WASHINGTON – Ending months of speculation, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams (search) confirmed Thursday he will not seek a third term.
"It's the toughest challenge I've ever had," Williams said of running the nation's capital.
"It's time for a change. It's time for me to begin a new challenge in my life," Williams, 54, told an audience at the Hillcrest Recreation Center in Southeast Washington, the same place where seven years ago he launched his first city hall bid.
With his wife Diane nearby, and several cabinet members and City Council members in the audience, Williams recalled taking over a city that "was under the thumb of the evil control board" which oversaw finances.
"We were bankrupt. Finances were weak. We were losing 5,000 residents every year. Too many of our agencies — particularly in the human service area — languished in receivership," Williams said.
Williams was in the midst of his speech when his wife got up because a bee was hovering and she is allergic. After joking that he thought someone was finally listening to one of his talks, he summed up what he had been saying.
"So basically, the city was bad, now it's good because I've been mayor," he quipped.
By bowing out of the race, Williams leaves behind a crowded field for the Sept. 12, 2006 Democratic primary. Five candidates have already entered the race: D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp, Councilmen Adrian Fenty and Vincent Orange, former Verizon executive Marie Johns and lobbyist Michael Brown. Williams said he timed his announcement in order to let the electoral process proceed without any questions. He declined to endorse anyone Thursday.
His announcement came exactly one year to the day after what might be Williams' proudest moment as mayor — when he donned a Washington Senators cap and announced that baseball was returning to the nation's capital after more than 30 years.
"Today the Washington Nationals have surpassed expectations and baseball is thriving once again in Washington, D.C.," he said.
Williams first won in 1998 after legendary Mayor Marion Barry (search) — finishing a comeback fourth term after a drug conviction — declined to seek reelection.
"City services like garbage pickup and street paving were abysmal. Potholes were unfilled. DMV was long on lines, short on service," Williams said Thursday, reflecting on when he took office Jan. 4, 1999. It was a throwback to his first inaugural speech in which he told the crowd, "You've got to believe we can answer the phones."
Williams launched the Mayor's Citywide Call Center in April 1999. City residents call the agency to report problems with things like garbage pickup, traffic signals and potholes, or to complain about rat problems in their neighborhoods. Also, a 211 phone line was established for residents to get social service information.
City government department heads also became more accountable with the mayor's office posting scorecards on its Web site. The scorecards show the goals for agencies and their officials, and whether they were met.
He has also tried to improve the troubled public schools. Clifford Janey last year became the fifth superintendent — permanent or interim — since Williams took office.
Williams also saw the district's homicide rate fall to an 18 year low in 2004. So far this year, the city is running seven killings behind last year.
The mayor ran for a second term in 2002 — a campaign marred by a petition scandal. The D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics knocked Williams off the primary ballot and fined his campaign $250,000 for irregularities on his nominating petitions, which included names like singer Billy Joel and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Williams turned around and waged a write-in campaign to win the Democratic line. And while not even seeking it, he won the Republican primary through write-in ballots, though he declined the GOP line. Williams went on to garner 60 percent of the vote in the general election — just six percent less than in 1998.
A co-chair of that campaign, Gwendolyn Hemphill, was forced to quit. Hemphill had been the assistant to the Washington Teachers' Union president, and was convicted last month on charges she helped loot millions from that union.
Williams has taken heat in the last two years for his extensive travel. In 2004 his stops ranged from China, Rome and Paris to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. This month alone he has been to Greece, Germany and Austria.
"I already attend just a percentage of the things to which I'm invited whether they're in the country or elsewhere, and I would continue to do that," Williams told reporters in November 2004, insisting his travel has helped lure new businesses to the city. His role this year as president of the National League of Cities has also kept him on the road.
Williams joined the city government in October 1995, when Barry appointed him Chief Financial Officer. By 1997, the city's troubled finances turned into a $185 million surplus, which spurred efforts to prod him to run for mayor.
Several once foundering neighborhoods have been redeveloped. By the end of 2004, the district had a $230 million surplus. That will go down as Williams' top accomplishment, as far as Councilwoman Kathleen Patterson is concerned.
"The city being financially healthy is number one," said Patterson, who attended Thursday's speech. "Without financial health we can't look at doing anything."
Born in Los Angeles, Williams has degrees from Yale and Harvard. He has also worked for the federal government and local governments in St. Louis, Boston and New Haven, Conn.