Blindsided by the combustible mixture of race and politics, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony A. Williams is under attack for accepting the resignation of a top aide for using the word “niggardly.”
David Howard, who headed the mayor’s constituent services office, resigned Monday in the wake of complaints by other city officials who were offended by his use of the word that is synonymous with “stingy” or “miserly” and has no racial meaning. Howard, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, has said that he offered his resignation to squelch any controversy that might overshadow Williams’ early days in office.
But such face-saving moves may be too late.
Gay activists and black leaders have raised concerns that Williams, who took office earlier this month, should not have accepted Howard’s resignation. The activists sent a letter to the mayor that praised Howard for being among the few openly gay officials in the city’s administration and condemned Williams for participating in the “railroading of a decent man.”
Even Julian Bond, chairman of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and a Washington resident, joined in the protest by using the word to describe Williams’ position on the brouhaha. “Seems to me the mayor has been niggardly in this judgment on this issue,” said Bond, who is African American and a professor of history at the University of Virginia and American University. “You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people’s lack of understanding.”
The chain of events that led to the resignation began at a staff meeting Jan. 15 when Howard, emerging from budget talks with Williams, huddled with his assistants to inform them that the office would have less money than they had hoped. “I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money,” Howard reportedly told aides Marshall Brown and John Fanning.
Brown, an African American and a long-time city official, immediately left the meeting as a stunned Howard attempted to explain the meaning of the word. An attempt two days later to resolve the matter over the phone with Brown failed. Neither Brown nor Fanning, who is white, could be reached for comment Thursday.
Before long, word spread in the city bureaucracy. Some accused Howard of using the “N-word,” a charge Howard has denied.
For Williams, who is African American, the issue could not have come at a worse time. Less than a month into his job as chief executive of this overwhelmingly black city, Williams has no accomplishments to tout that might disarm detractors. He also drew the ire of some residents who suffered through a recent ice storm that left them shivering in dark homes without lights and heat.
Predictably, some of Williams’ black critics have begun to turn their private whispers into a public debate, questioning whether the new mayor is “black enough” to run the city in their best interests.
Tony Jenkins, a Washington native and federal government employee, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post that some black residents are wary of Williams. He wrote that many black residents fear him as the person responsible for cutting city jobs at the demands of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
“The D.C. mayoral race was about electing someone who could put the city back on its feet, someone who could get its services back to optimum efficiency,” Jenkins wrote. “But to many blacks, still the majority population in the city, that objective shouldn’t be accomplished at our expense.”