Mayoral Mettle: Walter Washington Bravely Took to the Streets to Win Business Leaders' Trust
||Washington Business Journal (DC)
||Friday, December 6, 2002
Walter Washington is afraid his memorial statue — if one is ever erected in his honor — may end up in a junkyard. It's not entirely improbable. In fact, he's seen it happen.
Thirty years ago, while D.C.'s first mayor to be both appointed and elected still was in office, some councilmembers came across a long-forgotten statue of Alexander "Boss" Shepherd — under a drape in city hall's basement. So they put D.C.'s only dictator across the street in Freedom Plaza, where it proudly stood for about five minutes before going missing again.
This time, it was discovered at a car dump in Southeast.
"If I ever have a statue or a picture," Washington says, "I want to make sure it's gonna be in a museum in an appropriate place, not in Blue Plains with the wrecked automobiles and rodents and things."
To be fair, this personal mission of Washington's is only one of the reasons he is helping lead the fund-raising effort for the City Museum, a $24 million project scheduled to open in May. The 87-year-old lawyer — a breathing history book himself — has a more serious stake in setting up a permanent home for the city's historical treasures. He led the District through some of its most critical moments, namely the 1968 riots and the establishment of home rule.
His leadership during those two events is why Walter Washington will go down in the history books. But his legacy ripples through Greater Washington's business community as well. It was Washington — a housing administrator turned riot negotiator — who won the respect and trust of a business community that had been getting what it wanted for decades by working the halls of the Capitol.
The business support Washington garnered is a big reason D.C. won home rule in 1973, and despite some ups and downs in the civic/business partnership since, it endures partly because of the foundation he laid three decades ago.
"There's no question about the fact he reached out and made a real effort to get the business community involved in government, and get involved in trying to solve some of the problems the government faced," says Bob Linowes, omnipresent business leader and partner in Linowes & Blocher. "He took over at a difficult time financially and socially. He enlisted the support of the business community, sought advice and got a good deal of them to help him out."
A Long Story
Less than two miles from the construction site that soon will be the City Museum, is a museum of another sort.
Washington's Ledroit Park home has been in the family for generations. It belonged to the father of his late first wife, Bennetta Bullock, and oozes with memorabilia. The upright piano is closed tight and blanketed in family photos. Books — including one on the 25th anniversary of Washington's pet project Metro — are stacked on every open space. And a poster-size photo of Bullock with Queen Elizabeth during her 1976 visit to D.C. hangs over an eight-by-ten photo of the one time the District's four mayors gathered together.
In recent years, Washington's collection annexed the next-door neighbor's house. Washington and his second wife, Mary, call this side of the residence their work space, but it's really an expansion of the mayor's personal museum.
In fact, two walls — his and hers — detail the more memorable moments of a couple that married eight years ago while Washington was confined to a hospital bed. Foreign dignitaries, past presidents and various national and local celebrities smile from dozens of framed photos. Honorary degrees and awards are so numerous, some are lined up along the floor waiting for available real estate.
As unusual as it is for a visitor to catch a glimpse of this "work space," it's virtually unheard of to get into the office where Washington is compiling his memoirs. He started out doing an oral history, but now he has 1,400 pages of memories scratched out in longhand. One can only imagine that the audio tapes number into the hundreds given the style in which the former mayor tells a story — slowly, thoughtfully and with a great sense of humor.
"Trachtenberg gave that to me," he says, pointing to a rocking chair that was a gift from George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. "I went over and sat in the thing, and they had to pick me up. I went for a long ride to the floor."
Home Rule Roots
This personal style, this charm of Washington's served him well when the city erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The blood was still running down the streets of Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daly had given the shoot order. And congressmen, businessmen and even the president himself called on Washington to do the same.
"There were 20,000 police and 120,000 rioters," Washington says. "If we'd shot them, it would have left this city forever without any ability to return to normalcy."
The mayor instead chose to make peace one person at a time. He refused a gas mask and worked his way through the riot-torn streets shaking hands and asking residents to be reasonable. Eventually the violence was quelled, but the New York Avenue, H Street and U Street corridors are recovering to this day.
Washington's handling of the riots went a long way in convincing the business community that the District's leaders were ready to take off the training wheels. The mayor capitalized on this change by upping his outreach to chambers, associations and business leaders. To all of them, he repeated the mantra that would lead to home rule: "We've got to be together on this. We've got to have one voice."
"I really believe when [President] Johnson called Walter Washington in and said 'You're my man,' if he'd taken a different approach and it had failed, we would not be as far along in our development and progression of home rule," says D.C. Councilman Kevin Chavous, who was endorsed by Washington when he ran for mayor in 1998. " … It would be in the infancy stage."
Mayor Tony Williams believes the D.C. he inherited in 1999 has a lot of similarities to Washington's Washington. It wasn't in control of its own finances, it didn't have the support of the region's business community, its residents were streaming into the suburbs, and its commercial base was struggling. So Williams has taken the lead from his predecessor.
"One thing I learned from him is to cut the tension and stress with humor," Williams says, "to not take yourself too seriously."
Williams isn't the only one who still talks about the city's first elected mayor. When talk turns to D.C. politics, Linowes regularly invokes Walter Washington's name, although he finds it's one that few recognize now.
But that's what the City Museum is for: To make sure people remember. That and to keep Washington's statue from winding up at Blue Plains.
"He saw the business community as a partner, not an enemy," says John Tydings, who was president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade during Washington's mayoral term. "I think there's a lot of legacy in what Walter Washington did."