Just around three months into his four-year terms, District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray is in trouble. Big trouble.
Sulaimon Brown, a fringe candidate during last year’s mayoral campaign who often attacked incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty and urged people to vote for Gray if not for him, claimed that he had made a deal with the Gray campaign to continue his attacks on Fenty in exchange for a job in the administration and money. All this broke like a flood in a front page Washington Post story on Sunday.
Brown charged that he had received money “in the thousands” from Gray campaign officials Lorraine Green, the Gray campaign chairman, and campaign consultant Howard Brooks by way of cash tucked into envelopes. The Post said it could not verify the payments of the money, which Brown said he had spent.
The story is rife with all the elements of a major scandal—envelopes of cash, cell phone records (although not their contents) between Brown and Gray, Green and Brooks, and text messages from Brown talking about “agreements.” It also had one salient fact: Brown did get a job in the Gray Administration as a special assistant with the Department of Health Care Finance, from which he was fired after the vetting process. He is now on paid administrative leave.
Gray in a press conference did two things: he denied any wrongdoing, but admitted “missteps had been made” in the vetting process. He also indicated he had never promised Brown a job or position, only a job interview.
He also called for an independent investigation of the matter, at first by the interim DC District Attorney and the DC Council. Later he indicated that he would be happy for the DC Inspector General, as suggested by Council Chairman Kwame Brown, to investigate the matter. Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans wants the U.S. Attorney’s Office to do the investigation. The DC Office of Campaign Finance has already begun a probe.
The whole thing seems shocking and unseemly. And it comes on the heels of hiring practices by Gray that have been roundly criticized for smacking of cronyism.
In fact, Gray seems to be strangely diffident in his reactions, as if this was not a term-threatening or direct attack by Brown. He’s already called Gray, “an organized criminal.”
Told about that charge by WRC4 reporter Tom Sherwood, Gray said, “he said that, did he?” He then laughed quietly and got into his car.
But this is no laughing matter; it has the making of a political tragedy. Brown, with a dubious employment and political record, ran for mayor anyway. He claims his attacks—which included saying that Fenty did not respect his parents—gave Gray the election. At the Georgetowner Candidate Forum just prior to the election, Brown created a ruckus by insisting he had been invited to participate when he had not.
When a reporter pointed out to him that his charges also made him a criminal, Brown insists that he’s willing to pay for what he did, although he hadn’t said a word about it until being forcibly removed from his short-lived office.
The tragedy, of course, is how this will affect Gray, his administration, his agenda and the city as a whole. In two lengthy talks with Gray during and after the campaign, Gray gave the impression of a man who was proud to be a true city native, a son of Washington, growing up in its largely black communities, graduating from Dunbar High School, getting a degree from George Washington University. He’s a man who clearly values family and friendship. He was widely seen as an honest, good man of integrity, and his term as city council chairman was widely seen as successful, handling the hard-charging Fenty’s wide-ranging agenda and the controversies that ensued.
That reputation has taken a hit with this political firestorm. It’s not that Brown’s charges should be believed at face value, especially those involving cash payments. More than one person has described Brown as a loose cannon, and that’s evidenced in these attacks and charges, and his previous behavior at forums. He received a little over 200 votes in the Democratic Party, so his claim that he swung the election for Gray is not very credible. Politically speaking, you can’t trust him. The surprising thing is that there was any sort of contact between the Gray camp and Brown at all.
Here’s one thing to consider. Gray came to politics late in his life, and, and he’s not a natural by any means. He and his friends don’t appear to understand that in an economic climate where you’re asking people to make sacrifices, you don’t hire your friends at big salaries, or their children. The mayor is Caesar, but he has to be Caesar’s wife too, beyond reproach—especially if you ran on a platform of integrity.
More than once, and from those who said it throughout the campaign, I’ve heard people sayit’s like the (Marion) Barry days. It’s not, but you can see why people feel at ease saying it.
For many of his supporters this is a kick in the gut, and the effects will linger. “There are a lot of people who are kind of heartsick, beyond buyers remorse”, one Adams Morgan resident said.
There can’t be a rush to judgment, but there must be a rush to honesty. I believe without any hesitation that Mayor Gray is a man of integrity, but a politician who gets elected can often lose his bearings under this kind of pressure. The mayor ought to be laying down the facts as he knows them, emphatically—with emotion and anger if appropriate—on the table to the public, and instituting the help of colleagues and friends. Trust is not like a credit card or a cell phone. You can’t get a new one if you lose it.