WASHINGTON — He was supposed to be the antidote to political embarrassment. After four terms of Mayor Marion Barry--convicted of drug possession after a government sting, seen about town with women other than his wife--Anthony Williams was supposed to restore the nation's capital to civilized governance.
The bow tie connoted old-fashioned values. The degrees from Harvard and Yale universities spoke to impeccable intelligence, as did the wry wit. The background as an auditor helped too, calming fears about the city's financial woes. Even the slight aloofness of this Los Angeles native conveyed a man of purpose, uncomfortable with chitchat, too dignified for the street-smart politics of his swashbuckling predecessor.
But now Washington is stunned by news that the mayor, so politically golden that no credible candidate was challenging his reelection, failed to gather a mere 2,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. The simplest, most mind-numbing task in politics has become a cause of heart-wrenching angst. When the U.S. Court of Appeals takes up the case Tuesday, the pain could turn permanent.
"Marion Barry never would have made a mistake like this," said E.J. Dionne Jr., political columnist for the Washington Post. "This petition foul-up is not some minor infraction. If you respect the art of politics, it's absolutely enraging."
The petition imbroglio began when a 23-year-old third-year Georgetown University law student went down to the voter registrar's office to check petitions for fraud.
In his bid for reelection, Williams had submitted 10,102 signatures. "I wasn't even going to look, because he had so many," said Shaun Snyder, originally from Newport Beach. "As soon as I flipped through them, I knew immediately."
There were pages and pages of petitions in the same handwriting. Names were repeated. Signatures of notables such as Kofi Annan and Kelsey Grammer were forged. Joining forces with a political activist group called D.C. Watch, Snyder challenged the mayor's petitions.
During an intense and emotional three-day public hearing, the District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics overruled the registrar, who counted 2,235 legitimate signatures. The board, appointed by Williams, found that the fraudulent signatures--many collected by a top aide who invoked his 5th Amendment right to not testify and could be indicted for fraud--were so numerous they tainted the entire filing.
Dorothy Brizill, the executive director of D.C. Watch, put her head down on her arms in front of her, in utter shock. The incumbent mayor--with $1.4 million in the bank and facing opposition from candidates like Faith Dane, a 79-year-old exotic ballet dancer--would not appear on the Sept. 10 Democratic primary ballot. And in Washington, a city that went 85% for Al Gore in 2000, that is the only ballot.
"It's Florida without the chads," satirist Mark Russell, who has observed Washington politics for 50 years, said in a conversation from his summer home in New York. "This incredible fiasco brings to reality the old joke about the bumbling candidate who ran unopposed and lost."
Williams, who turned 51 last Sunday, has apologized so often that his press secretary, Tony Bullock, calls him "the man of 1,000 mea culpas."
But to the astonishment of the political establishment, he is fighting the election board's decision in court, arguing before the appeals court that the decision does not rest on "clear evidence." With hearings set for Tuesday, Williams is doing something he once found distasteful: taking to the hustings and vowing a write-in campaign.
"I'm a lifelong Democrat," he said. "I will not abandon the Democratic Party." (Nor, apparently, does he want to abandon his campaign war chest, which officials said he could not keep if he ran as an independent.)
Concerned about ballot complications, Williams' staffers are imprinting No. 2 pencils and self-inking stamps with the mayor's name to distribute to voters at the polls. They have reached out to political consultants, such as Parke Skelton, who helped Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill mount a successful write-in campaign in June.
Whatever the outcome, the petition embarrassment has shaken Washington's political establishment--the middle-class black and white professionals who define the city's core and the business interests that fuel its economic health. And it has only fed suspicions about the powerful in the city's poor black wards, where Barry, a civil rights activist who once took a bullet during a stand-off at City Hall, is something of a cult hero.
Williams is largely credited with helping rescue the city from fiscal ruin in the late 1990s, when he served as chief financial officer for the control board brought in to manage the district's finances. Now his reputation as a man of probity is tarnished.