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Frist Gets Acquainted With Mayor Of D.C.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) held an unpublicized meeting in January in which they discussed the District’s priorities in the 108th Congress and worked to get acquainted.

The session was held at the request of Frist, according to Williams spokesman Tony Bullock. “It was the result of them bumping into each other and then saying, ‘We need to get together.’”

From the way Williams spoke of it in an interview last Thursday on WTOP radio, the discussion was a pleasant back-and-forth about issues important to the mayor and ways to improve relations between the District and Congress.

“We got to talk for a good amount of time,” Williams said.

But neither spoke publicly of the meeting until Williams was asked about it on the “Ask the Mayor” program Feb. 27.

When interviewer Mark Plotkin asked Williams why he hadn’t mentioned having Frist to his downtown office, the mayor said: “In the prelude to the meeting, in the preparation for the meeting, I think there was this understanding of what his preferences were and how he wanted to do it.

“And this is done all of the time,” Williams added, referring to his having unpublicized meetings with high-profile officials. “It’s usually the person with whom I’m meeting and what their preferences are in terms of how they want to publicize it. I would rather have a meeting with someone, [even] if they don’t want to have a press conference following it, than not have a meeting.”

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said the discussion was part of a series of meetings the incoming Senate Majority Leader held at the beginning of the new Congress.

“It was basically a courtesy call,” Stevenson said, explaining that Frist simply wanted to “establish a necessary personal relationship.” As for not publicizing the event, he added: “Don’t read anything more into that than it is.”

As for what the two discussed, Williams recalled “a whole list of issues … everything ranging from full [Congressional] representation to self-determination to federal contributions.”

As an example, Bullock referred to the $1 billion sewer overflow project that leads Williams’ environmental agenda and for which he is seeking “significant federal funding.” The city’s sewer systems were built by the Army Corps of Engineers at the turn of the 20th century, according to Bullock, making them “horribly primitive.” The result is that sewage mixes with storm runoff in heavy rains and flows into D.C.’s rivers. A similar project in Chicago received large sums of federal money.

“And they talked about budget autonomy, something that’s very important to us, legislative autonomy — we’re big on autonomy here — and judicial autonomy, so we might appoint our own judges one day” for D.C. Superior Court, Bullock said.

Williams also brought up the practice of attaching social issue riders to the annual D.C. appropriations bill. Bullock noted that the District has had some success in working with Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.) to prevent such riders from being attached. Knollenberg was the chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) now chairs that panel.

Williams and Frist first got to know each other during the anthrax contamination in October 2001. As a heart surgeon and the Senate’s only physician, Frist worked closely with District and Congressional officials after anthrax-laced letters were sent to Capitol Hill offices.

“Our first responders worked with the Capitol Police and the Capitol physician worked with our director of health,” Bullock said. “There was a lot of good communication and coordination, and we all learned from that that we need to work together.”

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) is scheduled to meet with the mayor Tuesday. Although their meeting will focus primarily on the agenda of the National League of Cities, which is meeting in Washington this weekend and for which Williams serves as second vice president, Congressional issues are likely to also come up, Bullock indicated.