Judging Vince Gray—Before He Takes Office
It’s time for Vince Gray’s first report card.
What’s that you say? He’s not even the mayor yet? Pish posh.
He may not be the official mayor yet, but that’s just a technicality. Gray is, after all, making the big decisions these days, while Still Mayor Adrian Fenty rebuilds his national reputation, polishes his résumé, and improves his triathlon performance.
And besides, Gray’s record over the last 60 days gives clues to what kind of job he’ll do as mayor. Will he be the Marion Barry-lite that so many voters in predominantly white parts of the city feared? Or can he really be the “one city” mayor he’s pledged to be?
Let’s take a look-see and find out.
First, the bad news:
Last week was rough for Gray. On Monday, news broke that Marc Barnes, as owner of Love, the nightclub booked for Gray’s victory party, owes the city nearly $900,000 in taxes.
The rollout of Gray’s transition team Wednesday was overshadowed by LL’s disclosure that Reuben Charles, who will manage the day-to-day operations of the transition, owes $236,000 in unpaid taxes in Illinois.
And on Thursday, Gray managed to piss off the city’s police force by having lunch with Almost D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown—instead of going to the funeral of police officer Paul Dittamo, who died in the line of duty. (Even Fenty, who sometimes seemed to go out of his way to irritate people that way during his time in office, managed to make it to the ceremony, albeit late.)
These are minor missteps to be sure—but the common thread was that Gray’s staff hadn’t done the proper vetting or prep work. That’s got to be troubling for Gray; one of the main charges against him in the primary was that he would tolerate mediocrity, or worse, from city employees.
The Gray camp seemed completely caught off guard when LL asked about Charles’ tax problem on Wednesday. LL first wrote about Charles’s financial problems in September, reporting default judgments against him totaling more than $352,000 in Missouri. More records recently obtained by LL show that Charles owes an additional $24,178 from a 2005 default judgment. All told, that’s $588,000 in unpaid debts Charles has been ordered to pay.
Charles has said his unpaid debts are the result of being a risk-taking investor, and not giving enough attention to some lawsuits. Whether that should disqualify him for a prominent role in the Gray administration is up to the next mayor. But Gray has promised, like all politicians, to run an open and transparent government—while being anything but with Charles’ financial problems.
Charles told The Washington Post the Illinois tax lien came from a business he invested in, not personal debt. But he refused to tell the Post the business’ name. When NBC4’s Tom Sherwood tried to get Charles on camera to explain, Charles put Sherwood off for a few days. The result: a blistering story by Sherwood labeling Charles’s financial problems a “scandal.”
Minor scandals like Charles’ financial problems are inevitable in any administration. Pros get ahead of the bad news and control the message. The less professional react much the same way Gray’s team did.
Many in the Wilson Building privately complained to LL last week about Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier not keeping them informed of Ditammo’s funeral. (No D.C. Council members attended, in the end.) Maybe Lanier dropped the ball, but the multiple news accounts of the pending funeral Thursday morning should have given Gray, or his aides, an adequate heads up.
Instead, the Gray camp publicly blamed the funeral snafu on a staff oversight. If that excuse sounds familiar, it’s because Gray did the same thing earlier this year, blaming his staff for last-minute cuts to the city’s streetcar program. He had to quickly reverse the clumsy move, and the whole episode became fodder for Fenty supporters during the primary campaign: Gray, they tried to argue, was an overly deliberative do-nothing. Staffers will sometimes make mistakes; Gray, though, gets to take the blame (and the credit.)
OK, so what has the poor guy done right? Plenty, actually.
Education: The whole circus surrounding the future of Michelle Rhee—and by extension school reform—that surrounded the primary and the month afterwards now seems like a distant memory, which is testament to how adroitly Gray has handled his biggest political test so far.
The fate of the polarizing former schools chancellor was the big issue of the primary, and LL was nearly exhausted watching Gray avoid answering whether he’d keep or fire her as the campaign wore on.
Sure, Gray made it pretty clear he wasn’t going to say either way what he’d do about Rhee, but that was a pretty unsatisfying answer, and it gave Fenty plenty of ammo to wallop him with at debates.
When Gray won, Rhee called the results “devastating” (though she later tried to walk back from that statement). Then the pair met for a one-on-one at Gray’s office, while the whole local press corps sat outside. When they came out to chat, Rhee acted as if the future mayor had some of the world’s worst body odor and refused to stand anywhere near him. She then bolted before Gray was even done answering questions.
In other words, it was not looking good.
Gray and Rhee were engaged in an awkward month-long staring contest that seemed destined to end badly. Gray was either going to have to fire Rhee and incur the wrath of her rabid supporters (some of whom went so far as to redesign Fenty’s campaign yard signs with her name), or enter into a spectacularly dysfunctional marriage with a school chancellor who clearly didn’t like him.
But Rhee blinked and stepped aside, leaving Gray to pick her successor. Whether his pick of Rhee’s top deputy, Kaya Henderson, turns out to be good for D.C. public school students remains to be seen. But the politics look sharp. It’s hard for Rhee’s fans to complain too loudly when Rhee and Fenty are publicly praising the move and predicting that school reform efforts will continue uninterrupted.
“I cannot be more hopeful and optimistic about the future of our city in his hands,” Fenty said of Gray at a Kennedy Center awards ceremony last week for top public school teachers. The two clasped hands and held them aloft together at one point.
The crowd, besides two cabinet secretaries and Jill Biden, had some of the big money philanthropists who have forked over the big bucks that were key to Rhee’s success. On that front, Gray has also played it smart and has launched a charm offensive to win those folks over with a message that he’s down with school reform. Katherine Bradley, whose CityBridge Foundation has been a major contributor to Rhee’s efforts, is serving on his transition team.
“I think he’s been very strong in showing that he’s got a real commitment to real reform, and he’s made that evident in lots of ways,” Bradley says, adding that the local and national donors who are funding D.C. reform efforts are eager to stay onboard and continue to work with Gray and Henderson.
Budget: All signs point to plenty of pain in the council’s upcoming deliberation on how to bridge a $175 million budget gap for this fiscal year and a much bigger one for next. Gray can’t change the numbers, but his job is to manage people’s expectations. On that front, Gray’s been pretty candid at town halls around the city about how bad things might get.
It probably doesn’t hurt that he’s also brought two Brahmins of city finances, former Mayor Anthony Williams and former financial control board chairwoman Alice Rivlin, onto his transition team. Cutting social safety net programs and raising taxes are no way to make oneself popular, but Gray’s done a good job of giving himself as much political cover as possible.
Write-In Campaign: It would have been easy for Gray to be dismissive of the die-hards who were behind the Fenty write-in campaign. And Gray could have easily told the nearly 30,000 people who cast write-in votes to “get over it.” Instead Gray handled the write-in campaign with grace and class, telling those who cast protest votes against him to “work with us.”
Final grade: Incomplete. Hey, like LL said up, the guy’s not even the mayor yet. But in the weeks since he won the primary, Gray has given himself blueprints to follow that seem to predict both good times ahead and bad. Which one he sticks to more often might determine how the next four years go.
GOING OUT SWINGING
Warning: If you said bad things about Adrian Fenty in the last four years, you better make sure you’ve got your act together.
That’s a possible takeaway from the civil fraud lawsuit filed Tuesday by Attorney General Peter Nickles against mega-developer Don Peebles, who once suggested that Fenty didn’t respect his wife. The complaint says Peebles, through a building he owns and leases to the District, has made $1.25 million in improper charges to the city for things like political contributions and office supplies. (The suit could also be a test for Gray, who will have to decide whether to carry on Nickles’ crusade against a politically connected insider or let Peebles walk with the money.)
Then there’s Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., another Fenty antagonist, whom Nickles took to court on election day seeking financial records related to a non-profit called “Team Thomas.”
And who can forget the saga of Almost Mayor Vince Gray’s fence? Gray was the only person the District Department of Transportation ever went after over fence height issues, and Nickles was all over “Fencegate” like a hawk.
But the feisty Nickles, whose quotability is going to be sorely missed among the city’s press corps, says his legal actions speak for themselves. And any suggestion he’s motivated by political payback is “bullshit.”
“It seems that everything I do is political,” says Nickles. Not for long.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery