Lame Duck Tales: If Vince Gray Isn’t in Charge, Who Is?
Mayor Vince Gray can’t get no respect.Not just in the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall—although he’s pulling an inadvertent Rodney Dangerfield there, too—but also out on the streets of Shaw, where he went on a potentially record-breaking ribbon-cutting tour Monday.
Waiting to cut his sixth ribbon outside 9th Street NW’s Appioo restaurant, Gray arrived to discover that he’d outpaced much of his ribbon-cutting entourage. With no welcome committee in sight, Gray was left to cool his heels while he waited for more Shaw boosters to show up. Is this any way to treat a mayor?
It is these days. After losing his re-election bid in April’s Democratic primary by more than 10 percentage points to Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, Gray finds himself facing a restless D.C. Council that doesn’t particularly care what his legislative priorities are anymore. Still, Gray’s in office until January—presuming that his nemesis, U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, isn’t looking to turn up the heat on him this summer. So if the mayor can’t get things done, who can?
Before LL gets to the candidates to rule the District during the interregnum, though, let’s consider how far Gray has fallen since last year.
In 2013, the two-year-old federal pursuit of Gray was old news. The mayor vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have raised the minimum wage at potential Walmarts in the District and potentially quashed one of their stores in Gray’s home of Ward 7, then corralled enough councilmembers to defeat Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s veto-override effort. He managed to keep the District government open during a federal shutdown—outmaneuvering an operator as grizzled as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid!—and kept a whole slate of mayoral hopefuls guessing about his re-election plans.
But all that seemed very far away last week, when the Council filleted Gray’s goals for the new budget. Mendelson—whose own committee-shuffling muscles couldn’t overwhelm Gray last year on the Walmart wage bill—stripped hundreds of millions from Gray’s budget out of proposed streetcar lines, then put some of it into tax cuts instead. The budget passed with only two councilmembers dissenting.
Gray tells LL he’s not sure if the Council would have been so cavalier with his requests to preserve the streetcar money had he won the primary.
Even more surprising, even though it didn’t involve as much money as the streetcar: Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander’s own slam on Gray. After succeeding Gray in the Ward 7 seat, Alexander has been one of his most loyal allies, endorsing him for re-election just hours after he registered as a candidate. But loyalty wasn’t enough to stop Alexander’s health committee from pillaging $22 million Gray had reserved for a new east-of-the-river hospital to serve wards 7 and 8, which she would redirect mostly to projects inside her own ward. After Gray complained about her fund shifts in a letter to the Council, Alexander shot back in an open letter that some of Gray’s supporters were wondering whether his election loss had changed him.
“I think people do realize that there is a new mayor coming in,” Alexander tells LL.
Things aren’t going much better for Gray inside the executive branch, according to one senior Gray administration official who spoke to LL on the condition that he not be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak with reporters. With Gray headed out and some sort of bureaucratic shake-up guaranteed whether Bowser or mayoral rival David Catania wins the general election, some career employees in District government departments are more interested in currying favor with Gray’s potential successors than in implementing Gray administration policies.
“They’re all jockeying,” the official tells LL.
Implementing his goals could be even more difficult for Gray as his appointees bail on him. So far, Gray has lost three cabinet heads and one deputy mayor. After the head of the District Department of Transportation announced his plans to leave, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh worried that a long period of interim leadership in the department would mean months without progress.
If Gray’s just passing the time until he leaves office, though, almost-sort-of-presumptive mayor Bowser isn’t acting like she’s eager to push him out. Wilson Building wags say Bowser is too focused on her general election campaign against Catania to start flexing her influence on her colleagues. Which isn’t to say some of them aren’t eager for a Bowser administration: When the District’s inspector general retired, some councilmembers mulled whether they could prevent Gray from appointing his replacement.
“I think there is somewhat of a vacuum of leadership in the building,” says Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who also lost to Bowser in the primary and is now supporting her. “And I think that Muriel can only do so much, considering that she also has to focus on her race.”
Perhaps instead the man of the next six months will be Mendelson, whose politicking around the budget left unhappy Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry threatening to spread tales of Mendelson’s alleged budget misdeeds all across the city.
“Phil really showed no respect for the mayor’s office, and that’s the greatest sign of being very much a lame duck,” Wells says.
A potential power vacuum in the District government could make it nearly impossible for Gray to finish his last big project: the D.C. United stadium deal. With the mayor headed out the door, some councilmembers are proving unwilling to support the plan—or at least, unwilling to support it without cutting out their special considerations. Gray says he’ll still work to get the deal done before he leaves office.
Then again, maybe Gray is partially to blame for his atrophied political power. Councilmember Vincent Orange complains to LL that Gray hadn’t worked Wilson Building residents like past administrations to get his way. If he had, might things have gone differently all along?
“There’s probably some things he could have said to me,” Orange said, watching Gray line up for another ribbon-cutting.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery