You Can’t Hide the Elephant in the Room


National politics has its attendant scandals, farces, tragedies and controversies; we give you Wiener, Schwarzenegger, Edwards, Palin and Gingrich, in various ways.

But there’s nothing quite like the permanent dark cloud that seems to have settled over the workings of the government of the District of Columbia and the early months of the administration of newly-elected mayor Vincent Gray.

No matter that the council and the mayor seem to have settled their differences over the Fiscal 2011-2012 budget, or that redistricting seems to have moved on apace, or that almost out of sight, some things are getting done on the council.

Ever since the inauguration of Gray as mayor, and of new council members and a new council chairman, the charge aired by unsuccessful mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he was paid by Gray aides and promised a job in the Gray administration have cast a pall over the city. The ongoing scandal, already the subject of several council hearings, continues to periodically erupt with pronouncements by the volatile Brown, charging that “the mayor is a crook”.

When Brown showed up in dark specs recently to testify at the latest council hearing, bringing with him copies of money orders and causing a circus-like atmosphere at the hearings, it only served to remind people of the scandal, which is under investigation by various bodies, and other controversies plaguing other council members.

It never quite goes away, this dispiriting reminder of a DC government which is beholden to the federal government but wants statehood and voting rights, yet is unable to shake off the myriad controversies that are disrupting its work.

For instance, a May 23 Washington Post headline read: “ Disillusioned, some backers of D.C. mayor call for reset; It’s going to be a long four years’ one says; At meet of campaign workers, Gray apologizes to those felt sidelined.” Not so long afterward on June 7 came this: “Council told ‘mayor is a crook.’ Sulaimon Brown ties Gray to alleged payoff,” and “Officials clash with witness in hearing filled with twists and bemusement.” Two days after that, “Scandals cloud Gray’s agenda,” “D.C. Mayor Faces Media,” and “City is reliving ‘80s-era problems some say.’”

The mayor’s problems have been accompanied by numerous other squabbles: most recently, council member Harray Thomas Jr. has been accused of misusing public funds, strongly reminiscent of council chairman Kwame Brown’s problems with luxury vehicles and campaign fund issues. Meantime, tapes have emerged purporting to show Ward One Councilman Jim Graham’s chief of staff—who resigned last year over bribery charges — taking bribes.

Everywhere you go, the mayors’ critics say that Gray is creating an atmosphere similar to the one that existed during Mayor Marion Barry’s last two terms—one in which he ended up in jail, the other which resulted in the district being put under a control board.

While some suggest that Brown is beginning to sound credible, it’s hard to believe that what he says happened actually happened. You have to ask why anyone would pay Brown for something he was already doing, which was disrupting candidate forums with blistering attacks on Fenty and telling attendees to vote for Gray if not for him. Yet, the bottom line right now is two-fold: one of Gray’s aides whom Brown implicated in the transfer of moneys refuses to testify on Fifth Amendment grounds, and Brown did actually get a $100,000 job in the administration from which he was fired. “He got the job,” is a frequent refrain and conversation stopper when you start to talk to people about the situation in the district.

The mayor, who has already fired his chief of staff (and not replaced her), has so far been extremely reluctant to talk about the scandal surrounding him, preferring to talk about budget issues, redistricting and other matters.

The silence appears strange and damaging to some. It’s hard to imagine that the mayor would have a direct hand in any of the charges leveled against him. His reputation for integrity, until recent charges, seemed strong. But silence lets Sulaimon Brown go everywhere and say “The Mayor is a crook,” without the mayor saying anything at all. It might behoove the mayor not so much to answer the charges, per se, but to talk at length about what’s going on, what happened and what didn’t happen in terms of what he knows, his feelings and plan of action. It might be time for him to get out in front of the talk and the buzzing, even though one official said “that train’s left the station.”

Gray’s dream for One City is just that now: a figment, because the city is once again as divided as it has ever been along racial and political lines. It’s pretty clear that with the mayoral scandal on top of all the other problems of members of the council—that the council itself is in disarray.

That’s no way to run a city: a mayor under a cloud, a city council distracted by controversy. Somebody on the council, or Mr. Mayor, won’t you please speak up and take the bull by the horns. Somebody, somebody, say something.


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