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Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004 02:20 pm

Leaving Oz

Why Letitia Dewith-Anderson no longer works for the mayor

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The night Tim Davlin was sworn in as mayor of Springfield, he based his whole inaugural speech on the classic children's book, The Wizard of Oz. He told the audience he envisioned them working "hand-in-hand" on the journey "into the future of our Emerald City."

Pledging to "serve our city with a brain," Davlin bragged about the caliber of his support staff. "Already, we have begun to assemble an administration that will combine the talents and intelligence of the brightest and most energetic people available and willing to serve . . . to serve our city with a brain," he said.

As Davlin spoke, Letitia Dewith-Anderson scurried about backstage, making sure the ceremony proceeded smoothly. It was her job; a day earlier, Davlin had named her chief of staff. The appointment not only made her the highest-ranking African American in the history of the city; it also made Davlin look like a visionary. Longtime leaders of the black community hailed her appointment as the beginning of a new era for Springfield, and had no doubt that Dewith-Anderson was the perfect pick for the job. After all, as a veteran lobbyist and former staffer for Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, Dewith-Anderson was surely one of those bright, energetic people Davlin was talking about onstage.

But 100 days later, when the mayor unveiled his reorganization plan, Dewith-Anderson's title was changed to "assistant to the mayor" and her position was relegated to the outer fringes of city government. After a couple of tense, turmoil-filled weeks, Dewith-Anderson tried to settle into her new role. It wasn't long, though, before she realized she now had no responsibilities, no access, and dwindling respect.

On Dec. 16, she handed the mayor a two-sentence letter of resignation. A few days later, Davlin responded with an equally brief note accepting her decision. Today, Jan. 15, is Dewith-Anderson's last day at city hall. Apparently, she has decided that if Municipal Center East is Davlin's idea of the Land of Oz, she would simply rather be home.

 

"I will not slam him," Dewith-Anderson says about her former boss. And she means it. During a three-hour interview and numerous follow-up conversations over the next 10 days, she refused to criticize the mayor, even off the record.

"I think Tim Davlin has a very good heart and wonderful intentions," she says. "Tim truly loves Springfield. He truly wants to make a difference."

But if you listen between the lines, there's a hint of something like motherly disappointment. She says, for example: "I think if Tim goes by what Tim knows is right, and does what he believes, Springfield will do very well." Were it not for that tiny word "if," that statement would count as pure praise.

Davlin refused to answer any questions for this story (see the editor's note, p. 3).

Dewith-Anderson, a 42-year-old former contract lobbyist, had spent two years in "retirement," which meant throwing herself headlong into a wide variety of charitable activities and home improvement projects, when she volunteered to work on Davlin's campaign. Her sole motivation, she says, was to get him elected, not to get herself a plum job.

"During the campaign, people kept asking me what do you want? And I said I don't want anything; I just believe the city needs help, and I believe Tim Davlin can do it," she says. "I don't work because I need money. I work because I believe in something."

Her cousin Candice Trees, who served as Sangamon County circuit clerk from 1986 to 1992, says she saw a real connection between Dewith-Anderson and Davlin during the campaign. "Every time you'd see him, she'd be right there with him. It looked like a good relationship. They were sort of connected at the hip," Trees recalls.

With a degree in economics from Spelman College and a law degree from Loyola University, plus stints staffing for two state attorneys general, Dewith-Anderson certainly seemed qualified to serve as chief of staff for Davlin, a financial advisor still working on his bachelor's degree.

Furthermore, friends say that during the campaign, she introduced Davlin to segments of the community where he was virtually unknown.

Ethel Gingold -- who earned the 2003 Copley First Citizen award for decades of involvement with groups including the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, American Civil Liberties Union, and Big Brothers/Big Sisters -- remembers helping Dewith-Anderson introduce Davlin to the Jewish community during a luncheon at Temple Israel. "I think she was one of the very best things that happened to him. She was one of the main reasons he got elected," Gingold says. "No one knew him."

"It was Letitia who pretty much helped Davlin get in . . . especially in the African-American community," says Linda Loving Williams, a family friend who has been active in the Republican Party for several decades (no kin to the Williams family associated with Unity for Our Community). "She took him out and introduced him to the African-American community, and if I'm not mistaken, I think the African-American community on the East Side got him elected."

On election day, Dewith-Anderson and Davlin walked door-to-door in Ward 2, which is approximately 59 percent black. "And almost everybody we met knew either my mom, my dad or me," she says.

Davlin won almost 70 percent of the vote in that ward. He also won about 60 percent of the vote in Wards 3 and 5, which are approximately 30 percent and 18 percent black respectively.

 

Dewith-Anderson says that when Davlin offered her the chief of staff job, she tried to make sure they shared a similar vision of what that title meant. She consulted a friend who had worked as deputy chief of staff for the mayor of a much larger city, then met with Davlin over breakfast to see what he had in mind.

"A decision-making role is what I wanted -- to sit in on all the meetings, be in on the decisions," she says. "If I was going to be chief of staff, I wanted to be chief of staff, with all the headaches and all the time commitments."

Davlin, she says, agreed. "I would not have taken the position if he had not," Dewith-Anderson says. "I did not ask for the job."

When her appointment was announced on April 15, others in city government assumed her role with Davlin would be similar to Brian McFadden's role with former mayor Karen Hasara. McFadden frequently served as Hasara's spokesman, and was considered deputy mayor.

"Brian pretty much had unfettered power, with a few exceptions," says Ward 2 Alderman Frank McNeil, whose tenure on City Council includes the eight years McFadden served as Hasara's chief of staff. "Brian had what I considered executive authority. He could make suggestions or recommendations and things happened."

McNeil thought Dewith-Anderson's powers would be similar. "I took it the same way, that she would be the person to see if you needed information or needed to see the mayor. I didn't think she would be in any way inhibited or constrained."

Leaders in the African-American community applauded Davlin's appointment of Dewith-Anderson to such a powerful position. "I think a lot of people said oh, we've finally got somebody there that knows the struggles and battles and will try to make the playing field even," Candice Trees says.

Rudy Davenport, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, says he thought having an African-American chief of staff was the next best thing to having a black mayor. "To have a black woman in the highest levels of city government. . . someone in the mayor's inner circle, especially someone like Letitia, who's knowledgeable and sensitive to the concerns of black people -- we think the mayor needs someone like that," Davenport says. "It's just something that's necessary."

Five weeks after the election, in an Illinois Times cover story ["Mayor Davlin's right hand woman," May 8, 2003], Davlin gave himself an A for choosing Dewith-Anderson chief of staff. "Every day that goes by makes me more and more aware of what a good decision I made," he said.

But even her friends admit that not everybody was happy with her appointment. Linda Loving Williams points out that Dewith-Anderson did not arrive via the usual party machinery. "I think there's still the good ol' boys network," Williams says. "I think the way things happened with Letitia coming in, she kind of was just there at the right time. It wasn't that this is the Democratic Party's person."

Trees saw the same danger for her petite cousin. "I'm sure it's hard for people to deal with a woman, but can you imagine having to go through a little short, articulate black woman?" she asks.

Dewith-Anderson says "things began to change" during the summer. "Being in all the meetings, I think people began to understand that the position of chief of staff had a lot of power, and I had knowledge of everything in city government. I think that, when people began to fully understand that role, it caused some problems," she says.

Alderman McNeil soon became aware of trouble. "It started when she said she was being shut out of the reorganization team meetings," he recalls. "My question was how could she be shut out? She said it was basically Joe Wilkins that didn't want her in the meetings, and, to some degree, Todd Renfrow wasn't that warm to her either."

Wilkins chaired the mayor's transition committee. He did not answer messages requesting comment for this story, but in an August interview, he told Illinois Times that Dewith-Anderson attended "a couple of meetings" and then didn't come anymore. "We didn't ask for her," he said.

Dewith-Anderson won't comment about Wilkins. "My mother always told me: If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. And you can quote me on that," she says.

She is only slightly more forthcoming about Renfrow, Davlin's major fundraiser, who was appointed director of City Water, Light and Power by the mayor. The transition team recommended combining CWLP with the city's public works department, and putting Renfrow in charge of both.

"Todd knows Springfield politics very well, and he knows how to raise money," Dewith-Anderson says. "The mayor listens to what Todd has to say. But Todd and I never really interact. We've talked a few times. He's very professional; he does what he needs to do."

Through CWLP spokesperson Amber Sabin, Renfrow says he had no problem with Dewith-Anderson and that "it's unfortunate that others feel it's necessary to speculate" on their relationship.

 

At the July 25 press conference announcing the proposed reorganization, Letitia Dewith-Anderson was conspicuously absent. She got her first look at the reorganization chart -- with her previously prominent position renamed "assistant to the mayor" and dropped to the row with more than a dozen other department heads -- when a reporter showed it to her that afternoon.

"Tim did have a conversation with me, I think the day before. He didn't define what was going to happen," she says. "But Tim is not the type of person who goes out to hurt another individual. I don't think today he fully understands the impact of what they did."

At the time, the mayor seemed baffled by the public outcry. On July 30, he hosted a hastily-called press conference simply to reiterate his message that city government would function more efficiently by removing the "barrier" of a chief of staff. On Aug. 1, Unity for Our Community held a special meeting that drew more than 100 citizens and community leaders concerned about the change in Dewith-Anderson's position. On Aug. 4, she and Davlin, along with Unity's chair Mike Williams, held a series of 10-minute interviews with individual news reporters to explain that the reorganization chart had been revised changing Dewith-Anderson's title to executive assistant to the mayor and giving her access to all other departments.

Through all these events, Davlin insisted that the new chart didn't represent any change in Dewith-Anderson's position; that instead, it more accurately reflected the role she had played all along. Dewith-Anderson, meanwhile, had little to say. As the dust settled, she appeared to be trying this new job on for size, to see if it suited her.

The reorganization left her with only two specific responsibilities: overseeing boards and commissions, and something called "special projects." She spent the next few months reviewing everything from the Municipal Band Commission to the Civil Service Commission, making sure they adhered to the Open Meetings Act, that their budgets were logical (she cut the municipal band commission's compensation) and occasionally making appointments when openings occurred.

As for special projects, she tackled any problems she saw, including minority recruitment for the fire department and orchestrating meetings between all the parties involved in the formation of a police citizen review board.

But she soon reached the limits of her purview. Every board and commission had its own city staff member who supervised operations. And her special projects stalled if she couldn't get them finalized by the mayor.

"These are not just little things that should get shoved to the wayside; these are things that are important enough to sit down with the person handling those things and discuss those issues, and that wasn't done," she says. "The issues that I worked on, I didn't sit down with the mayor to go over all those things.

"And if that's the role he wants for the executive assistant, that's his prerogative," she continues. "But I can end up chasing my tail like a dog. I need somebody to say, 'OK, this is final, this is what I want done.' "

Her reduced authority was obvious to other people at city hall. Ward 1 Alderman Frank Edwards noticed Dewith-Anderson couldn't answer his questions like she had before. "Not that she would give me every piece of information that I asked for before -- sometimes it was, 'We're not through working on that yet' or 'I'll have to get back to you' -- but after the re-org, the answer was more often 'I don't know.' It might have been partly me too," Edwards says, "because when you look at the new flow chart and the chain of command, she wasn't really where I could put her in a position to ask."

Similarly, reporters who called to ask about an upcoming press conference often got their question answered with another question: "What press conference?" When Davlin held a press conference to announce that he had appointed Ken Crutcher director of the Office of Budget and Manage-ment, Dewith-Anderson attended so she could introduce herself to Crutcher. It became apparent that she was being left out of the loop.

At the NAACP, Rudy Davenport was also watching for some indication that Dewith-Anderson still had a significant role in the mayor's office. "We took a wait-and-see attitude. People know who to see to get things done in city government, and if she still had that power, regardless of how it looked on paper, then it would've worked out fine," he says. "We looked for some meaningful inclusion, some indication that she had the mayor's ear. But this is something that just did not occur.

"And for each passing day that it did not occur," he says, "you know somewhere deep down in your heart that doors have been closed."

 

Davenport has no idea how -- literally -- right he is. In the days and weeks and months after the announcement of the reorganization, Dewith-Anderson was frequently reminded of the change in her status.

Some reminders were puzzling, like the white polo shirts certain city staffers were given to wear for their daily appearances at the Illinois State Fair. Everybody else's shirt had their name and title embroidered on it. Dewith-Anderson's shirt had only her name.

"Oh, that surprised the crap outta me!" she says. "That shirt was ordered two weeks, maybe longer, before the re-org."

Other signs were more significant. She found herself bypassed by department heads, excluded from meetings, and for the first time in her professional life, working without a secretary.

"I don't think the mayor understood the ramifications of changing that title," she says. "But I felt that people thought the position had changed, the role had changed, and there was no longer a 'second-in-command.' And to put it exactly as one of the secretaries said to me, 'We are all on the same level at this time.' "

To get assistance from the office staff on her projects, she started requesting help via e-mail, always with a copy to the mayor. "That way, I knew things would get done," she says. "But I don't think that's a step I should've ever had to take."

There were moments, she says, when she had to take a deep breath, bite her tongue, or just retreat to the sanctuary of her own office. "There are things that I could've said and could have done, but because I felt there was a bigger issue than what was being done to me, I handled those things," she says.

Besides, when it came right down to it, she says, Davlin has never stopped listening to what she has to say.

"When I make myself go into Tim's office to tell him something that I think is very important, he will listen to me and he will ask me questions. I mean, he's not stupid. He understands that I know what's going on. And when I go in there and say, 'Tim, this is something we need to pay attention to,' he'll do that. We'll sit and talk about those things."

Asked why she has to "make" herself go into Davlin's office, she says it's just inconvenient to "have to go around and ask the secretary if he's busy and may I meet with the mayor."

But as anyone who has visited that office suite knows, the mayor's office and the office of the mayor's chief of staff -- or executive assistant --are connected by a door, so that the two city leaders can confer without having to go through the public lobby.

Dewith-Anderson refuses to say why her only access is via the public lobby. A source inside city government says Davlin locked their connecting door.

 

One of the last tasks Dewith-Anderson performed in her job with the city was the formulation of a proposed budget for the mayor's office. In this proposal, she eliminated her own position.

"The responsibilities that were defined in the reorganization do not require an executive assistant or whatever title you want to give it to make $72,000 a year. It's not needed. Especially with the managerial style of the mayor," she says.

This realization, she says, is why she resigned. "I didn't resign based on anger. I didn't resign because I think someone tried to push me out. Those are not reasons to quit; I am not a quitter," she says. "I don't want people to think this is some angry woman, or some angry black who didn't get her way. That's not the case either. I just think that the way the position was formulated under the re-organization, it's not needed. It's a waste of taxpayers' money."

Davlin has stated he has no plans to fill this position immediately because he's concentrating on budget hearings. But in a press release issued Tuesday, he calls her job "a very important position within my administration," and indicates that he will fill it after the budget process.

Dewith-Anderson wonders how he will justify the expense. "If that position's filled," she says, "I would like to ask Tim what he did to change the duties and responsibilities to make it legitimate."

As for her own professional future, she is pondering possibilities. Contrary to broadcast reports, she says she has no plans to take the February bar exam. But anyone who knows Letitia Dewith-Anderson knows that whether it's a real job or a volunteer project, she will soon be, as her 19-year-old son says, "running amok."

The only thing she won't be doing is looking back with regret.

"I wouldn't change a thing," she says. "Even with everything I know today, I would still work on Tim's campaign, I would still help him get elected, and I would still take the position chief of staff."

So does that mean she'll be working on Davlin's re-election campaign in 2007?

She laughs, but doesn't answer.

"Hey Bill, did you hear that question?"

Her husband, Bill Anderson, dozing in an armchair, groans. "That's a long time away," he says.

"Anything is possible," Dewith-Anderson says. "I think this year is a learning process for Mayor Davlin. I believe he can do great things for Springfield, I really do. It's up to him."

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