Anthony Williams at Mackinac: A Colossal Missed Opportunity
I won’t say I was first person to cite Anthony Williams’ experience righting Washington DC’s fiscal ship as a practical roadmap to fix Detroit’s financial crisis, but I will say I was well ahead of the curve on this one.
So I was excited to see DC’s former CFO and Mayor on this year’s Mackinac Conference agenda. We could all benefit from hearing more about Williams’ work to turn DC’s $300+ million deficit into a budget surplus and at the same time making the nation’s capital into a livable city.
DC’s turnaround is remarkable when you consider just how bad DC was before Williams was hired as the city’s CFO—effectively an emergency manager answerable only to the DC Control Board. Crime, inept political leadership, decay, population loss, hostile suburban leaders like segregationist Virginia Congressman Joel Broyhill, DC was dealing with every urban problem imaginable. Oh, and DC voters, had just reelected a post-crack-and-whore arrest Marion Barry as its mayor.
Williams managed to lead a turnaround as CFO that led to a Draft Williams for Mayor movement. He served two terms as the city’s mayor and navigated DC out of the Control Board process.
But instead of talking about how DC overcame its problems and challenges, Williams gave a fairly ordinary leadership talk, not unlike what one might expect to hear from 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy at a “Retreat to Move Forward” conference. There was also something about the new Midtown Whole Foods. Seriously. Maybe next year, John Mackey can speak about Detroit's Department of Public Works.
Now, this is probably the sort of address Williams delivers at corporate events and in that context it would be a very good presentation. But, as Detroit looks into the fiscal abyss, its leaders needed to hear something more substantive and practical about the DC experience. And the Regional Chamber should have asked for it when booking Williams.
If Detroit insists on reducing the DC turnaround to: This one guy came in and he fixed everything and the end, then we cheapen what really happened in our nation’s capital and diminishes its lessons for our city.