Some politicians rule by fear, others through persuasion. Vincent C. Gray governs by process.
Impeccably dressed, invariably polite, and indefatigably hard-working, the D.C. Council chairman runs hearings with an iron handbook: Every last colleague, constituent, and stakeholder gets a say, no matter who. When this takes longer than scheduled—like when an elderly retired economics teacher shows up in the morning to testify about tenants’ rights but doesn’t get to speak until late in the afternoon—Gray is the first to apologize.
And then, of course, he politely encourages the inconvenienced party to share all of her thoughts on the matter, whether or not they echo the others from her apartment building who’ve already testified. That’s the process.
This summer, Gray is making process the centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Mayor Adrian Fenty. Months of mud-slinging between the 67-year-old challenger and the 39-year old incumbent have failed to elicit major public-policy differences. Instead, there’s process: After four years of what Gray maligns as an impulsive, opaque, and abrasive executive style, the chairman is betting that voters want something a little more deliberate and respectful.
“He believes the details are important and he believes that if you don’t take into consideration the details it can lead you down the path of a wrong decision,” explains Gray’s daughter, Jonice Gray Tucker.
Which is why May 26 was such a strange day in the legislature Gray has ruled with such soporific effectiveness for the past four years. At the tail end of the budget cycle, news broke that funding for the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line had been cut. City transportation officials had gone to bed almost certain the project was safe. Sometime after midnight, following a grueling budget process that included televised broadcasts of previously closed-door negotiating sessions, Gray’s office whacked the project.
Word quickly spread among the planning geeks for whom streetcars are a cause celébrè. The influential blog Greater Greater Washington advised readers to call Gray’s office, pronto. Initially, a receptionist told callers the news wasn’t true. Then the office stopped taking phone calls. Advocates decried a shady late-night deal—the exact opposite of the consensus politics Gray has elevated into a political philosophy.
By 11:30 a.m., the budget was approved. With H Street ripped up and tracks partially constructed, the streetcar line was mostly dead—just $5 million was left behind for more planning. It was all a simple matter of process, Gray said. “I am firmly committed to a new streetcar system in the District,” he wrote on his campaign blog. “But we owe it to ourselves to have a well thought out planning process. We can’t afford the Mayor’s approach of ‘build now and plan later,’ which only results in poor outcomes and much higher costs.”
In this case, though, the irate online reaction prompted Gray to condense that well-thought-out planning process.
By afternoon, Gray announced that he’d identified $47 million for the project. But trolley jollies and streetcar foes alike felt put off. “Thank you for illuminating your lack of judgment and poor leadership potential while simultaneously moving forward with the streetcars,” sneered one poster on Gray’s website. Critics, meanwhile, accused Gray of caving to a Web-savvy, vocal minority.
Gray quickly moved on, emphasizing his streetcar love by riding a rented trolley two weeks later at the Capital Pride Parade. Today, he calls the incident a staff error, something that went down on one of those rare occasions when he’d gone home before his employees. “When I got wind of it the next morning, it took us all of two hours to fix this,” he says in an interview. “As soon as the meeting was over, I sat down with everyone and said ‘Look, we shouldn’t have done it this way.’”
In other words, with a little more attention to process, there might never have been a kerfuffle in the first place.
The Sept. 14 primary will not likely be decided by streetcar votes. But the set-to still illuminates a contradiction that will likely shape Gray’s political future: Being a stickler for process can be a sign of fairness, a way to avoid cronyism, and a way to make sure everyone gets their say. But it can just as easily be a cop-out.
Did Gray question the streetcar, as he initially said, because it was the sort of ill-planned infrastructure project that taxpayers shouldn’t have to support? Or did he hide behind a bunch of process explanations—poor transit planning, staff boo-boos—to dodge blame once the cut became controversial? Opinions about such questions will go a long way to determining whether Gray will become D.C.’s next mayor.
The D.C. Council chairman does his work at one end of a long conference table in his fifth-floor corner office at the Wilson Building. The walls are decorated with predictably tasteful images of District landmarks, sports memorabilia, and family pictures. There’s also a portrait of Gray and his late wife Loretta, who died of cancer 12 years ago, among other photos of his two children and two grandchildren.
Gray spends a lot of time at that table. A lifelong Catholic, the chairman has a decidedly Protestant work ethic—a supercharged one, at that. He’s often the last councilmember to leave the building at night. His staff generally gets more sleep than he does. “It’s one o’clock in the morning, and here I am having a policy exchange over e-mail,” says Jesse Rauch, a former Gray legislative analyst. “It’s insane.”
Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment at Sixth and L streets NE, Gray skipped two grades in school and graduated from Dunbar Senior High at 16. Even at a school that was then the home of D.C.’s African American elite, Gray stood out for his academic achievements. He managed to be a double-varsity athlete, too. Gray’s baseball skills were so promising he considered a professional career in the sport.
But he opted for college instead. At George Washington University, he was the first African-American student to break the color barrier in the fraternity system.
Gray went on from college to GW’s masters’ program in psychology. A professor there named Eva Johnson took him under her wing, steering his career toward social services. Johnson was involved with the D.C. Association of Retarded Citizens, today known as The Arc of D.C. After getting his degree, Gray went to work there, too. He later became its executive director.
At a time when many in D.C. measure success by the number of new commercial storefronts in previously blighted neighborhoods, Gray says his nonprofit career serves him well in office. “All of that has given me an exposure to what it means to be in human need. As a result I have a very profound understanding of what those needs are and I bring that understanding to these kinds of [budget] decisionmaking,” he says. (He also notes that this helps him know where to look for cost savings in social services as well).
After Sharon Pratt Dixon was elected mayor in 1990, Gray was asked to be director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. After some courting, he took over a chaotic agency that had 11 leaders in 12 years under Marion Barry. Opinions differ as to what happened next: Gray’s side notes that he improved performance on issues like HIV and homelessness. Critics, though, say it remained a mess—and that any reformist urgency got lost in the director’s relentless focus on procedural matters. Pratt’s administration, at any rate, has gone down as one of D.C.’s worst, compiling an even more disastrous track record than Barry’s. Which explains why Gray’s “early ’90s days” are a campaign-trail talking point for Fenty. In the mayor’s telling, DHS was “run over the cliff” under Gray, who would do the same to the city as mayor.
Gray’s defenders argue that anyone in charge of the department would have faced great challenges. “Virtually every entity at DHS improved while I was there,” Gray said during a July 15 radio debate. “I find it interesting at a recent forum, [Fenty] got up and complimented me on having worked to create a Department of Health Care Finance. I reminded him, since he wasn’t around at the time, that the Department of Health Care Finance was part of the reorganization plan I proposed as director of the Department of Human Services.”
The stint as a top D.C. official also means Gray made some decisions that—for voters with long memories—might cause him trouble now. As Gray gave a short stump speech at Glover Park Day in early June, some longtime residents in the Ward 3 neighborhood were quietly chattering about “the man who wanted to turn Guy Mason [Recreation Center] into a homeless shelter.”
During an interview, Gray has an answer for those complaints: process.
“It wasn’t that I proposed that,” he says of the plan he announced in November 1991 to house homeless people at the rec center that borders the Naval Observatory. “There was an order that… preceded the [Pratt] administration. And it talked about overflow shelters. There had been different places that had been identified as overflow shelters… and Guy Mason was one of those places in that order.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Gray adds. “It was handed down to us. The mayor, at the time, said that we should go ahead and try to do that...I carried out the wishes of the mayor.”
He never does get around to saying on the record whether he thought the Pratt-era Guy Mason plan was a good or bad idea.