Graying and Un-Graying of D.C.’s Mayoral Campaign Mess
A Safeway worker in Adams Morgan shook his head when asked about his feelings about Mayor Vincent Gray’s chances in the Democratic Primary with the election just a few weeks away on April 1.
“Man, he’s toast,” the man said.
“I don’t know, I’m really, really disappointed. I was before, but now this is bad. I voted for Gray last time. Hell, I went door to door with hand-outs and brochures.
“You know what’s really sad is that they didn’t need to do any of that stuff. He would have won anyway.”
This was the morning after businessman Jeffrey Thompson, the alleged lynchpin of a Gray’s off-the-books “shadow campaign” was charged and then pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiring to break federal and local campaign finance laws during a six-year period through illegal conduit contributions and off-the-books spending as part of an agreement in which he alleged that the mayor knew about the illegal contributions and, in fact, had asked for Thompson’s help directly. The news, already rumored late last week, dropped like a bomb on the ongoing primary campaign Monday. Thompson is alleged to have funneled more than $600,000 into Gray’s campaign in 2010.
Those contributions totaled more than $2 million, with some $600,000 going to Gray’s electoral campaign.
But so far, it doesn’t look as if the mayor thinks he’s toast or any other kind of breakfast food. In response, Gray, who has steadfastly denied doing anything wrong since the investigation into his campaign but has also refused to talk about it on the advice of his attorney, emphatically said that said that Thompson’s allegation are “lies. These are lies. These are falsehoods.”
Talking in an interview with WUSA’s Bruce Johnson and with other media, including the Washington Post, Gray, saying more about the 2010 campaign than he has in over three years, said that “I was shocked and surprise about the allegations. We anticipated that with Thompson speaking with the feds that this would all be finally over and cleared up. I was shocked. I spoke with Mr. Thompson about campaign contributions once, and it was then that he came up with the ‘Uncle Earl’ reference. That’s the only thing that was accurate. I assumed everything was on the up-and-up and that he did not want Mr. Fenty to find out about contributions to our campaign.”
Gray was intense and direct in his response to the allegation as part of a day that created a firestorm of local news, although that won’t last long either, given that Thompson, who gave new meaning to the idea of “Hey, big spender,” allegedly spread money around to numerous campaigns -- not only to District council candidates, but to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, among others. Councilman Vincent Orange, who’s also running for mayor has already admitted to receiving funds from Thompson.
“Sure, this business is going to affect the campaign,” he said to various reporters. “But I’m going to continue to say what I’ve been saying. These are lies.
The big headlines were that “Prosecutors say Gray knew” and allegedly asked for additional moneys and presented a budget for that money before the election. So far, a number of Gray campaign officials and workers have been indicted and pleaded guilty, including veteran campaign operative Vernon Hawkins and Gray’s public relations consultant Jeanne Clark Harris, both of whom figure strongly in the allegations as participants in the “shadow campaign.” Basically, it’s a campaign that was allegedly run off the books, with unreported funds, or disguised funds.
It would appear that Gray continues to keep on running which may or may not be good for the campaign as a whole, since almost every forum or public occasion will turn into a likely heated media event in which the mayor will be asked once again about the 2010 campaign, or whether he’ll resign or not or if he’s being indicted. That process no doubt began Tuesday when the Mayor was scheduled to give his annual “State of the District” address at a school.
Other folks have chimed in that the mayor’s chances, should he continue to run, have become slim, but others say that he still might be able to win at least the primary. By the way, David Catania, the high-profile at large council member who had indicated before that he would run if the mayor should win the primary, now has officially announced that he’ll be running in the general election in November.
“Here’s the thing,” said Mark Plotkin, a long-time Washington political reporter, pundit and expert who is a commentator and reporter on America politics for BBC America, “[U.S. Attorney Ronald] Machen was asked on a time when the mayor might be indicted -- say before the primary or before the general election if he wins – and he said, “We have no time line.”
Machen did say at a televised press conference immediately after Thompson’s testimony that the guilty plea “pulls back the curtain to expose widespread corruption. . . . His plea gives the citizens of D.C. an inside look at the underground, off-the-books schemes that have corrupted election after election, year after year.” Machen called it “the tip of the iceberg.”
Plotkin thinks that certain elements could combine which could result in a Gray win. “First of all, we have no run-off elections. Which means that a candidate could get as little as 28 percent of the vote in the primary and win it. Second of all, Washington, in terms of voting, is a racial town. Not racist, but racial, which means that groups tend to vote for their own groups. I think a lot of people in Wards 6, 7 and 8 feel an affinity with Gray. And we don’t know who the beneficiaries of all this are. I’m sure Bowser thinks she is, that Jack [Evans] or Tommy [Wells] think they are. I can’t tell you. There was a lot of uncertainty in this campaign before that. Now, there’s a lot more. A lot of this boils down to whom people believe now. I’ve known Gray for a long time. He’s a very passionate, intense guy, and he can be extremely stubborn.”
Thompson, per his plea agreement, could face six months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. “He [meaning Gray] could very well—and has to some extent already—use the really light sentence, and it is a light sentence, it’s a slap on the wrist, a kiss on the lips,”as a defense, and point to it as motivation for Thompson,” Plotkin said.
There were some immediate reactions from Gray’s rivals in the primary race.
Tommy Wells, the one person among the candidates who has consistently pushed the fact that he refused corporate campaign contributions and thus is not threatened by Thompson’s fund raising shadow, said that if the allegations are true, “Gray is absolutely disqualified from serving for mayor any longer.”
In a statement, Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans, who is also running for mayor, said “Today is a sad day in the District. The allegations against the mayor are extremely serious. However, it is critical that this matter not cast a cloud over our city and the progress we have made. If the allegations are true, and if the mayor is charged, I believe he should do what’s in the best interest of the city.”
All along, this 2014 Democratic primary has been something of a surreal experience and operation, at almost every step of the way a process where everyone was supposed to ignore the elephant in the room, the single dark cloud overhead, Dorothy’s house whirling in the weather. That was and remains the investigation into the 2010 Campaign, into Thompson and, by inference, into Gray.
The elephant has made his first but probably not last roar. The dark cloud has dropped its first load of rain. Dorothy’s house is still circling, waiting to drop, like the proverbial other shoe.
The campaign at this late stage seems to be starting over. It remains as surreal as ever. ★