A late-starting Vincent Gray campaign would carry risks

November 11, 2013

Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Friday blew right through one potential deadline for announcing a reelection bid — the start of the eight-week period for gathering ballot petition signatures. But he sought to made it clear that he sees no rush to declare, and, on two occasions over the weekend, used the same anecdote to justify his public nonchalance.

In a Friday afternoon interview with The Washington Post and in a televised interview Saturday morning with impresario Rock Newman, Gray relayed a tidbit of D.C. political history.

The story, which Gray said he’d recently heard from Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, goes like this: In July 1996, amid the Control Board era, David A. Clarke made the late decision that he wanted, for various reasons, to ditch his thankless job as council chairman mid-term to run instead for an at-large seat. Two days before the submission deadline, Clarke picked up petitions and proceeded to gather and turn in a vast surfeit of signatures — “four or five times as many” in Gray’s telling, about double in reality — thus qualifying for the primary ballot.

Clarke, the most popular white politician in post-home-rule D.C.,  ended up dropping his at-large run a few days later and remaining as chairman until his death from cancer the following March.

“I simply make the point that I don’t think that it matters when you pick [petitions] up as long as you get them in by the due date,” Gray told Newman. He had previously said he believes he could gather the 2,000 necessary signatures in “a few days.”

But a closer reading of the facts of the case indicate that Gray may have chosen the wrong anecdote to illustrate the ease of gathering petition signatures on short notice. Left unmentioned was that a hefty portion of Clarke’s signatures were in danger of being challenged and tossed by elections officials.

Clarke said at the time that he ultimately decided not to seek the at-large seat because he wanted to spare the city the $300,000 expense of holding a special election to pick a new chairman. But then-Ward 6 council member Harold Brazil, who was also seeking (and would eventually win) the at-large seat as a Democrat, instead publicly suggested that the signatures Clarke had gathered were faulty and that he would not survive a challenge. They had been gathered, in large part, by homeless people living at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter downtown, and Brazil said that many signatures had been forged, and that some of the circulators were not in fact registered D.C. voters, as was required until recently.

In other words, the lesson of Dave Clarke’s 1996 at-large petition drive is not how easy it can be to gather a large amount of signatures, but rather the pitfalls of launching a campaign on a shoestring at the last minute. That should apply doubly to Gray, whose last campaign has been described as “corrupted” and “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.”

Gray is still many weeks from finding himself in the same crunch Clarke did. But with every passing day, the sense of urgency increases, and that carries a risk that Gray — who will be under tremendous pressure to run a spotless campaign — can hardly afford.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | November 11, 2013