Welcome, Mayor Vincent Gray

If you made it to the inauguration ceremonies for Mayor Vincent Gray at the Walter Washington Convention Center on a bitter cold Sunday, you might be forgiven if you got caught up in a strong, surface sense of Déjà vu.

Four years isn’t all that long of a time after all; a lot of these same people were there for the inauguration of a triumphant new mayor named Adrian Fenty four years ago, especially on the dais. Up there, it was practically an instant, but slow-mo replay, except that somebody had subtly re-arranged the seats at the captain’s table. In fact, there was a new captain, and a new exec officer, which made all the difference.

Fenty sat a little off to the side, along with other dignitaries like former mayor Anthony Williams, newly elected Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic Archbishop of Washington DC, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, U.S. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, incoming Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker, III and other civic and political dignitaries.

All the council members who were up for re-election had returned, except that At Large Councilman Kwame Brown was now the new Chairman of the City Council, which temporarily left an empty seat, at least at the ceremonies. So the swearing in ceremonies, complete with an array of judges and council family members, very much resembled the same ceremonies four years ago, except that Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh did not bring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsberg to swear her in. Instead, District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle did the honors. Cheh, exuberant, wearing an arm cast and accompanied by her family, gave the shortest speech of all those being sworn in, which perhaps allowed Gray to be sworn in as Mayor just under the noon deadline.

The apparently ageless WUSA 9 reporter and anchor Bruce Johnson did the emcee honors again, contributing to the déjà vu all over again. So did the presence of many Gray supporters, ex-council members, ex-mayors and public officials who had not so far found themselves without a jobs as happens with a change in administrations.

We ran into former council member Harold Brazil, an attorney who said he was glad for the new Mayor and keeping busy, “Trying to make a little money.”

Williams, who served two successful if sometimes difficult terms as mayor, told us, “I’m optimistic. I think Vincent Gray has the opportunity and the ability to be a great mayor, a terrific leader.”

Williams supported, if not outright endorsed, Fenty during the campaign because, as he explained on Mark Plotkin’s political hour on WTOP, where he appeared with former Mayors Sharon Kelly and Marion Barry, “I believe in supporting sitting mayors.” He acknowledged on the show that his support did not go unnoticed in his family, with his mother Virginia Williams being an ardent Gray supporter.

“These are going to be tough times,” he told us. “But I think Vincent has the gifts to bring the city together to face the budget challenges that are already here. “ Williams looked fit and comfortable, as if private sector life agrees with him.

We ran into new City Administrator Allan Lew, who was appointed to the city’s number two position after what was generally seen as a very successful stint as Operations Officer for the DC School District. Robert Bobb, one of the former city administrators under Williams and once school board president (until the board was basically shunted into obscurity by Fenty’s mayoral takeover of the schools) was here. Bobb is currently heading the Detroit school system, but rumors haves been floating around about him being a possibility for the next chancellor. Bobb, it should be noted, still lives in Washington. Kaya Henderson, Michelle Rhee’s No. 2 person, remains the interim chancellor where by all accounts she has done a yeoman job. Still, Gray has remained mum about his choice.

The inauguration was centered around the same theme that Gray used for a campaign slogan: “One City.” It is an ironic theme in some ways. The 2010 campaign, which resulted in a convincing victory for Gray, exposed deep fissures of race, class and economics that continue to exist. Gray swept the poorer and mostly black wards of the city where unemployment is abnormally high and development and jobs lag, while Fenty swept the city’s affluent and white wards.

Gray struck the “One City” theme early and loudly, and with tremendous passion and conviction. If there is a man who could bring the city together in any sort of effective, lasting, and emotional way, it may be Gray. He rattled off the names of the city’s great neighborhoods as they are mirrored in the city’s divided whole, giving them the quality of unique and special places. “The next chapter in the city of the District of Columbia won’t be written by a single author, but with the pens of 600,000 residents from all eight wards and all walks of life committed to a vision of One City. Our City.”

He spoke vehemently about statehood and how he would continue to fight for it on this day – at least before the usual realities about such an endeavor set in, he sounded like he was the man for the job.

Gray, with his children and grandchildren in the audience, talked often about going to Dunbar High School, about attending George Washington University, about growing up in the struggling parts of this city. More than anyone, he has the kind of roots to the city and its neighborhoods that make him a resident-citizen-neighbor kind of mayor, and one who is instantly recognizable in his passions and concerns.

Still, many of the residents of the wards where he lost don’t really know him (made clear in a misguided, but solidly effective write-in attempt for Fenty in the general election). It’s not clear whether a series of town hall meetings in every ward of the city made a dent into the perception of Gray as a mystery man.

At the inauguration, he presented himself and showed himself to be the man of decency, grace and class that his supporters and his record have always indicated. At 68, he is the oldest mayor this city has ever had, and perhaps one of the more cautious. But he doesn’t lack passion or empathy for the city where we all live. Case in point: while all the re-elected candidates as well as the new chairman offered praise to various degrees of intensity, often in perfunctory fashion, Gray did a little more. He walked up to the man with whom he had engaged in an often-bitter campaign and embraced him in a bear hug after praising him profusely.

From the dais, you could hear the noise of heart-felt rhetoric and the confetti of home grown relationships—Brown, Yvette Alexander of Ward 7, and Harry Thomas Jr. of Ward 5 are all Wilson High School Graduates, a fact which they all duly noted. Gray laughed and said, “That just shows you it takes only one Dunbar graduate to deal with three Wilson grads.” This is home grown stuff, warm and affectionate, like PTA talk and town meeting bragging rights.

For now, Gray has the bragging rights. He’s the man. He’s the man who’s got to tackle an ever-growing budget crisis and a deficit that will be swelling to $400 million over the next three years. He’s the man who has to deal with the passionately high expectations—for jobs, for attention, for development—from the wards that elected him, without alienating the residents of the wards that didn’t. He’s the man who has to deal with a congress that is historically hostile to District needs and will be only more so under the new GOP stalwarts. He’s the man who will have to lead tough decisions on budget cuts and, as he indicated, possible tax increases.

To quote Mayor Vincent Gray, it’s time to “get to work.”

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Sat, 1 Nov 2014 09:56:23 -0400

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