tony williams
tony williams

By Joe Heim, Writer and Editor, The Washington Post Anthony A. Williams, 64, was mayor of Washington from 1999 to 2007. He is currently chief executive and executive director of the Federal City Council. Williams and his wife live in the District’s H Street corridor.

Did you enjoy being a politician?

I think I did better than a lot of people give me credit for. With a partnership with Linda Cropp, I got an enormous amount of stuff done in the city. I was reelected twice even though everyone said I didn’t know anything about politics.

Yes, but did you enjoy it?

I enjoyed helping people. I enjoyed consoling people in my own way, standoffish as it seemed. I enjoyed counseling people. I liked the intellectual part of figuring out the puzzle, of how we were going to make the puzzle work. I didn’t like the more Machiavellian aspects of politics, the Frank Underwood part of politics. I understood it, but I didn’t like that part.

How much credit do you think you deserve for Washington’s resurgence?

That’s a hard question. What I did is I seized a moment, and I think I get credit for that. We had an opportunity to leverage the work that had been done by the control board, that I had done as CFO. There was a new structure and new relationship between the city and the federal government and an upsurge in the economy that was also happening in the economy in the late ’90s. And I was able to take that, build a team, build respect for the city and bring in new investment. So, not all of it, but a lot. I’m not trying to be overly humble.

Colbert King once said that you, rather than Marion Barry, deserved the title “mayor for life.”

I think we put the city on the right track. The reason we’re having this discussion is that we’ve had continuity of good government now. Even through the problems that people had with Mayor Gray, basically we’ve had continuity of good leadership from me to Adrian [Fenty] to Vince [Gray] to Muriel [Bowser]. And now you see what happens when a city has continuity of good leadership. It start accreting and it builds positive momentum.

What’s the biggest thing you got wrong as mayor?

Oh, a couple of things. One thing I would have done as mayor is I would have spent more time in the community. I think you have to improve your fundamentals and market. And I do believe part of the reason why the District is so robust economically is we improved the fundamentals, and I spent a lot of time marketing the city. I think that is important. But I think I could have backed off more in the marketing and really devoted a lot of real, not just intellectual, but personal engagement in issues east of the river. And if I had to do it over again, I’d spend more time and maybe even have an office over there. Because this notion that people didn’t like me because I wasn’t black enough, I don’t think that was true. But people felt I got pulled away from the real problems facing the city, and so that’s one thing I would do. I would also cut back on some of the travel I did near the end. But the school thing? I tried on the school thing. And God bless Adrian. He finally got that thing, he busted it loose.

Do you have any interest in being mayor again?

 No. I mean, I’m happy supporting the mayor and the good things the government is trying to do with an organization like this. I mean, I honestly don’t want to be mayor again.

Is it important for the city to bring the Redskins back into Washington?

Well, I think they should change their name. I mean, I don’t know what has taken so long. What’s the big deal? Just change the name. I think it would be great for the city because their fan base is deep, deep in every part of the city. For the Redskins — here I am saying their name — RFK stadium is like Fenway or Ebbets Field. It’s got iconic resonance in sports. It’s an amazing place. So to rebuild a stadium on that site and create an atmosphere is worth a lot to the sport. I think it could have a huge effect over there. But the impediment is the name. And the Department of Interior isn’t going to get off their issue with the name. Or the president.

Should the city pull the plug on the H Street trolley?

No. I think it’s a mess, but I do think we should keep on trying to make light rail work in D.C. as part of a mix of strategies from encouraging telecommuting to light rail to bus rapid transit to bicycles to fixing the automobile infrastructure. All those things play a role.

If you had another term, what would your priority be?

It has got to be diversifying the economy. Really working with the region, diversifying the economy and making sure that we’re creating jobs for the hard-to-employ. We’re making headway in education. Now we’ve got to figure ways to intervene with adults with the jobs that they need. That’s the Olympics. Homelessness is an aspect of that. We know we have to begin earlier with kids, and we are, but we can’t just write off the adults.

You don’t seem to love being recognized in public.

What, I’m not warm and fuzzy when people recognize me? No, I’m not. I’m not mean, but I’m not like, “Hey, let’s sit down and spend 15 minutes chatting.” I try to be, in my own way, friendly. But the thing is, when I was mayor I had a rap for being standoffish and aloof. Now I’m standoffish and aloof, but I’m not running for anything. [Laughs.]

Originally appeared in Washington Post Magazine

 Photo: (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)