At the Thomas Sweet ice cream parlor, Gray orders a medium-size container of chocolate peanut butter ice cream. His campaign has set up an interview here, in the affluent heart of Georgetown, perhaps to showcase the candidate’s more informal, non-gavel-wielding side. He’s wearing a white shirt with French cuffs, cufflinks and yellow patterned tie.
The ice cream doesn’t get in the way of the wonkery. As we chat, Gray runs through the process details of Fenty’s record, from using cash reserves to plug fiscal holes to giving the D.C. Council a messy budget with “no undergirding philosophy.” Gray says the council had to clean up the mayor’s proposed budget. “It was clear that once we got this budget—we only had 56 days to deal with it—that we didn’t have enough time to remake this budget in a way that needed to be remade.”
With his command of the details, Gray has a hard time not giving the impression that he is the smartest person in the room. But his nonchalant manner also makes it clear that he’s not grandstanding. It’s a style about as different from the incumbent’s as Gray’s favored extracurricular activity—D.C. hand dancing, a low-key old swing-dance form—is from the mayor’s triathlon competitions.
Denizens of the Wilson Building have joked about “secret abilities” that enable Gray to master the dancing that goes on within the council. But the only super power he seems to posses is an iron rump: No one is able to sit through more detailed meetings than the D.C. Council chairman.
“What people don’t know about him is that he really is that smart,” Tucker says. Like any good pol, he can remember names and faces. But aides and council colleagues say he’s also a steel trap when it comes to random policy details, statistics, or phone numbers. “He is like a sponge and if you tell him once, he will remember,” Tucker says.
On the campaign trail, those abilities have let Gray exploit a weakness in Fenty, who has never been good with nitty-gritty details. During a June gathering of the Gertrude Stein Democrats, Fenty was slammed for his heavy reliance on notes. Gray scarcely glanced at his briefing book. He wound up with the endorsement.
But D.C. has had plenty of smart mayors. Marion Barry, after all, was a chemistry Ph.D student before being pulled into politics. The bigger question is whether Gray can be a successful chief executive using the conflict-avoiding, consensus-building traits that have made him a successful council chairman.
As the boss of a comparatively small office, Gray’s managerial approach hasn’t been perfect. Where he sets strict standards for himself on everything from finances to fashion (note the cufflinks at the ice cream parlor), he’s less demanding of his staff (the mayor once chided Rauch for sporting Converse All-Stars at the Wilson Building). Even fans point to instances of micromanaging, especially when it comes to the press releases that his office has a reputation for being slow to send out and the messaging that has often fallen behind the news cycle. (Gray’s campaign was late in responding to a factchecking request for this article because the chairman himself was editing the responses.)
Rauch describes Gray’s approach as Socratic, one where the boss would rather inspire and motivate via constructive dialogue than crack the whip on screw-ups. They say it means he expects staffers to consider every variable, detail, and opposing arguments in the process of coming to a decision. Tucker says her father handled family decisions the same way. Independent At-Large Councilmember David Catania disagrees, though, saying Gray’s version of process does not always include going the extra mile to consider opposing views. “I don’t see him as Socratic,” Catania says. “I don’t see him going out of his way to solicit a contrarian point of view...He’s not a natural contrarian.”
Washingtonians who fought for Home Rule may not like to admit it, but mayoral elections in D.C. have tended to be a yawn. In 2006, Fenty won every precinct as he ran away with the race. Anthony Williams’ victories were never in doubt—even when a bungled petition drive meant he was booted from the ballot in 2002.
But this summer, with six weeks to go, the race remains close, confusing, and nasty. Fenty has been greeted by boos across the city. A racial polarization has emerged as well: Gray runs better in African-American neighborhoods—where many associate the mayor with dog parks, bike lanes and the sharply altered demographics of areas like Petworth and Shaw. Mayoral partisans acknowledge that they’ll need to run up Fenty’s numbers among white voters.
Once upon a time, that rough racial divide would have doomed the incumbent. But the city’s changing population means white voters will play a larger role this fall than they’ve ever played—and that Gray needs to avoid alienating them. This would seem to be an easy task, since Gray doesn’t really do alienation. “Some in the campaign have adopted a saying ‘It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s Gray,’” says Tucker. His 2006 race for D.C. Council chairman adopted the slogan “One City,” which continues in the mayor’s race.
All the same, it’s not hard to suss out the racial subtext in the few areas where the candidates differ on substantive issues—not to mention the many where they clash on matters of style. (Among the Fenty transgressions cited by some Gray supporters are the mayor’s refusal to meet with civil rights legend Dorothy Height and his shunning of political schmoozefests with heavily African-American Sunday church crowds.)
On policy matters, the divide crops up in the candidates’ respective education plans. Fenty’s focuses on kids up to age 18. Gray’s addresses students through age 24. “Let’s be frank,” says one D.C. councilmember who wants to remain anonymous in order to discuss issues of race. “When Vince says ‘birth to 24,’ he’s talking to black voters...When Adrian says ‘K-12,’ he’s not necessarily targeting the white voters he needs west of Rock Creek Park. But he might as well be.”
But no issue is as polarizing as the future of Michelle Rhee, Fenty’s schools chancellor. Gray has repeatedly avoided saying whether he’d keep her. It’s easy to see why: Embrace Rhee and he angers a politically engaged, largely black teaching population who’ve been put off by her clean-sweep style. Promise to can her, and he irks an equally impassioned, comparatively white pro-Rhee demographic—not to mention the editorial page of The Washington Post.
So Gray has been careful in his direct criticism. Instead, he pokes at the details.
From the dais, the chairman has raised persnickety process questions about things like the racially charged departure of the popular Hardy Middle School principal. At hearings about the principal’s exit, Gray patiently sat through testimony from students as well as from angry parents who said Rhee ignored their concerns.
And last week, after Rhee fired scores of underperforming staffers—a move made possible under the law establishing mayoral control over the public schools, legislation that Gray says he should get more credit for pushing through the council—Gray declined to say whether he supported the decision. Instead, he said only that he wanted “to look further at the basis for the dismissals.”
So, would Gray fire Rhee? Gray, naturally, answers by resorting to process. No school system should be so dependent on a single person, he says—a point that’s hard to dispute, but which manages to avoid the issue all the same. Less of a stickler for process, Rhee has since taken the highly unusual step of injecting herself into the campaign by suggesting she would be less inclined to work for Gray.
The result is a political muddle. Gray won’t—or can’t—articulate a broad education policy that differs much from what Fenty and Rhee have put together. His campaign is careful to stress how fervently Gray, too, supports the voter-pleasing goal of “education reform.” But Gray’s nitpicking critique of the school administration doesn’t really give people much of a message to rally behind. The only votes he’s likely to pick up with his cautious, process-driven education policy are the ones Fenty already ceded to him.