Campaigns/Elections

What Makes Tony Run?

A "libertarian Republican" battles for a job in Democratic D.C.

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Antonio "Tony" Williams is lucky he's got insomnia. Someone more attached to regular bed rest would be shredded by this 7 a.m. trip to the Waterfront-SEU metro stop, a few blocks south of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. As the city council candidate hands out coaster-sized campaign pamphlets ("Hands On Leadership"), commuters grimly take copies and head down the escalator, or wave their hands "no" and move just a little faster. If the election were held between Williams and the woman handing out comp copies of the Washington Post's tabloid edition, the paper lady would be crafting her victory speech.

"This is a pretty typical day," Williams says. "It's good to show presence, to show you're part of the community."

Some of the passersby recognize Williams—tall, black, handsome, sporting a business suit and tie—from his door-to-door campaigning. One black woman recognizes that he's not the Democratic candidate, a white school board executive named Tommy Wells, and starts to quiz him aggressively.

"Where are you from?" she asks. "Are you from here?"

Easy question. "I was born and raised here, in the city."

Williams and the voter go back and forth, tensely at first, but less and less so as the candidate smoothly discusses the importance of early education. As she finally exits and heads to the escalator, the voter is willing to hand over a compliment. "I do respect you for coming out here."

Was it respect, or was it pity? When you're talking to a Republican candidate in Washington, D.C., does it even matter? That, after all, was why Tony Williams—age 26, former staffer for Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), former volunteer for George W. Bush's 2000 campaign, former page to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) —was pressing flesh outside the metro station. He's trying to win a city council seat in the city's sixth ward, which covers Capitol Hill and some of the Potomac waterfront. It's an area that has not had a Republican councilman since the city began electing officials in 1966. Actually, no area in this city has. Not even a black Republican, not even once—in a city that is 57.7 percent black.

"Have you looked at the voter registration here?" says Jan Eichorn, the chairwoman of Ward 6's Democrats. "The facts are that Williams is a first-time candidate, and that he's a Republican. The odds are overwhelmingly against him."

Almost every large American city, and every African-American voter bloc, has an overwhelming bias towards Democrats and against Republicans. Washington is the city so hopelessly noncompetitive that it—cue the laugh track—once re-elected a crack smoker with a (D) next to his name. The Republicans are weak everywhere, including Ward 6, where 2002's mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz—an opponent, like Williams, of the city's smoking ban—lost her third, and final, race for city hall running 26 points behind the Democratic incumbent. This year's sitting duck, a real estate agent named David Kranich, isn't expected to do even that well.

"In terms of the Republican effort and outreach in the city," Williams says. "I'm at the forefront. The health of the Republican Party in the city, to some degree, is built on my ability to run a good campaign and to reach out to voters, because that has not been done before."

Williams is one of the most visible black Republicans running for local office in 2006. He's attracted some attention from his famous-for-D.C. status—his father is the liberal journalist and commentator Juan Williams—and some attention for his approach to the campaign. Ohio's gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell stumps with religious voters, arguing that the Democratic Party wants to marry off gays and leave no fetus unaborted. Maryland's Michael Steele argues that the party of LBJ takes black voters for granted and wants to keep them in the cheap seats as crusty, white establishment pols run the country.

Williams doesn't pick up either of those cudgels. "You'll lose every time if you just talk about gay marriage," he says. And he doesn't mention his GOP affiliation until he's asked (it doesn't appear on the campaign flyers he handed out at the metro stop). He talks about taxes, education, eminent domain. All issues that, over the last few decades, have crept up on white Democrats and clubbed them to the carpet like a character from Clue. All issues on which black voters are more libertarian than they are liberal.

"The Republican party has not done its due diligence in urban areas," Williams says. "They have not competed for votes. The result of that is that these people have been taken for granted by the people who run the city."

Exhibit A: The stadium that the city debated paying for in return for the arrival of a Major League Baseball team. In 2004 the city council originally agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for a structure in the Southeastern waterfront area, located in Ward 6. That news hit black voters like a meteor. As many as two-thirds of D.C. residents opposed the plan. Even Marion Barry, the ex-mayor turned Ward 8 city councilman, came out against it.

"Look at the situation with the stadium," Williams says. "The government attempts to take over private land, via eminent domain, and force out the same people who keep voting them in. They do this with no fear of losing that vote." It turned out that Councilman David Catania, a former Republican (he left the party after the 2004 gay marriage amendment fight) who holds the council's only seat reserved for Republicans, was the strongest voice against the stadium deal. Black voters ended up siding with the gay Republican councilman, so why wouldn't they reward a black Republican candidate?

The stadium issue is occasionally Williams' strongest; the rest of the time, it's education. He defends a school voucher program that began in January 2004 over the objections of most D.C. Democrats—like the stadium deal, it fueled an unsuccessful recall petition of Mayor Tony Williams (no relation), who supported it. But Williams (the candidate) saw strong support in the black community that wasn't reflected by their leadership.

"It almost didn't get passed," Williams says, "and it wasn't until the end when you started to see some children and parents ask, 'If this doesn't take any money from public school, if this just gives our kids choice, why not try it out?' That's when it got passed."

Williams estimates he needs $30,000 to make a competitive race. Thanks to help from local Republicans (Grover Norquist, for one), he's going to have it. But by his math he needs 8,000 to 8,500 votes to beat Tommy Wells and actually win the seat. That's 2,000 votes more than Carol Schwartz got in her last mayoral race, and less than Wells used to score in his races for the school board.

"He's all they've got, so of course they're going to talk him up as the greatest thing since sliced bread," says a Democrat close to the Wells campaign. "And sliced bread was a long time ago. If I was a Republican with money I wouldn't be throwing it at this race."

"Carol Schwartz has told me that you don't win your first time out as a Republican," Williams says. "You build up support and recognition. Then you run a second time or a third time."