The Blue and Gray: ‘Vince’ Optimistic About Campaign

Vincent Gray isn’t a natural politician.Maybe that’s why it took him so long to decide to challenge Mayor Adrian Fenty, taking on a man who’s much younger, who can tout progress and numerous achievements, who has a Midas-like war chest and who got into the mayor’s chair by winning every precinct in the District of Columbia.

“I like to think things over, carefully,” Gray recently told The Georgetowner. “It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. It’s a big risk. A lot of people were urging me, asking me to run. I’m still getting used to the idea that no matter what happens I won’t be on the council anymore in any capacity.”

Not to mention that if he should lose — and lots of so-called political experts say that’s likely — his political career is pretty much over. Gray, in short, made a decision not to run for re-election as city council chairman (for which he was a shoo-in), a position he had filled admirably by almost any measure.

I met Gray last week at Busboys and Poets (at Fourth and K Streets), which is near his campaign headquarters.

Asked how things were going, the mayoral candidate sounded enthusiastic. “Great,” he said. “It’s going great, really great.” When I suggested that things seemed to be getting testy, as evidenced in some of the exchanges at the Washington Hotel PAC candidate forum the previous week, he nodded. “Yes, they are,” he said, “It’s getting a little tense sometimes.”

In recent days, we’ve watched Gray several times, at the forum, on television, at the Ward 2 straw poll, and in person. If an election campaign is a drawn-out process, something like a boxing match of punches, counterpunches and dancing back and forth, Gray seems invigorated by the process, or at least he’s enjoying himself. For sure, candidates often repeat the same things over and over again, but Gray repeats some of his best stuff with relish.

As in: “When it comes to yard signs, the city’s turning blue, and the other side is green with envy.” It’s a hokey line, but it gets cheers from supporters every time, and a few laughs too. Gray laughs right along.

This an election campaign that seems to have been sparked not so much by a clash of ideas — although there are significant differences between the two — or even a conflict of wills, although that started becoming evident over the past year.

Rather, it’s a contest sparked by a growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the mayor’s way of operating, his style, his approach to dealing with the city council and constituents. Increasingly, Mayor Adrian Fenty, the executive leader as action figure, came to be seen as brusque, disconnected from voters (especially east of the Anacostia River), arrogant and unwilling to work with individuals or groups. Polls in January showed that while people appeared to like what he’d done in terms of school reform, public safety and development, they had serious reservations about his way of operating. Which doesn’t necessarily translate into support for Gray, a man who remains something of an enigma in large parts of the city. “I’ll say this,” Gray says. “I didn’t start out like some other people dreaming about becoming mayor or some such thing from the get-go,” he said. “I wanted to be a baseball player, and I was good at it, too.”

The self-described “through-and-through homey” grew up in a one-bedroom apartment at Sixth & L Streets N.E. He went to Logan Elementary, Langley Junior High School and graduated early at 16 from Dunbar High School, where he played first base, “hit over .500” and was scouted by professional baseball teams.

“It wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “But you know, I still think about it sometimes.” Gray still plays in a city softball league, apparently as reliable a hitter as ever.

In his younger days, politics wasn’t on his mind — he went to George Washington University, studying psychology and getting undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. From the beginning, he was passionately engaged in issues involving people with developmental disabilities. He worked at the Association of Retarded Citizens (now known as the ARC).

“Here’s a moment that affected me powerfully,” he said. “I was given a tour once of Forest Haven, a mental institution run by the District, a horrible place. I saw female residents and patients there, being herded outside, with no clothes, being hosed down. I’ll never forget that.”

Gray led the effort to finally close down Forest Haven, an achievement he still speaks about with pride. In 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly made him Director of the Department of Human Services, in an era when the District government was heading for its lowest points. Fenty and his spokesmen repeatedly criticized Gray for being a part of that administration, whose failures eventually led to the imposing of a Control Board on the city, which oversaw its operations and finances.

Gray chafes at the criticism, especially from Fenty. “What in the world do you know about the 1990s?” he said angrily at the hotel forum. “You have no idea, you need people to tell you what happened.”

To Gray, that period was about public service, which later would include his becoming director of Covenant House, a faith-based organization that serves homeless people and at-risk youth.

“You take pride in things like that,” he said. “I do. Because you can help people.”
He took a keen interest in education, almost naturally, given that his wife Loretta, who passed away from cancer in 1998, was a teacher in the D.C. Public Schools system all her professional life.

Gray, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, still lives in the family’s Hillcrest neighborhood home, pretty much by himself. “I’ve got a cat,” he said.

Hillcrest is in Ward 7, from which, in 2004, Gray launched his first political race for the council seat occupied by Kevin Chavous, who had run unsuccessfully for mayor. Less than midway through his term, he was encouraged to run for council chair by his supporters. “I said at first that maybe they were having a mental health problem,” he said. But run he did, winning a very tough and tense race against Kathy Patterson, the highly regarded Ward 3 incumbent.

He rolled into office with a triumphant Adrian Fenty, and several other new members, including Kwame Brown, Harry Thomas, Jr. from Ward 5, Tommy Wells from Ward 6 and Mary Cheh from Ward 3. It seemed, four years ago, like a fresh slate, a new beginning.

It was Gray who presided even-handedly — and forcefully — over the hearings for the legislation that would allow Fenty to take control of the District schools and initiate the school reforms that would culminate with the selection of Michelle Rhee as chancellor.

“This mayor voted against mayoral control when Mayor Williams tried to get that,” Gray pointed out.

Fenty announced the appointment of Rhee without consulting Gray or the council first; The Washington Post had the news before they did.

Gray dismisses the suggestion that this was an early catalyst for his decision to run. “A lot of things had already happened, and were continuing to happen.” he said. “It was an accumulation of things.”

But the school reform process, which included a delayed, drawn-out contract negotiation and the abrupt and controversial firing of nearly 300 teachers last fall over mysterious budget shortfalls, took its toll on Gray, and increasingly appeared to leave him at odds with both Fenty and Rhee.

“It’s not something I set out to do when I was elected chairman,” Gray said. “At first, a lot of people were urging me to run. And then, well, you feel compelled to do so.”
Gray sees it as another way to serve. He is known as the kind of chairman who will work hard to reach out to others and arrive at a consensus. And there is a way of doing that, as far as he’s concerned. “You respect people,” he said. “You work with them. You bring people together. You give and take. But especially, it’s about dignity and respect.”

He accused Fenty of cronyism during the parks and recreation fiasco last year, saying the mayor bypassed the council while giving contracts to his friends, a matter still under investigation. He’s clashed with District Attorney General Peter Nickles frequently over the issue, and has gone so far as to suggest that Nickles be fired.

Ray, who likes to listen to jazz and Motown oldies, is clearly energized on the campaign trail. He still slams Fenty for a recent no-show. “Here we are,” he said. “We’re going to hold a public forum on education, which is the mayor’s number one issue. He holds the cards, and what happens? He’s a no-show. He doesn’t show up. I was shocked, let me tell you.”

Clearly, there are style issues here. But it goes deeper than that — it’s generational. Fenty will be 40 this December, Gray is 66. If Ray has a political idol, it’s Walter Washington, the city’s first mayor under home rule. “He had such a difficult task, but he stood tall, he behaved with great authority and dignity, and he tried to do what’s best for the whole city. That’s what I intend to do.”

“The question isn’t about firing people, or what I would do with Michelle Rhee. It isn’t about one person. It’s about the whole city. Education isn’t just about test scores, it’s about expanding vocational education and jobs, it’s about early education and special education and charter schools and community schools and equal resources.”

In fact, his education proposals aren’t so much different from Fenty or Rhee as they are more expansive and more inclusive.

“We’ve got to reach out to everybody, we can’t govern from some lofty hill and just do things without talking to people,” he said. “When I’m mayor, I’ll be mayor for the whole city, not just parts of it.”

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