Mayor Vince Gray is hard at work letting you know he’s hard at work
“I work hard everyday,” Gray tells reporters. It’s Thursday morning in an office conference room near Dupont Circle, and the mayor is cruising through one of a dozen public events of the week. “I probably work, and many of you know that, I work 14, 16, 18 hours.”
A few minutes later, asked whether he is thinking at all about running for re-election in two years, Gray stays on message. “I’m thinking about doing my job every day,” he says. “I spend 16, 18 hours every day doing that.”
The reminder that Gray is working first-year law associate hours came the same morning that a Washington Post poll showed that more than half the city thinks he should resign, and only one in five residents think the mayor is trustworthy. It was only a week after an associate, Jeanne Clarke Harris, pleaded guilty to helping run a vast off-the-books “shadow campaign,” allegedly funded by one of the city’s biggest contractors, to help Gray get elected in 2010. She is the third person to plead guilty to a federal felony in connection with the campaign. The plea was the biggest score yet for prosecutors who have been investigating Gray ever since nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown started spouting off with accusations of secret cash payments and promises of a job in March 2011. Back then, Brown was the laughingstock of the D.C. political world; these days, no one’s laughing much about any of what he set in motion. After Harris pleaded guilty, three members of the D.C. Council—David Catania, Mary Cheh, and Muriel Bowser—called on Gray to resign.
The big question—what did Gray know about the illegal activity?—remains unanswered, as Gray sticks to his lawyer’s advice not to comment on anything related to the investigation. (His lawyer, Robert Bennett, issued a statement last week saying the media was treating Gray “very unfairly.”) Instead, day after day, the mayor powers through his packed public schedule to demonstrate that he’s doing his job, no matter what the folks in the U.S. Attorney’s office are up to while doing their own.
Take last Thursday, a typical enough day for the mayor. Things start off with a news conference at an advocacy group’s office touting improvements the city’s made combating the spread of HIV/AIDS. The fruits of Gray’s wonky work are evident: He rattles off long strings of statistics about the city’s HIV-positive population by heart, and AIDS advocates praise his high level of involvement in a thorny issue. But when it’s time for questions from the press, NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood kicks off by asking the mayor why he slunk in through the back door rather than face the group of reporters who had gathered to get his reaction to the Washington Post poll.
“That’s a clown question,” Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, mutters loud enough for the whole conference room to hear.
Gray just looks annoyed: “It was a convenient way to get in.”
Next up: a bill-signing ceremony at the downtown headquarters of LivingSocial, the online coupon company. The mayor recently pushed a $32 million tax break through the D.C. Council, saying it was needed to keep the city’s biggest homegrown tech company local. At a small ceremony to make the deal law, Tim O’Shaughnessy, the company’s 30-something CEO, and councilmembers Jack Evans and Michael Brown praise Gray for his vision and leadership in trying to nurture the city’s nascent tech scene. It’s not just idle talk from two politicians and a guy about to benefit from a giant tax break: Gray has put in plenty of face time with the city’s techies, earning the title “our tech mayor” from one admirer. Afterward, Gray walks around the headquarters, which looks like a cross between a call center and a community college’s computer lab, making small talk with some of the workers. “Thank you for living in the city,” Gray tells a young blonde who lives near U Street NW.
The day ends at the D.C. jail, where the city is touting its new “state of the art” video-visitation center. Gray waxes about how much easier it’ll be for friends and family to visit with inmates through video conferencing rather than the old plexiglass-and-phone combo. “This is a lot more convenient. I think, eventually, people will be able to do it from their home or from their recreation center or library,” he says. “So I think this is a wonderful step forward.” If scheduling an event at the jail doesn’t send a “business as usual” message in the face of a federal criminal investigation, nothing will.
Such is life these days for Vincent C. Gray: carrying on as if nothing is wrong. Touting the small and medium successes that are happening under his watch, while ignoring the fact that U.S. Attorney Ron Machen has called his victory a fraud, a conclusion the recent poll suggests many others in the city share.
No matter how hard the mayor tries, though—no matter how many times he reminds the press he’s working extra long days, how many small-bore policy announcements he makes, or how much he insists the investigation hasn’t fazed him—it’s too late. Barely a year and a half into his term, Gray is already a lame duck, his political power sapped, his image damaged, and the fundamental legitimacy of his administration called into question. These are problems Gray can’t outwork, even if he spends 14, 16, 18 hours a day pretending otherwise.
The slogan was emblazoned on virtually every piece of Gray campaign literature or merchandise in 2010, whether paid for with legal donations or by the illicit shadow operation: “Character. Integrity. Leadership.”
By the time Gray decided to run for mayor, in the spring of 2010, it didn’t take a political genius to see where the incumbent, Adrian Fenty, was vulnerable. Sure, city agencies were running well, and the District’s population was growing noticeably for the first time in decades, but the guy in charge seemed like a jerk. Questioned about contracts for fraternity brothers, he stonewalled. Asked why he was hoarding baseball tickets earmarked for the D.C. Council, he said it didn’t matter. Politeness, traditions, and laws didn’t matter; results and accomplishments did. In single-minded pursuit of making D.C. a “world-class city” as “fast as humanly possible,” Fenty had gone out of his way to alienate virtually all the entrenched interests in District politics, and many voters simply no longer trusted him.
So Gray, who’d built a reputation as a fastidious devotee of procedure as chairman of the D.C. Council, promised to change all that. On policy, he said things would stay more or less the same; Gray liked streetcars and bike lanes just as much as Fenty did, he said, and he wouldn’t even say whether or not he’d keep Fenty’s acrimonious schools chief, Michelle Rhee, if he won. (She bolted soon after Fenty lost, but Gray hired her deputy.) The only real difference would be that Gray would follow all the rules.
“There are some who say, ‘Who cares if the mayor ruffles some feathers? He’s getting results.’ To them, I have a simple message: That ain’t good enough,” Gray told supporters at the beginning of his campaign.
Which is precisely why the mess Gray’s in now will be so hard to escape: The illegal actions on his behalf during the campaign directly undermine everything he ran on. Court records filed in connection with Harris’ guilty plea show a shocking number of rules being willfully disregarded: Donations funneled through third parties who then got reimbursed, in order to avoid campaign finance limits; contractor Jeff Thompson allegedly pouring in $653,000—almost a third of what Gray wound up raising before the 2010 primary—on his behalf without any disclosure at all; a suggestion that Thompson might cover up the violations and throw federal investigators off the trail by stashing Harris away in Bahia, Brazil, until the statute of limitations on the crime expired.
“This scandal will forever hang over and shape his legacy, even if, and hopefully when, he’s exonerated,” says the mayor’s old campaign communications guru, Mo Elleithee. Cheh, who endorsed Gray in 2010 even though her upper Northwest Ward 3 constituents overwhelmingly voted for Fenty, says Gray’s responsible for the shadow campaign, whether he knew about it or not. “During the four years that we served together, I did not know of a single person with more integrity and commitment to the people of the District of Columbia,” Cheh said in her statement calling on Gray to resign. “Indeed, that is why I endorsed him when he ran for mayor. But the facts cannot be ignored, and what has happened since has caused incalculable harm to the District.”
Gray now seems to be hoping he can make the political problems go away by pretending he doesn’t see them. Early on in his administration, when Gray faced questions about why children of senior campaign aides wound up with $100,000-a-year government jobs or what Sulaimon Brown was talking about, he tried to push back. He made clear that the kiddie hiring wasn’t his idea and said in no uncertain terms that he didn’t know anything about the payoffs or job promises to Brown. When Brown’s accusations first appeared on the front page of the Sunday Post, Gray held a news conference that night to address the story.
But as the Sulaimon scandal dragged on and grew into a much larger investigation, Gray’s strategy of vociferous denials of any wrongdoing shifted into his present mode: no-comments and nonanswers. When I ask Gray while he’s waiting for the elevator at the Thursday HIV/AIDS event what he can do to turn his poll numbers around, he sarcastically puts his fingers to his chin, like he’s deep in thought: “Let’s see. I think you continue to do the job, hopefully the investigation will be concluded, and you move on from there.”
At the press conference after the HIV/AIDS event, Gray tries to tell reporters that the Post poll reflects a negative “perception” of his administration that isn’t based in reality. “I don’t know if there was even an issue raised in the poll about fiscal stability,” Gray says, before touting the city’s fiscal health, the District’s booming economy, and the fact that credit card readers will soon be put in taxicabs.
“I think it would be helpful if you put the facts out there,” he says.
The Gray administration line now comes straight from the Fenty school of politics: Results matter, not process.
Bring up the specter of a federal indictment of a District mayor, and see how long you can avoid thinking of Marion Barry.
During the 2010 campaign, of course, Fenty allies wanted voters to look at Gray and see Barry. (Fenty aides gleefully circulated photos of Barry wearing Gray stickers or the two men campaigning together.) But for the most part, the Barry comparison falls flat. Gray, who doesn’t drink and swears he’s never even tried pot, hasn’t let personal issues get in the way of running the city. He’s not ignoring his job, slurring his words, or looking bloated like Barry did on his worst days before his 1990 indictment on drug charges.
And whereas the city’s declining fortunes mostly mirrored Barry’s in the 1980s, Gray’s troubles don’t seem to be damaging anyone except Gray. He does have legitimate accomplishments, like breaking ground on long-languishing development projects, maintaining the city’s strong fiscal health, and paying attention to a long-ignored tech industry. For the most part, Gray’s hired many smart, competent people and allowed them to do their jobs.
But if the Gray administration isn’t the Barry replay that some folks warned it would be, the reaction of Gray’s die-hard supporters to the federal probe looks awfully familiar.
Outside the Wilson Building last Wednesday, the Rev. Willie Wilson led a pep rally for the mayor (who had trundled off to Scotland, Md., instead to open up a Boy’s and Girl’s Club summer camp). Wilson, who organized the multibus convoy that greeted Barry when he was released from prison on drug charges, was a regular speaker at the much larger pro-Barry rallies two decades ago. “This is the same Justice Department and the same FBI that wiretapped Martin Luther King Jr.,” Wilson said at a 1990 rally that was videotaped and sent to Barry in a Florida drug rehab center.
Barry fans used to complain that the U.S. Attorney’s Office was unfairly leaking sensitive information to try and discredit the mayor. Wilson sounded the same alarm last week, saying his allies who have been associated with the shadow campaign, including Jeff Thompson and Gray’s close friend Vernon Hawkins, “have been vilified, crucified in a media frenzy that was created by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
In Barry’s day, the U.S. Attorney’s office was painted as racist. This time around, when the top two federal prosecutors are black (not to mention the president), Wilson tells reporters, “I don’t know what the motivations are, but I know it’s not right.”
But if last week’s rally’s organizers are avoiding overt statements about race, some of the rallygoers aren’t. One man tells me race is behind the entire investigation of the mayor and the call from three councilmembers to resign. When I ask the man how his theory squares with the pressure for Gray to step down from Ward 4’s Bowser, who is black, he says, “She’s an Aunt Jemima,” a female equivalent of an Uncle Tom. The man won’t give me his name, saying it’s his First Amendment right not to, but assures me that most African-Americans in the city feel the same way.
The Post poll says otherwise (for starters, most voters have no opinion of Bowser either way). One of the most striking results showed that Gray’s support among black voters, the base he relied on to get elected, had eroded; 47 percent of black women, for instance, had unfavorable views of the mayor. For Gray, whose other campaign slogan was the earnest “One City” message of unifying a divided District, the irony of those results must be hard to escape.
“It’s one city united against him right now,” Elleithee says.
Ultimately, the weird limbo Gray finds himself in now can’t last forever. Either Machen will eventually file charges against the mayor, or he won’t. If Gray is indicted, he’ll either fight the charges, or he won’t.
But unless it turns out Gray was working undercover for the feds all along as part of the most elaborate campaign-corruption sting operation of all time, it’s hard to imagine voters looking at him quite the same way as they did when he came into office, even if Machen never indicts him, or if Gray successfully fights any charges that do come. The mayor’s best-case scenario still seems pretty bleak. It would mean Gray—the detail-oriented boss who works 18-hour days—had completely missed the vast $650,000 illegal operation going on right under his nose, being carried out by some of his best friends. Court records in the Harris case allege that the shadow campaign was sharing office space with the legitimate campaign.
That supposed legitimate campaign had plenty of its own problems, too. The Associated Press reported recently that the Gray organization routinely paid campaign workers more than the $50-in-cash daily limit and misfiled campaign finance reports. His campaign treasurer, an elderly neighbor to Gray, told the Post she wasn’t paid the $100,000 that Gray’s financial reports say she was. Gray’s limited response: The short campaign was too hectic for him to manage every detail. But at the same time Gray says it was impossible to keep tabs on a $3 million mayoral campaign, he’s asking voters to trust him to run a $10 billion-a-year city government.
And then there’s Gray’s response to the fallout from the investigation. When Catania, Cheh, and Bowser said he ought to resign, Gray went on TV and attacked all three. He essentially called Cheh, a longtime ally, a coward for not telling him about her plans in person, then questioned whether the constitutional law professor knows anything about due process.
The end result is a diminished mayor, either way. Which may be why some of his attempts to show he’s out working hard can’t quite help but devolve into farce.
Three days after Harris had laid out details of the shadow campaign and pleaded guilty, Gray decided to make a show of getting tough on convenience store clerks who violate the District’s ban on selling marijuana paraphernalia, like rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars.
So Gray and a small army of city officials and community activists head out along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, in Congress Heights, surprising convenience, liquor, and Chinese carry-out stores with impromptu inspections of their wares and business licenses. Over and over, Gray and the officials would walk into a store, head straight behind the counter (often without asking permission), and give the cashier on duty (most of whom were either Chinese or East African immigrants) a stern talking-to about the products they were selling that a marijuana user might find useful.
“You can’t do that,” Gray tells the employees of the China Inn Deli, after he spots an open box of cigars next to the cash register. “You opened that up and sell them as singles.” (Gray’s director of the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, Julie Koo, is tagging along to help translate. No one is there to translate for the Ethiopian and Eritrean clerks.)
The store’s owner, who doesn’t appear to speak much English, doesn’t fight it. “OK, OK,” he says, putting the cigars in a plastic bag and shoving the bag under the counter. He then tries to get Gray to take a free soda.
The city prohibits selling rolling papers (except in limited circumstances) or individually wrapped cigars, but most of the stores Gray visits aren’t following the law. “This is a warning,” Gray tells one clerk. “Next time, it’s a $2,000 fine.”
Even where Gray and his posse can’t find any contraband, he still treats the clerks and store owners like criminals. At a liquor store, Gray huffs at the owners, even though they’re not selling anything illegal: “We’ll be back to make sure you’re not selling rolling papers.”
At another store where Gray doesn’t find any illegal goods, the mayor stands awkwardly next to the store’s owner to talk about rolling papers and blunts. “It’s illegal, right?” Gray asks. The man nods. An awkward pause ensues. “Where’s your business license?” Gray barks.
At one of the last stores Gray visits, a clerk tries to leave the enclosed space behind the counter when the mayoral entourage bursts in. A Gray aide stops her, steers her toward the mayor, and she gets the anti-drug lecture, too.
Mayor Gray, hard at work.
Sudip Bhattacharya contributed to this report.