Loose Lips

Judging Vince Gray—Before He Takes Office

Early Grades for Vince Gray

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.


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.

Got a tip for LL? Send suggestions to lips@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 650-6951, 24 hours a day.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • DCDem

    "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."

    Didn't Dorothy Brazzil break this story in D.C. Watch first? hmmmm.

  • Alan Suderman

    @ DCDEM. No, she didn't. But thanks for reading.

  • Just Curious

    Alan, are you not at all curious about the role that Vince Gray and other senior members of his incoming administration played in steering the recently awarded lottery contract?

    What about the prospect of Vince Gray being deposed in the federal lawsuit filed by the OCFO's former procurement director? Unlike the Fenty contracting scandals, this lottery contract issue appears to directly involve and implicate Vince Gray and other senior District officials. Might be worth looking into further, if you haven't already done so.

    Just Curious...

  • Truth Hurts

    I second Just Curious. Having read the detailed request for an IG investigation, I've often wondered why there's been no media follow up. The amount of money at play in the lottery fiasco is enormous. The players who steered it to their peeps have plenty of baggage and didn't play by the rules.

    @ DCDem: LL broke the Charles story. In fact, he's broken every Charles story except for Nikita's fluff you tube piece. WAPO,DC Watch, Examiner, Sherwood, et al have been playing catch up.

  • downtown rez

    The lottery story is complex. No one has yet been able to break it down into a two minute sound bite, so people loose interest before the narrative hook is set.
    But, yeah, I 110% agree.
    The important thing to keep in mind is this: It's about machine building. The contract is worth millions each year and will likely be renewed and expanded every year. And I'll bet the crony-contractors reinvest a portion of that money into their benefactors. Good places to start the investigation are: Why did DC need a local partner in the first place? Who are these cronies? Why was this particular local partner chosen above others? What value to they bring? What are the cronies doing with their money? What things aren't transparent, and what might that tell you?
    Look for the kick-backs.

  • DCDem

    If we use the measure of Fenty supporters to Vincent Gray, it is irrelevant to how Gray gets things done so long as he gets them done fast and on time. If he has to go around the legislature to do so, then so be it, if he has to dance around the edges of the law to get it done, fine.

    However, those with a healthy respect for the law and, yes, transparency will see to it that he meets the same end as Fenty did for such actions. He needs only understand that what Fenty's supporters accepted in Fenty they will NEVER accept of him. He is going to have to do things transparently, and not just "promise" transparency, as Fenty did. Gray must remember the base that put him in office and not cower to the undercurrent, though clearly obvious, drive to guide his policies and appointees through media banter.

    He needs only to remember that the majority of the city, that put him in office, want him to succeed. We want to see him deliver on appointing highly qualified members to his cabinet to run the city. We want to see the city move forward with fiscal responsibility and efficiency. We understand that with a looming 500 million dollar deficit and little reserve, business as usual, by necessity, is over. We know there are tough days ahead and that he is going to have to make decisions that are not going to be popular, even if necessary, in the city. It isn't hard to go on a spending extravaganza to appease tax payers, it is leadership when you have to curb spending in a manner that best serve the fiscal health of the city, even if it costs you politically. Fenty had 1.6 billion in reserves when entering office, a luxury Gray doesn't have thanks to Fenty's spending. It is now time to reinvest into our reserves, lower unemployment in the cities most vulnerable wards and increase our income tax base.

  • DCDem

    I think it was Brizile that called to question Charles' citizenship status. An angle she is aggressively pursuing.

    Personally, I think he should step aside as head of the transition team. He is a distraction that a divided city doesn't need right now.

    After the election is not the time to begin cleaning up past tax deficiencies.

  • Truth Hurts

    @ DCDem: You're right about DC Watch breaking the Charles noncitizen/nonvoter angle. And I agree that neither Gray nor a divided city needs the distraction he brings just as Gray is getting started. Finally, I too want Gray to succeed. Seriously.

    A lack of transparency was my biggest disappointment in Fenty.

  • tformation

    Well said DCDem....

    I too think Charles is an unneeded distraction and Gray should look for someone else, however I'm not bothered as much by that fact that he is working on the transition team as I will be if he appoints him COS.

    You are right when you say that Fenty-ites who accepted every excuse from him, will accept non from Gray. It is like SOME are actual children who got caught with the hand in the cookie jar. The excuse is that someone else spilled milk last week and didnt clean it up so they didnt really be punished.

    At some point, someone has to be the adult and SHOW them how to handle the situation... YES you can pick your own people, just because Lanier is liked doesnt mean he has to keep her, just make sure that her replacements qualifications are legit (I know, I know, Fenty didnt do this but we are being the adult here). YES the people you pick should be loyal to you so they arent constantly trying to find ways to undermine/embarrass you or your administration.

    Stop talking about all the stuff Fenty did (unless something new comes to light of course) and let's get about the business of cleaning up the mess that was left. It is as if we have come home from a three week planned business trip three days early and found that the kids had a week long house party, emptied the bank accounts buying clothes instead of needed food, loaned the cars out to unsavory people who never brought them back and had a few windows and light fixture broken in the process. All the kids can say is, "but I passed my math test and it doesnt look that bad in here so why are you so mad?" At this point, it doesnt matter why... We just have to clean it up.

    If at a later date we find out that someone is claiming to have been raped, robbed or assaulted at the party, we deal with that too, go back and revisit the party but we dont need to continue to talk about "the party" daily for the next 6 months do we? Just get a trash bag and start cleaning up!!!

    (and no you cant clean the dishes with water and a dirty rag... you need soap, maybe a brillo pad, and you cant use a sponge that was previously used on the toilet... GO GET A CLEAN ONE!!!)

  • Typical DC BS

    Sorry, the comments blaming Mayor Fenty for using up the reserves are bogus. Mr. Gray, as head of the City Council, deserves just as much, if not more, blame for using up the reserves. The DC Council controls appropriations. If the Council didn't want reserves to be used, they could have put a stop to it in a heartbeat. They are just as cowardly in not facing the fiscal facts over the past few years as the mayor's office.

    Mr. Gray deserves JUST AS MUCH of the blame for current city finances as Mayor Fenty and the rest of the Council.

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  • tomas

    It seems that Typical DC BS does not understand the budget allocation process not the appropriations process.

  • drez

    Actually, he explains it perfectly.
    Council has the responsibility to rejected, amended, or pass the Mayor's budget. That's specifically their job.
    They (Gray) punted every time.

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  • DCitizen

    Drez- you obviously don't know much about Gray's tenure as Council Chair. If you did, you would know that he held marathon sessions to clean up the mess Fenty always placed in front of him. He made tough decisions and unpopular cuts when Fenty wouldn't. That's why the City moved forward. But, I guess the facts do interest you.

  • DCitizen

    Correction: I guess the facts don't interest you.

  • drez

    The facts speak for themselves. The mayor proposes, the council disposes.
    Gray's "marathon sessions" ended up approving every single proposed budget Fenty submitted. Of course it's convenient (then as well as now) for Gray to blame our finances on Mayor Fenty's proposed budgets but, at the end of the day, and after much posturing, Gray approved every single one of them.
    Those are the facts, as inconvenient as you might find them.
    If you want to look for someone to blame for our finances, feel free to blame Fenty for proposing what he did, but you must also blame Gray for approving what Fenty proposed.
    It's just how it works. And it's why I say that Gray punted on his obligations. Probably to preserve his own political future.

  • Truth Hurts

    DCI is ABM aka MBA. His/her/their comments should be read in that context. Enough said.

  • downtown rez

    Yeah, I know.
    Shooting fish in a barrel passes the time.
    Sort of like playing pong on my Atari 2600.

  • American Rogue

    To the citizenry of the District of Columbia:

    It seems to me the funds provided to this city come, a least in large part, from the Federal Government. There is/are a Hotline number(s) which may be used to report suspected instances of Fraud, Waste and Abuse” of Federal funds and/or property.” Do any of you know that/those number(s)? Liken the dynamic between the Federal Government and the City’s this way:
    DC you only have a much rope as I give you and by the way, the rope is mine too!

    Give no credence to the “findings” of AG Nickels. Call the Federal Hotline numbers to report Fraud, Waste and Abuse of Federal money and/ or property. The Feds will be compelled to respond. Prior to calling, have you facts in order. A personal attack such as fenty is a grinning-cheese- monkey will fall on deaf ears.

    You want to be treated like a citizen, then act like a citizen! The Preamble of our Constitution is a never ending call to action: “to form”; “establish;” “insure;” “provide;” “promote;” “secure;” “ordain;” “establish”. Acting like a citizen means you have to always be an active participant in your Government even if you are not an elected Government official!!!

    American Rogue

  • Terry Miller

    Every budget that every Mayor submits is always passed. That is the job of the executive, to submit the budget to the legislative branch. After the budget is submitted, the legislative branch can make changes, including cutting programs, staff positions, etc. For example, The Fenty administration proposed to combine the Public Employees Relations Board and the Office of Employee Appeals, and cut viritually all the staff. The Council did not approve this, so they had to make cuts in other places.