This article relies largely or entirely on a single source. (March 2009)
|1st Mayor of the District of Columbia|
January 2, 1975 - January 2, 1979
|Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia|
November 7, 1967 - January 2, 1975
|President||Lyndon B. Johnson
|Walter Nathan Tobriner (President of the Board of Commissioners)|
|Born||Walter Edward Washington
April 15, 1915
Dawson, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||October 27, 2003
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Bennetta Bullock (1942-1991)
Mary Burke (1994-2003)
|Children||Bennetta (with Bullock)|
|Alma mater||Howard University|
Walter Edward Washington (April 15, 1915 - October 27, 2003) was an American civil servant and politician. After a career in public housing in Washington, DC and New York City, he was appointed as chief executive of Washington, D.C. in 1967. He served as the first and only Mayor-Commissioner from 1967 to 1974. He was the last mayor of Washington to be appointed by the President.
Congress had passed a law granting home-rule to the capital, while reserving some authorities. In 1974 Washington was elected as the first mayor of the District of Columbia, serving from 1975 to 1979.
Washington was the great-grandson of enslaved Americans. He was born in Dawson, Georgia. His family moved North in the Great Migration, and Washington was raised in Jamestown, New York, attending public schools. He earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University and a law degree from Howard University School of Law. He was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Washington married Bennetta Bullock, an educator. They had one daughter together, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, who became a sociologist. His wife Bennetta Washington became a director of the Women's Job Corps, and First Lady of Washington, D.C. when he was mayor. She died in 1991.
After graduating from Howard in 1948, Washington was hired as a supervisor for D.C.'s Alley Dwelling Authority. He worked for the authority until 1961, when he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as the Executive Director of the National Capital Housing Authority. This was the housing department of the District of Columbia, which was then administered by Congress. In 1966 Washington moved to New York City to head the much larger Housing Authority there in the administration of Mayor John Lindsay.
In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson, used his reorganization power under Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1967 to replace the three-commissioner government that had run the capital since 1871 under congressional supervision. This established a more modern government comprising an appointed single commissioner and nine-member city council. Johnson appointed Washington Commissioner, which by this time had been informally retitled as "Mayor-Commissioner." (Power brokers such as Katharine Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, had supported white lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.) Washington was the first African-American mayor of a major American city, and one of three blacks in 1967 chosen to lead major cities. Richard Hatcher of Gary, Indiana and Carl Stokes of Cleveland were elected that year.
Washington led a city that was torn by racial divisions, and also had to deal with conservative congressional hostility following passage of major civil rights legislation. When he sent his first budget to Congress in late 1967, Democratic Representative John L. McMillan, chair of the House Committee on the District of Columbia, responded by having a truckload of watermelons delivered to Washington's office. In April 1968, Washington faced riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although reportedly urged by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to shoot rioters, Washington refused. He told the Washington Post later, "I walked by myself through the city and urged angry young people to go home. I asked them to help the people who had been burned out." Only one person refused to listen to him.
Congress enacted the District of Columbia Self-Rule and Governmental Reorganization Act on December 24, 1973, providing for an elected mayor and city council. Home rule took effect when the first mayor and council were sworn into office January 2, 1975. Anticipating that new law, Washington began a vigorous election campaign in early 1974 against six challengers.
The Democratic primary race--the real contest in the then overwhelmingly Democratic and majority black city -- eventually became a two-way contest between Washington and Clifford Alexander, future Army Secretary. Washington won the tight race by 4,000 votes. He won the November general election with a large majority, becoming the city's first chief executive since 1871. Washington was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As is still the case, the Constitution gives Congress ultimate authority over the District. Therefore, some matters remain subject to prior congressional approval. Congress also retains a veto power over council passed acts. Thus, local laws and mayoral authority may be constrained by national politics.
Although personally beloved by residents, some who nicknamed him "Uncle Walter," Washington slowly found himself overcome by the problems of managing a large, combination state and city government that had largely run itself for many years. The Washington Post opined that he lacked "command presence." D.C. Council Chair Sterling Tucker, who wanted to be Mayor, suggested that the problems in the city were because of Washington's inability to manage city services. Council Member Marion S. Barry, Jr., another rival, accused him of "bumbling and bungling in an inefficiently run city government."
The Washington Monthly noted that Washington's "gentle ways did not move the city's bureaucracy. Neither did it satisfy the black voters' yearning to see the city run by blacks for blacks. Walter Washington was black, but many blacks were suspicious that he was still too tied to the mostly white power structure that had run the city when he was a commissioner." During his administration he started many new iniatives, for example, the Office of Latino Affairs of the District of Columbia.
In the 1978 Democratic mayoral primary between Washington, Council Chairman Tucker, and City Councilman Marion Barry, Washington finished third. Barry won with Tucker second. He left office on January 2, 1979. Upon his departure from office, he announced that the city had posted a $41 million budget surplus, based on the Federal government's cash accounting system. Barry shifted city finances to the more common accrual system, and he announced that under this system, Washington had left a $284 million debt.
After ending his term as mayor, Washington joined the New York-based law firm of Burns, Jackson, Miller & Summit, becoming a partner. He opened the firm's Washington, D.C. office.
Washington went into semi-retirement in the mid-1990s. He fully retired at the end of the decade in his early eighties. Washington remained a beloved public figure in the District and was much sought after for his political commentary and advice. In 2002, he endorsed Anthony A. Williams for a second mayoral term. Washington's endorsement carried sufficient weight to be noted by all local news outlets.
Washington died at Howard University Hospital on October 27, 2003. Hundreds of mourners came to see him lying in state at the John A. Wilson Building (City Hall), and also attended his funeral at Washington National Cathedral.
Walter Nathan Tobriner
as President of the Board of Commissioners of the District of Columbia
|Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
as Mayor of the District of Columbia
as Mayor-Commissioner of the District of Columbia
|Mayor of the District of Columbia
|Party political offices|
|First||Democratic nominee for Mayor of the District of Columbia