Gray's Ward 2 Town Hall Meetings
A level assessment and a promising future
Presumptive mayor Vincent Gray’s version of a magical mystery tour through all of the city’s 8 wards continued apace at the Foundry Methodist Church in Dupont Circle in Ward 2, one of the two heavily white wards where voters favored incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty by wide margins in the recent Democratic primary.
In this, and in a Ward 3 town hall “getting to know you” meeting meant for folks to get a closer look at Gray after the primary, he appeared to make strong strides in easing some of the resentment still nurtured by many Fenty voters in Northwest Washington.
After favorable reports from a Ward 3 town hall meeting, Gray again showed a strong, detailed and comfortable command of a variety of issues and topics, a hearty sense of humor, strong, no-nonsense views and an earnest desire for inclusion in problem-solving by the public.
All the much-ballyhooed suspicion, fear and worry about Gray’s commitment to education reform, and ties to DC’s less appealing political past did not surface among an audience composed of the city’s most far-flung and affluent ward, stretching from Southwest, to Dupont Circle, the Penn Quarter District (and the less affluent Shaw area), Logan Circle and Georgetown.
Part of the reason was that Gray’s biggest bet noire as an issue—what in the world to do with the nationally prominent, polarizing reform icon and controversial DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee—appeared to have resolved itself as if by magic. In a press conference the previous day, Rhee, Gray, and Fenty all appeared together to make the official announcement that Rhee would be resigning her position as of the end of October. Everyone involved insisted that the decision, reached after numerous phone calls, was, “a mutual agreement.”
Sure enough, he once again repeated adamantly what he said at the press conference and other meetings: “She did not abruptly resign. I did not ask her to quit. It was a mutual decision.”
It helped having interim chancellor Kaya Henderson in the audience for this town hall meeting, who was greeted with warm applause. In some ways both Rhee’s resignation and Henderson’s appointment as Interim Chancellor (through the school year at least) seemed to defuse some of the disappointment in certain wards of the city where a large majority had voted for Gray’s opponent. Or at least it did on this occasion.
Gray talked mostly about education reform and the future, but there were no further questions on the subject from the audience. They had questions and tales about the presence of a noisy pizza parlor in Georgetown, about the makeup and power of the numerous boards and commissions and their memberships, about raising taxes (or not), about Statehood (Gray has this down like a great performer), about homeless shelters, literacy, at-risk and vulnerable residents, especially the elderly, and so on.
In almost all cases, Gray displayed two qualities that will serve him well after he wins the general election on November 2—as he’s more than likely to do in spite of a Fenty write-in effort—and is inaugurated in January.
Gray impressed many with a command of the issues, seemingly calling up statistics, examples and understanding of how this city functions and works, not so much as a politician showing off but as a man who seems to have made a study of the subject of bureaucracy and government at work.
Gray also showed a certain benign kind of opportunism, in the sense that he used every question as a way to not only invite, but urge people to take part in the process of government. Asked about how grants are received by aging programs. “This isn’t just an issue about which organization gets what grants,” he said. “This is about protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens, the elderly and others. You have to want to take part here. You can do that. Work as a volunteer, work with those groups that give seniors an opportunity to come together in groups.”
Per talking about the looming budget crisis ($175 or more million deficit coming right up): “We need your input and cooperation in this. We are all in this together. It’s not the government’s problem, it’s not the city council’s problem or the mayor’s or some agency’s, and it’s ours. Tough decisions are going to be made; I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Cuts will have to be made. Don’t’ say, ‘cut this one or that one, but not the one that we don’t want cut.’ It’s about all of us. We need your input.”
Talking about statehood really jazzed him up. “Yeah, I’m going to be going up to the hill on this and in my capacity as mayor. But on statehood, I don’t want to go up there alone. I don’t just want to have somebody right behind me, another person on the right and the left. I want hundreds, no, thousand of people behind me, and if we get thrown in jail, so be it.” They hooted and hollered and whistled then.
A homeless person asked about the prospect of homes for everyone and then appeared to disapprove of the right to marriage law passed by the district, allowing gay couples to marry. Gray took on both. “Housing for everyone sounds nice,” he said. “Who wouldn’t want it? But it doesn’t work that way. It’s impossible to be truthful. Because it’s not going to solve the problem of homelessness in this city. Everybody will come here and you increase the problem. As for the other, I fought for the legislation on right to marriage legislation. I believe in it with all my heart.”
“I came here and to all the other town hall meetings so that you can get to know me better,” he said. “Lots of people know little about me. I think maybe I wouldn’t vote for me if I knew as little as all that.”
“I want us to work together,” he said. “And that’s a concrete thing. I want people from all the wards to work together, to get to know each other. We are facing tremendous challenges but also a great future. We did that on the council, and I have to say I think we have and had a tremendously talented council. I have to say, in all honesty, that I’m feeling a little separation anxiety starting to seep in. I’ve developed friendships in this council. We all have.
“But we have big challenges. Number one is education. Safety. Jobs, The economy, The budget. On top of that we are a deeply divided city—divided by geography, economics, society, and, let’s face it: race.
“We can’t continue that way. People say you’re never going to change that. I’ve heard that in other meetings. And I say, you can’t stop trying.”
Gray said that everything is tied together: education, he said, is about adult education, continuing education, special education, early childhood, charter schools. “There’s this strange statistic: there are actually more jobs available now but the number of unemployed remains the same. Why? Because the people applying for jobs don’t have the tools, the education, the training, and skills for the jobs that are there. We’ve got to change that.”
“I’m going to say one thing about reform,” he said. “My commitment to reform is steadfast and won’t change. I believe strongly in the position of a strong chancellor, capable of making tough decision. We have that again in Kaya Henderson, and we had it in Michelle Rhee who worked tremendously hard for children which resulted in major improvements.”