the state of Pennsylvania said well we kind of agree with the veterans. And so Congress had to get up and decamp and move to Princeton and that’s when they decided when they get down in Washington D.C. they would be put the district completely under Article 1. The legislative article of Government, the premier article with the Constitution, to immunize the Congress from all local affairs. But as some people alluded to even Madison, yes, they were insulating the Congress from local issues but they were then exposing the local people to all the whims and peculiarities of the Congress which is what has happened now. So, any Congressman who wants to try something they can test it in the district. This has gotten better over the years, but the fact that it’s a problem really is ridiculous and unconscionable.
Rosenberg: Tony, talk to me about the lifecycle of American cities.
Williams: Yeah. The cycle of explosive growth of the American city after World War II and the depression. Here we had the second period of decline of the American city. Now some cities like New York, certainly parts of it, San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston are in the third stage of rebirth. But a city like St. Louis is still trying to get into that third stage.
Rosenberg: What enables a city to go from the second stage to the third stage?
Williams: It’s essentially getting renewal of the tax base, renewal of citizenship, investment in housing, and purchasing business reinvestment. All of those things that help create a virtuous as opposed to a vicious cycle. Sort of the second stage was about you know racial distancing and federal policies and bad management and bad schools all creating a vicious cycle. The new third stage, I would argue, was about good management and good policy and government policies that really support inclusion and you know people’s preferences changing because they’re no longer afraid because you would appreciate this crime’s gone down in the American city. You know all those things have now brought a positive cycle. Of the things I’m proudest of is Chief Ramsey and beginning with a control board rebuilding the D.C. Police Department.
Rosenberg: Well, you’re an incredibly successful mayor Tony. Do you miss it?
Williams: I don’t miss the innerness, and you know the backroom dealing and conniving and scheming, which are part of government. But, that’s what the founders thought democracy would be, and it is. I do miss that fact, and it’s a powerful fact, that when you’re a local official because you’re responsible for so much that’s immediate to so many people, you actually can visibly concretely, tangibly, help solve people’s problems. I miss that. I miss making things happen. People say all mayors just like to build things. Good mayors like to make things happen. Good mayors go down the 3rd Street Tunnel and say, you know this tunnel looks like hell, clean up the tunnel. You know, you tell me your toilet overflows. A good mayor is gonna be out at your house having a press conference about how we’re fixing your toilet. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what a mayor is about. You’re about the nitty gritty real problems of people.
Rosenberg: Thanks to Tony Williams for joining me today. And Tony, if you’re listening, and I hope that you are, thank you for bringing Major League Baseball back to Washington, D.C. If you like this episode, please leave us a five-star rating on your favorite app and write a good review. And if you have any thoughtful, criticisms, feedback or questions about this episode or others, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s all one word. Theoathpodcast@gmail.com. Though I cannot personally respond to every email, please note that I read each one and that I definitely appreciate it. Thank you.
The Oath is a production of NBC News and MSNBC. This podcast was produced by the wonderful team at FannieCo, with Fannie Cohen, Nic Bannon, and Rob Hebert. Barbara Raab is our senior producer and Steve Lickteig is our executive producer. Thanks to Archie Moore and the good folks at Clean Cut Studios in Washington D.C. for hosting today’s interview. This is The Oath with Chuck Rosenberg. Thank you so very much for listening.