Gray’s Smoke Becomes a Fire: Time to Evacuate?

In politics, it’s often amazing how fast a political scandal can turn into a firestorm.

In the District of Columbia, the bubbling, ever ongoing Vincent Gray mayoral campaign scandal has heated up big-time, in the space of a few days. If the scandal were a forest fire, you could call it Colorado. In other words, there’s a hot time in the old town tonight.

Consider this: Tuesday, Jeanne Clarke Harris admitted in U.S. District Court that she helped distribute funds in the amount of more than $600,000 from D.C. Jeffrey Thompson to the late-charging 2010 mayoral campaign of then D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray in what turned out to be a convincing win over incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty. Harris, a 75-year-old public relations professional, made the admissions in a plea bargain with the office of U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen, Jr., who had called these efforts, already part of the ongoing scandal, as a “shadow campaign” for Gray, with undocumented and unaccounted for donations.

Harris was the third person to plead guilty to some form of campaign irregularity. Thomas W. Gore and Howard L. Brooks, both members of the Gray campaign, admitted to planning and executing a scheme which saw minor candidate Sulaimon Brown being paid to stay in the race and attack Fenty.

Just like that, the story heated up. Gray, during a bi-weekly press conference, answered some questions about the latest developments in a half-hearted manner, asking the press to separate the campaign from the record of the administration. He also said, when asked if would finish his term in office, that he had “no plans to do otherwise.”

By nightfall, things had changed rapidly, as in the Channel 9 anchor who opened with “Should Mayor Vincent Gray resign? News 9 wants to know.”

Well, who doesn’t? Only now has the “R” word — only whispered about or gossiped about at Starbucks and street corner chit chat in various neighborhoods or not for quotation talk among politicians — gotten bandied about in a serious way. No less than three council members called for Gray’s resignation.

At-large councilman David Catania charged that the Gray campaign was “involved in the largest single criminal conspiracy in the history of modern home rule” and said Gray should resign. Ward 4 councilwoman Muriel Bowser also called for Gray’s resignation. Bowser, a Fenty choice to succeed him in his ward has also made noises that she has mayoral ambitions.

Most difficult and problematical for Gray is the fact that Ward 3 councilwoman Mary Cheh also called for his resignation, in what seems to the most difficult and perhaps most principled of such calls. Cheh, after all, backed Gray in his run against Fenty, while her constituency in the end voted overwhelmingly for Fenty. She did so with obvious reluctance but without any doubt.

The Washington Post, went into full-pads, full-court press mode on the story by July 12, with editorials blasting Gray and calling for a full accounting by him and what it headlined — on its editorial page — as “A Tainted Administration” along with further damaging stories and details and a column in which the writer called him “mayor-for-now.”

Watching a video of the press conference, you have to wonder what is going on with Gray. He held the conference in Northeast, presenting a report on greening of the city’s alleys, made jokes about so many reporters showing up for this event. But, Gray, who has never talked in detail about the ongoing scandal on advice of his attorney, other than at first to say he was innocent, and then not to say anything at all, answered a few questions. Asked about the campaign, Gray replied, quietly, that “This was not the campaign we set out to run.” His separation of his campaign and his administration struck some observers as odd. Nevertheless, that’s what’s been happening during the course of the Gray era — which may yet turn out to be one of the shortest ever.

Since Gray’s January 2011 inauguration, the ensuing two and a half years or so have been characterized by an influx of new residents, the balancing of the budget and successes in crime fighting. However, the foreground has always been seized by indictments, the departure of two prominent members of the District Council, including its chairman Kwame Brown, and sporadic news about charges and indictments into the mayor’s campaign. The fire kept right on burning.

With the indictment and admissions of Harris, it appears a kind of Rubicon has been crossed — or a flashpoint reached. Gray’s silence throughout this mess has been oppressively loud and deafening. Asked to comment on talk that “the mayor is corrupt,” Gray responded: “I know who I am. I get up every morning and look in the mirror, and I see someone I respect.”

The fire storm is still burning. For Gray, it must feel as if his political house is burning down around him. Is it time for him to evacuate? People want to know.

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