Mayor Gray and the State of the District: Both Confident

Listening to Mayor Vincent Gray give his 2013 State of the District Address Feb. 5 at the Sixth and I Street Synagogue, you wouldn’t guess that the mayor had had a day of trouble since he took office two years ago after defeating incumbent Adrian Fenty.

Gray’s speech—buoyed by news of a major surplus, and more immediately by the Revered Dr. Lewis Anthony’s rousing invocation—seemed more like a celebration, a kind of rolling up the numbers and pluses and big plans for the future, most notably a whopping $100-million commitment to create more affordable housing in the District of Columbia, where the real estate market is once again hot, along with figures for property prices, commercial construction and development and the population, all of which are rising. He also hinted that the long drought in pay raises for city employees—i.e, government workers, teachers, firemen and police—might be coming to an end in the future.

In fact, the speech, which touted numerous accomplishments, an economic surge, a 50-year low for the city’s homicide rate, could almost sound like the shaping of a record the mayor could run on, if he was to run again. But politics—and the still ongoing investigation into the mayor’s campaign, and other unsettling and unsettled problems—seemed so far from the mayor’s mind that he said nary a word about them. Politics, in fact, seems to exist only in the mind of the media in search of somebody that might flat out say he is running for mayor in 2014, although Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells has indicated he’s thinking about it.

It was a strange atmosphere for the speech—outside there were demonstrators protesting impending school closings in the District, and representatives and signs for candidates for the April 23 special election for the at-large council seat left open by Phil Mendelson, who is now the District Council chairman. Among the numerous candidates for the seat are former at-large councilman Michael A. Brown who lost a bid for re-election, interim at-large Councilmember Anita Bonds and Republican Patrick Mara, returning to the city-wide political arena.

Brown stood upstairs in the back, a man without a seat, for the moment.

Downstairs, officialdom of D.C. local politics mixed and mingled—most prominently Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry, working the crowd as of old, along with Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans who has seen a lot of the downtown development now coming to fruition in his ward and former Mayor Anthony Williams, who spurred the initial effort to halt D.C.’s population decline. Much of the gains being touted on the dais by Gray had their roots in the two administrations of Williams, generally considered to be a success in the eye of the public. The big applause getters: the affordable housing announcement and former Mayor Williams.

If Gray has kept his political profile low, it’s plain to see that he’s been busy nonetheless. He and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi announced a $417-million surplus for fiscal 2012 earlier. Gandhi also announced that he would be retiring in June. “Previously, we had been in a somewhat precarious position, partly because of the national economy in general, but also because in the past, the city’s rainy day fund was drained severely,” Gray said. “That’s not going to be the case anymore, we’re going to set much of that money aside.”

“I can say the city is doing extremely well, better than what is normal nationally in terms of growth, and other economic activity,” the mayor said. But he saw a mixed blessing and a danger in the prosperity, in the sense that not all have shared in it: “We are in danger increasingly of becoming a city of haves,” he warned. “We need affordable housing, and I’m going to commit $100 million to affordable housing as a one-year effort.”

Gray echoed Rev. Anthony in his invocation, when Anthony said, “Yes, we must support the growth of business, but we also have to make sure that business doesn’t’ give the rest of us the business.”

That call to make sure that the city could take care of, find jobs and housing for the middle class and below, take care of the needy, the sick and the homeless, dotted a good portion of Gray’s speech, when he wasn’t peppering it with sports phrases, including the words “home run” and “touchdowns,” which appeared often. He noted that this past season both the Redskins and the Nationals became winners and play-off contenders. Significantly, he said nothing about “draining threes” or “dropping the puck,” given how the Wizards and the Capitals are doing.

Gray also touted improvements in the D.C. Public School System and also noted the surge in the number of charter schools, which was perhaps not necessarily a part of the master plan of school reform. He touted the District’s huge strides in growing Early Childhood Education and the modernization and renovation of many of the District’s remaining public schools.

He touted such economic development achievements as CityCenter D.C., moving apace in the center of downtown, CityMarket at O Street and Costco/Shops at Dakota Crossing and the Skyland Shopping Center in Ward 7. He also cited what he called an ambitious economic development strategy announced last fall to create 10,00 new jobs and grow revenue by $1 billion. He noted that he proposed and signed into law the Technology Sector Enhancement Act of 2012.

Point by point, the mayor seemed confident, pleased with the present and planning the future: the economy is booming, the homicide rate is at a 50-year low, D.C. is gaining a little more than 1,000 new residents every month, school enrollment is growing and the rainy day fund is set to contain $1.5 billion, assuring safety against the pressures of the national economy and the continued fiscal battles between the administration and congress.

Listening to Gray, the investigation of the campaign, the departure of Chairman Kwame Brown and Ward 5 Councilman Harry Thomas, and a host of ethical problems in the city government seem almost a distant memory. News of prosperity can put a little spring in your walk, and that’s what appears to have been the case with a resurgent Mayor Gray.

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