Former D.C. Mayors Give Insight into Their Administrations, Attitudes

Shantella Y. Sherman | 7/1/2009, 6:13 p.m.

History was made in the District on Wed., June 24 as mayors with entirely different styles and philosophies in governance squared off in €A Conversation with the District€s Four Living Mayors on the City€s 30-Year Transformation.€

The lively two hour discourse at The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. in Northwest attracted roughly 100 guests, some were history buffs, others simply interested in the cataclysmic change that has occurred in the District.

The event was co-sponsored by The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and moderated by former Director of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Donald G. Murray.

Invited panelists included all living Mayors of the District, Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt-Kelly, Anthony Williams, and Adrian M. Fenty.

Fenty and Kelly did not attend, but sent their regards. However, Barry, 73, and Williams, 57, provided the crowd insight into their administrations and their personal missions while in office.

Barry, who was born and reared by sharecropping parents in the Mississippi Delta, said his biggest influence growing up were his parents and the injustices they faced being poor and African American in the rural South.

€My mother had a fourth-grade education and I think my father had maybe a second-grade education. Everyday I can remember my mother telling me €get you some education,€ because she understood how that would begin to pull us out of our circumstances,€ Barry said.

€When I told her that I was going to college, I can just remember her crying and crying. It was a dream come true.€

Williams, conversely, grew up in a decidedly middle-class home in Los Angeles, Calif. with what he describes as an €intellectual father who was very removed and detached.€

Williams and Barry referred to each other often as €the Mayor€ during the discussion, dispelling rumor and myth that they had a particular disdain for each other.

Though the men had been respectful of each other, a trip to South Africa by Williams and the City Council found both men touring Robben Island€s prison together. Williams said that it was a moment when he finally saw Barry in a new light.

€We were touring the lime pits of the prison and then we went down into the cell where Nelson Mandela had been held for all those years,€ Williams said.

€I looked over at the Mayor and there was just this look on his face that said, €This could have been me!€ And, I realized that with all of the freedom fighting and marches and going against authority during the civil rights movement, that the Mayor had really risked his life for all of us.€

Williams said he and Barry took a picture together after leaving Mandela€s cell, which he keeps on his desk. Barry referred to the same experience by recalling a time when he and Williams were civil but not friendly.

€When Tony made it to office, I was on the City Council and so I always had a little problem with the Mayor. We were cordial, but we weren€t tight €" in the sense of€tight. But, that experience in that cell, all the enslavement of my people, and all of the misery, we became a lot closer. That experience meant a lot,€ Barry said.

For Barry and Williams, whose backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, the shared experiences in office found more than passing similarities in their approaches to executing certain aspects of their duties.

€We both wanted to see equity in housing and commerce, in employment and education,€ Williams said. €The Wards have always been diverse, but it is only now that you are seeing more Whites in areas that were once predominantly Black, that we are really beginning to look like one city.€

With regard to diversity, Barry said that with the increase in people from different socio-economic backgrounds and races, it was time for the residents of the city to stop stereotyping each other and really get behind some of the causes and needs of the city.

€We have got to get to know each other and not just in passing. We have to be about more than just making money, and staying in our space, but really going out and getting involved with each other and working to make this city a great place,€ Barry said.

Barry€s time in office created a legacy of rapid business growth, particularly along the K Street corridor in Northwest, as well as the summer youth employment program and efforts to establish African American appointments to city and federal positions.

Similarly, Williams€ term in office will best be remembered for balancing the District€s budget and ensuring that fiscally, the city remained in the black. Both said they regretted not extending their economic programs into more neighborhoods, instead of focusing on business development.