A Day in the District, continued
The next stop for Williams is Freedom Plaza, an elevated concrete park between 13th and 14th Streets along Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. He arrives to find a long line of people waiting outside a white tent marked with signs offering free screenings for blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol. It's just after 11 a.m., but already the sun has taken over the unshaded square, though its usual burn is tempered by the same strong breeze.
Williams wastes no time in taking his place at a microphone set to one side of the tent, and a crowd of local newspaper photographers creeps forward for the best shots. This is another event in the Mayors' Health Challenge, an ongoing program to promote positive health habits among residents of the District and other cities. Though he holds a set of notes, Williams speaks more often extemporaneously, warmly inviting citizens to join him in good diet and exercise habits. "Twenty-two percent of adult District residents have high cholesterol," he tells the crowd. "And 50 percent of folks in D.C. are overweight; 20 percent of them are obese. Real health care is preventative care. What you're doing here through these screenings, you're doing for yourselves."
The speech is quick and to the point: Williams wants his city to take responsibility for its health. He tells a local news station afterwards, "What we win in the health challenge besides better health is a better economy. We save money when less people are sick, and we can prevent needless loss of life."
Williams spends nearly 25 minutes at the fair, shaking hands and talking with residents, before slipping away from the crowd to check his e-mail pager for messages. For a half-second, he appears to stand alone at the edge of the square, just another businessman. But Williams is never alone on the job. He is constantly surrounded--though at a respectful distance--by a handful of security agents, each dressed neatly in business attire with mirrored sunglasses and a telltale wire tucked behind one ear.
As Williams clips the pager back to his belt, Tom Sherwood, a correspondent for the NBC affiliate in D.C., steps forward with a microphone and a cameraman to ask Williams about his earlier announcement on the new chief of staff. Williams listens intently to Sherwood's inquiry and then looks down at the pavement for a moment to gather his thoughts before answering. The exchange is done in five minutes, and Williams and his entourage move quickly to his waiting SUV. In the next minute, they pull away, headed to a luncheon with local education officials.
Though this day is busier than most summer days for Williams and his staff, downtime can be hard to come by even on a slow day. For someone who is not naturally outgoing, Williams has carefully honed an ability to be "on" for long days in public life. "I'm reserved and not automatically a hugging type of person," he says later in the day. "But everyone brings a skill set to the job, and what you try to do is leverage your real skills and cover for your weakness. Unless you're blind, you recognize your weaknesses and you cover for them in your life and your job." He shares the reserve of his father, who, Williams says, "made about three or four phone calls his entire life. But in this job, not really liking to be on the phone is not the best attribute, so you're constantly working against that."
So far, Williams seems to be winning the battle. Even so, he will tell you he never wanted to go into politics--despite his Harvard Law degree and his master's in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government.
"I had always wanted to go into public service--not politics--as an official," says Williams. "[I felt] I could have a real impact as an appointed official. All my [previous] jobs have actually been as an appointed official. I'm proud of that."
Indeed, with his reputation as a tough budget and accounting manager, Williams carved out a public career that has included a stint in the federal government as the first chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He also served as the deputy state comptroller of Connecticut and as an assistant director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
But it was Williams' impact on the District as its chief financial officer that made him rethink the elective side of politics. Along with core staff members, he had led the city from a deficit to a large surplus. Though he'd initially resisted an effort to draft him for the mayor's race, Williams changed his mind in hopes of completing the turnaround he'd set in motion.
Now, looking at the most political role of his career, Williams compares the job to running a restaurant.
"You're personally doing the valet parking. You're the ma”tre d'. You're doing the cooking, the servicing, and the supplying, all at the same time," he says. "You're managing all these things, moving from an extraordinary level of detail up to an abstract level of policy, and back down to that extraordinary level of detail. Constantly up and down, all day, from eight in the morning until ten at night."
The job has taught him something about himself. "I always felt I was a patient person, but I have found out that I'm even more patient than I thought."
In his personal life, Williams lives up to his own health challenge. With such long workdays, he tries to carve out at least 30 minutes for himself. "That's hard," he says. "I try to get up in the morning and exercise. In this job, really the only time to exercise is in the morning."
Williams also takes his mind off work with piano lessons, marking a return to the instrument he had studied as a child. "It's deceptive because on the one level it's very easy to play, but on another level--to really get back and master it--that's hard. It's going to take years, so that's a great project." The rest of his free time is spent with his wife, Diane, and their family.
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