A New Shade of Gray

Gray officially filed his candidacy papers March 30.
Garrett Faulkner
Gray officially filed his candidacy papers March 30.

Well, city council Chairman Vincent Gray has gone and done it.

After months of prodding and speculation in the media and among political types in the District, Gray has decided to take on incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and run against him.

He made his announcement at a spirited rally where the key rhetorical elements were “one city” and “we can do better,” which got the people in attendance at Reeves Municipal Center going, but didn’t give too many clues on substance or policy difference that Gray might have with the mayor.

Still, the announcement accomplished at least two things: it ended speculation about Gray and transferred it to speculation about who was going to run for Gray’s chairman position.

The one certain thing is that Gray will not be chairman next year, and that’s the big risk in his decision: that he could become Linda Cropp, the sitting council chair four years ago who decided to run for mayor and got soundly trounced by Fenty, managing to lose every precinct and ward in the city. Now that he’s opted to run against Fenty, Gray cannot run for re-election as council chair, an election he was a sure bet to have won. He could be a man without a job if he fails to unseat the sitting mayor.

Gray is obviously optimistic about his chances. On the surface, his is in the very least a serious candidacy, although the probabilities for success remain very, very iffy. Gray may have been encouraged by a recent poll that showed a decided unhappiness among voters with Fenty, but it was a poll from which you could extract mixed meanings.

Many district voters and residents, many of them in the poorer and majority black areas of the city such as Ward 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4 (Fenty’s own ward), are not happy with the way Fenty has governed, even if quite a few others praise his action-fueled ways, citing favorable homicide and crime stats, a major school takeover and reform effort that’s beginning to show favorable results in some areas and general quality of life improvements. It was a poll that seemed to say “we like some of what you’ve done, but we don’t like how you did it.” Which is to say that Fenty was perceived as distant, somewhat arrogant, a “does not play well with others” (especially the city council) kind of leader, often high-handed, secretive and single-minded. A poll also showed that in a one-on-one race against Fenty, Gray would narrowly win.

Yet these objections, while heated, also seem somewhat ephemeral — they’re not the sort of thing you on which you can place a big political bet. More troublesome may be the results of an investigation into Fenty’s bypassing the council in awarding contracts on parks and recreation projects. And just this week, the anger of residents where four people were killed in mass shootings was high after Fenty — rumored to be vacationing in Jamaica — failed to show up at the site. To be fair, the mayor’s presence at scenes of tragedy and trouble has been consistently high in the past.

Then there’s the question of how legislation will fare on the council when a number of its members are engaged in running for office, and that would be especially in the case of Gray. It’s budget time, and Fenty last week presented his budget for fiscal year 2011 to the council and to the public, a budget fraught with potential controversy, given its unsightly $500 million-plus deficit. At the meeting with the council, Fenty greeted Gray with a hug, the first time the two men apparently had seen each other or talked in months.

Fenty’s relationship with the city council — especially Gray — has deteriorated drastically, beginning with the choice of Michelle Rhee as public schools chancellor, the selection of which the Washington Post knew about before Gray was informed. Rhee’s own drastic reform efforts, which include high doses of national publicity, the mass firing of teachers and stalled contract talks with the teacher’s union, seemed to mimic Fenty’s style.

Such treatment obviously rankled Gray, especially after he supported Fenty in his school takeover effort.

But Fenty is also a tough, high-energy campaigner with a big war chest of nearly $4 million. This late in the game, that’s a lot to catch up with, although Gray is rumored to be trolling for support with the Cafritz family and folks like Judith Terra, a former Fenty supporter.

Then there’s Don Peebles, the bucks-rich developer who may yet run, which might distract the focus of voters, if not the contributors.

Gray — now dubbed Vince Gray on his campaign website — is a careful sort who likes building consensus. Fenty, at least if the polls are correct, is seen as someone who likes to act and make decisions and not look back or apologize.

Gray’s decision sparked a scramble among candidates looking at his council chairman seat in an increasingly volatile city council. Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, the council’s longest sitting member, has already unequivocally said he will run. Solid rumors have it that Kwame Brown, the appealing and popular at-large member will also run, and there are speculations about Phil Mendelson, another veteran at-large member who faces a re-election challenge, is also considering a bid for the seat.

That speaks to a certain instability on the new council, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary under Home Rule. Six council members are up for re-election this year, many of them first timers. That makes this year's budget deliberations a possible arena for political combat.

In this atmosphere, and with this late start, what are the odds on Gray's run? It remains a long shot, but there are some things he can (and some that he must) do to give himself the best chance. The most difficult might be catching up in the financing sweepstakes. He (and Fenty) must also be careful to not let their differences create a have-and-have-not political climate. But Gray has to do more than complain about Fenty's style. Fenty and Gray represent two different political generations in Washington, something that can favor Gray, who can draw support from folks used to being politically active. But he has to, at some point, make policy distinctions between himself and Fenty. It's one thing to be prickly about Rhee and her methods, or Fenty and his methods. He's got to show how a Gray administration would be different in substance, not just style. Both Vincent and Vince have to show up at the candidate forums which are a hallmark of D.C.'s election campaigns.

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Fri, 22 Aug 2014 09:44:57 -0400

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