Vincent Gray discusses his mayoral run


Gray kicked off his bid for reelection Jan. 11, using his opening remarks to apologize for the “pain and embarrassment” he caused as a result of the 2010 campaign. (Michael S. Williamson/ The Washington Post)

Earlier this month, Mayor Vincent C. Gray formally launched his re-election campaign — one that seemed unthinkable 18 months ago. But polls show that public approval of his job performance have rebounded since then, and a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate is willing to look past the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.

Gray (D) sat down Monday, accompanied by his campaign manager Chuck Thies, for an hour-long, no-ground-rules interview. The following transcript has been edited for length, and some parts have been condensed and reordered for clarity.

Three other candidates — D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) — sat for a similar interviews last year.

Why run for a second term? You talked a little bit about the decision you came to, but can you talk about that process in more detail?

Well, simply put, Mike, it’s looking at what it is we said we were going to do, looking at it in terms of what we actually have done, and, frankly, looking at myself and looking at others who declared themselves as candidates, and saying I think we can do the best job and continue the city moving forward. I don’t think anybody can say we haven’t moved the city forward.

Was part of it that you surveyed the field, and you saw who was running, and you were at some level distraught, even disgusted?

No, I think it was mostly looking at what I think I could continue to offer to the city. I really think that I have something to offer, that we’ve accomplished much of what we said we were going to accomplish.

But now you’re in a position where you listen to these folks attack you and your record. What is your assessment of these candidates?

Well, I think ultimately it will be the voters’ assessment of what they think. And I think there are a lot of people who believe this city is on the right path, that it is moving forward. I think your own poll says that the city is moving forward. I happen to think so, too.

I’m glad you mentioned the poll. Your approval ratings are good. Many aspects of your leadership, people are very happy with. What we were struck by is that we’re very much in the same position we were four years ago, where residents believe the city is heading in the right direction but aren’t necessarily convinced the incumbent mayor is the person they want to lead going forward. Is that ironic to you?

I look at the fact we’re ahead, Mike, which I think is a little bit different from the case four years ago. Your polls showed me ahead of the then-incumbent at the time, and it sort of continued that way. We’re substantially ahead of the other people at this stage, so I don’t think I see the parallel there.

Fact remains, what the poll says is that you have roughly one-quarter support among registered Democrats. Three-quarters of registered Democrats are looking for another candidate.

Thies: Sorry to interrupt, but that is not correct. There are undecideds.

There are undecideds, but what the poll also says there are very few people who don’t know anything about you.

There are still people making up their minds. I see those people who are certainly there with the opportunity to vote for me. If I thought that people wouldn’t support me, and I wasn’t convinced we had the city going in the right direction, I wouldn’t run.

The one and basically only issue where we saw serious weakness was honesty and trustworthiness. What can you do to re-establish in people’s minds that you are honest and trustworthy?

I can continue to do the job that I’ve been doing, Mike. There’s nothing about the job that I have done that would lead people to that conclusion, in my opinion. I’ll continue to work on those things I said I was going to work on: fiscal stability, education, unemployment, economic development, public safety, of course, affordable housing and sustainability. I think we can show we’ve made progress on those. We’ll continue to make that information known to a public that I believe will come to the same conclusion that I have and that is, I’m the best person to lead the city.

We talked to a lot of people after the poll, and many said, “We think that Vince Gray has done a good job, city services have been up to snuff. We just don’t know with this investigation.” You have now apologized; you’ve acknowledged there were missteps and things you regret about the 2010 campaign.

Well, I apologized for my campaign; I want to make that clear.

What some of the people who participated in the poll said was, they don’t feel they’ve heard enough from you about your role in knowing about some of these things. People like Vernon Hawkins and Tom Gore who you considered friends. Are you ready to say additional things to alleviate concerns about this?

I don’t think there’s additional things for me to say. I’ve said all that I know. We turned over information that the U.S. attorney’s office requested. We’ve turned over everything that has been asked. And I actually hope that the U.S. attorney will go through those documents very quickly. I’m absolutely certain that they will find nothing and that they will announce that.

Would you go into the U.S. attorney’s office and sit down and answer whatever questions they have?

We’ve done the documents. We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us in that regard, Mike. I don’t feel the need to do anything else at this stage. Obviously I was represented by an attorney through this process, and we’ve done whatever we’ve been asked to do. The only issue that came up was this attorney-client privilege issue, which nobody’s going to forfeit their rights. Why would they do that? And I don’t think the U.S. attorney ever said we should do that. They clearly understood why the attorneys were doing this the way they did it, and ultimately, they got all of the documents that they asked for.

But in terms of you personally discussing some of these matters …

I think the information has been put on the table. Mike, you’re going to go back and forth.

Well, I just want to get …

Mike, Mike, let’s talk about the issues of this campaign.

I want to get there.

You’re not going to do an interview on 2010. There have been umpteen interviews that have been done. Let’s talk about the future of the city. I did an interview that was played on TV. I stood up at my campaign kickoff, and I apologized on behalf of my campaign. I have said all that I know how to say. There is nothing new, and I don’t see the point of you and me going around and around and spending all of our time talking about something that goes back to 2010. Let’s talk about the future of this city.

I’m excited and ready to have that conversation. That’s why I’m hoping to get through this quickly.

We can get through it very quickly. I’ve said all I had to say.

But I want to push you on two or three very specific questions about this. One of the things that has been represented is that you have been invited to go into the U.S. attorney’s office, and you have not done so. Is that true?

Mike, I have nothing further to say about this. I have said all there is to say. I have given the information that has been asked of me. The people in the government have given the information that has been asked of me. I’m not withholding any information.

We know very well about the allegations about Jeffrey Thompson. We’ve reported that there was a meeting between the two of you early in the campaign. You’ve said previously he never asked you for anything. Can you say any more about that meeting, the circumstances of that meeting, and your understanding of what he was going to do after that?

I have already addressed that. I addressed that in the media. I addressed that in an interview with Kojo Nnamdi and Tom Sherwood, so I don’t know what else to say. I have nothing more. I have nothing. I have no information further to add that I haven’t already said. There’s nothing new.

The second question is, what did you understand during the course of the campaign what Vernon Hawkins was up to? We reported that one of your official campaign aides, David Dzidzienyo, approached you and asked, “Hey, what’s going on with Vernon?”

I don’t recall having that conversation with him, and Vernon had no official role. He volunteered his services in some ways. He was not directed by me to do anything.

Final question: We have reported that people close to you have said the first that you learned about what has come to be known as the “shadow campaign” was when Jeanne Clarke Harris came to your office in January 2011. We haven’t heard you say that.

I don’t even remember when I heard about it at this stage. That seems immaterial. This is now three-plus years ago and I have tried to be as cooperative as I could. I have put information on the table. We have submitted documents. We have done what was asked of us, Mike, and now this is the umpteenth interview I’ve had on this issue, and I don’t know what else to say. What else can I say?

Our poll indicates you would have a lot of room to grow in your support if people felt that you were more forthcoming on these questions.

And I think I have been forthcoming. I think I’ve been very forthcoming. I have spoken about this issue. If there’s documents that people think exist, we have given every document that I know exist. I don’t know what’s in these e-mails. But I know what’s not in there. There’s nothing in there that would incriminate me in some kind of wrongdoing.

Thies: Mike, I’ve got to interrupt here. When you say there is room for growth if the mayor were to answer some questions, I don’t believe that to be true. The only people who are asking these questions are you and your colleagues. And you repeatedly asked those questions not because the mayor doesn’t give you answers but because you don’t like the answers he gives you, and there’s a big difference. So you keep asking and asking and asking. Maybe the best thing to do is what most people are doing, which is move on.

The people I talked to who participated in the poll, what they don’t necessarily believe is that you had people in that level of the campaign engaged in these sorts of activities and you could not have known about it.

Thies: I’m going to give one more answer here, and then I will butt out. I met the mayor here today at 3:30. I spent the eight hours prior to 3:30 today managing his campaign. Mayor Gray has no idea what I did for those eight hours. How would he know? He’s running the city. Do you really think that he has some omnipresent ability, some omniscient ability to know what people are doing when he’s not in the room? Do you really think he was standing on a loading dock, counting yard signs coming off the back of a truck, or figuring out whether a font on a T-shirt matched another font on a T-shirt? It’s absurd.

We’ll move on. The basis of your case for a second term is things are on the right track in the city. Economic development is gangbusters. Unemployment has decreased. Let me ask you to respond to a particular argument, posed by Muriel Bowser on WAMU-FM, that the economy in the city is like a train steaming down the tracks and it doesn’t really matter who the engineer is. What do you say to that?

I think you look at the facts. The facts are that this city was in trouble financially when I took over. Go back and evaluate where the fund balance was in the District of Columbia. We were teetering on the brink of falling off the edge. Our fund balance has doubled since I was in office. You look at the economic development activity. The fact of the matter is, Mike, I went to an O Street Market groundbreaking about a month and a half before this last election took place, only to find out after sitting out there for 90 minutes in the hot sun that they had no financing for that project. We came into office; we worked with Roadside, the developer, to get the financing for that project. When we came into office, we worked to get CityCenter on track. I was at the Hay-Adams Hotel for the signing of the agreement that brought $900 million from Qatar into the District of Columbia. The Skyland project? How do you account for that? Nobody did anything. I was the one who got that on track. We’re just about ready to start construction at Skyland. That happened on our watch. Anybody who suggests all of this stuff is purely happenstance either is out of touch or just simply being disingenuous.

Is your premise that if Vince Gray wasn’t mayor, that Qatar wouldn’t have been willing to invest in CityCenter?

Did you see any of this happen under the previous watch? The previous watch had more time than I did. They had four years; I’ve had three to do this. Ask the developers if they think that this is purely standing in the right place and the right time, I think people would tell you no.

What’s put at risk if you don’t get a second term, in terms of the growth and development in the city?

I would start with, “What did Gray say he was going to do?” I put fiscal stability on the table. I put education on the table. I was the one who put employment on the table. I put economic development on that table. I put affordable housing on the table. And I put some other issues on the table, too, Mike, that people had not addressed, ever. The issue of transportation of children with disabilities in this city – we are out of that court order. We had been in that for years. We’re out of the Dixon decree, which is the mental health case that had been in place for 35-plus years. I said in my very first State of the District speech, I said: We have been sending our special-needs children to private schools for years. The year before I came into office, we spent $168 million on sending those kids out to private schools. I said these children deserve a public education like everybody else. What we spent last year, Mike – and it’s not about money, it’s about building education capacity in our system – we spent a little bit less than $80 million on private placements. That’s pretty doggone significant, man. That happened on our watch. That wasn’t standing in the right place at the right time. That is intentionality. I don’t care if someone goes on the radio and says all of that. There is cause and effect here.

On education, you’ve been very happy to highlight the rising test scores. But for parents in the city, one of their biggest concerns are the issue of middle schools. It’s great if you can get into Alice Deal, otherwise you’re facing a lot of uncertainty. And so far people are not happy with what Chancellor Kaya Henderson has had to say so far about her plan for improving middle schools across the city. What’s your plan for addressing that issue?

First of all, we’re building new middle schools or renovating middle schools. We’ll building a brand new Brookland, which I think will be a nice addition because there was nothing in Ward 5. We’ve already opened one – McKinley Tech – that was established on our watch. The curriculum, I will leave that to the chancellor to discuss, but I would not lose sight of the following, Mike. That what I have tried to do even before I became the mayor and I really put the pedal to the metal is to try to create a foundation for our children through early childhood education. We have parents at this stage who say I’m going to stay in the city because of the early childhood education activities that are available to my very young children.

Then they get to this point when their kids are 10, 11, 12 years old and then they have to make another decision.

I think that’s what we’re trying to work on. We’re trying to work on having quality education from the earliest ages up until the end of high school and then into the years thereafter, and I think you’re seeing that. I understand the test scores to some people are going to be controversial. And the day will probably come when we have other barometers to measure the progress of children other than test scores. But frankl,y it is a huge barometer at this stage. We were at the top in terms of improvement in terms of both of those barometers. That sends a strong message that our schools are getting better

You’ve not taken a huge amount of criticism on the campaign trail on education. Except for Andy Shallal. One of the things he says is that we’re really overtesting our kids, that there’s too much standardized testing. Do you think that’s true to any degree?

I don’t even know what he means, to be honest with you. He was the person on Saturday who said we don’t need any more special-needs capacity. That’s the danger of the number of people we have in the field at this stage, that people feel compelled to get up there and speak on anything because they’re at these forums, because you get one minute or two minutes to be able to respond. I don’t think that I would want to answer a question, whether we have too much, too little or just enough testing. My answer to that would be: We need to be able to get to the point we fully understand how to measure how well our children are doing. Some of that is by teacher assessment. Some of it is by testing. Some of it is by how parents see their children being actively progressing. It is a combination of those things. Any school or any teacher that is focusing huge amounts of time, focusing principally, solely on teaching a kid how to take a test, I don’t think that’s appropriate for children.

Moving on to public safety, the fire department has been constant source of headlines. What’s your perception of what the issues are with the fire department?

First of all, I think Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is a good leader. And I would like to see Ellerbe fairly evaluated. I don’t know if a lot of people realize this, but Ellerbe is very close to having a Ph.D. He’s a very smart man. I think Ellerbe’s tackled some issues that have been there for a while. I look at what’s happened in terms of our children for the path for careers in the fire department. We’ve now had three cadet classes, and we’re going to keep those rolling. We have renovated several firehouses. We’ve introduced 30 new ambulances, and I think what he has properly done too is to raise the issue that increasingly we are an EMS rather than a fire department. That’s just the reality. Eighty to 85 percent of runs now are EMS rather than fire runs. We’re having to change the department, which some people like and some people don’t like. He’s taken a lot of the heat for changing things that some people don’t want changed. I think he needs to be given a chance, because I think he has the leadership qualities, and he has the ideas to be able to run that department.

You said “if he is evaluated fairly.” You’re getting an undercurrent that he has been treated unfairly. What do you think is behind that?

I think those who are critical of him, they should put on the table whatever their issues are. I’d be happy to hear them. I’m sure Chief Ellerbe would be happy to hear them. We have tried to be an administration that listens to people. We’ve made changes based on what people have said they think should be done differently in the way it is being done. If people have got a better idea, we’re not, you know, inalterably opposed to changing something, simply because it was not our idea. I’ve done that in many instances.

Four years ago, you got the endorsement from the police union and firefighters union. Do you expect to ask for their endorsement again?

I expect to ask for everybody’s endorsement. I think if you look at the fire department, the fire department is going in the right direction. I think that our police department – we now have 4,000 police officers. I think Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who I was proud to retain, has done an excellent job. We have tried to give raises. There were no raises that were given in either of those departments prior to that. The negotiation process continues; we’re in arbitration with both of them. I’ve said to officers at MPD, I’ve said to firefighters, I’ve said to EMTs: We want to give you a raise, so I hope we can get this arbitration process done so we can move on with giving you the raise that I have said for months that you deserve.

But can you reasonably expect to get endorsements considering the tenor of those relationships now?

I have no idea, Mike. I think this would be a fair process, and if they step back from it, they will have to agree that both of those departments are moving in the right direction. So I think it would be irresponsible of me not to ask them to support my campaign, because I believe it is worthy of support.

Let me ask you about an issue that is partly a public safety issue but it’s also a social issue: what to do about the marijuana laws in the city.

Well, again, it is a complicated issue. I want to hear from people. I have indicated that decriminalization is something that I support. What should be the fine, whether it’s $25 or $100, I don’t know, and I obviously will have to make a decision on that based on what the council reports out. There are some people who believe that $25 is so minimal that you might as well not have any penalties associated with it.

Who in your circle of advisers in your cabinet do you listen to on this issue? Chief Lanier? Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander? The attorney general? And what are they telling you on this issue?

All of those. We haven’t had a comprehensive meeting with all of us. I know the chief has views, and I want to hear those views. I want to hear from the attorney general, in terms of what extent he thinks, what is the right bar in terms of being a sufficient deterrent for people not to just indiscriminately engage in behavior. Obviously, I want to listen to Deputy Mayor Quander. He used to work in the U.S. attorney’s office, so he’s seen lots of folks who have been subjected to this. And as you well know, Mike, I think there’s a lot of evidence that a lot of those who are now in jails represent a certain demographic and we need to do something about that, and I happen to agree with that. I also was one of those who supported the medical marijuana referendum. That was sat on by the Congress for 10 years. One of the fears I had is once we pass a bill, if someone on the Hill doesn’t like it, does that mean our law gets pocketed by somebody, and we can’t move forward? Unfortunately there’s evidence of that.

But you have been very aggressive with the Hill on these issues. On the shutdown, you said, damn the torpedoes. Why not do that on marijuana?

Well, it depends on what that means. I didn’t break the law when we had the shutdown. We submitted a plan that said, you’ve asked me who’s essential and what functions are essential, and I said here’s my plan: All functions and all employees are essential. So it wasn’t confrontation in an illegal fashion. It was confrontation in an advocacy way to say, we deserve to be treated like first-class citizens like everybody else in America, and it’s time for this to end.

If the people give, as our poll indicates, overwhelming support to a ballot initiative for legalization for marijuana, will you be on the front lines fighting to make sure that it doesn’t get overturned by Congress?

I’m going to fight for the people of this city. When we get to that stage, I’ll speak out on what my opinions are on that. And whatever, at the end of the day, is the will of the people of this city, I’m going to work to make sure that’s supported.

What’s been your biggest disappointment of the last three years? What have you not been able to get done that you wanted to get done?

You know what? I don’t have a lot of disappointment. I really don’t. I feel like I started out with what I think was an ambitious agenda. And I’ll put our record up against anybody at this stage. So I wouldn’t want to talk in terms of disappointments. I would talk in terms of the challenges we continue to have before us. The challenge to continue to improve education. You talked about middle schools; of course we want to do more there. We want to continue to build schools. I’m anxious to see the opening of Ballou High School. I’m anxious to see more economic development plans having been completely translated in reality. For example, who in the world would have ever thought Microsoft would have made a commitment to be in Ward 8 of the District of Columbia? If I said that’s what was going to happen three years ago during the campaign, people would have said, ‘You’re going to vote for that guy?’ It’s not so much having disappointments, it’s more of the challenges we have before us. I think we’ve shown people some things that can happen that they didn’t think could happen. This city is moving along with intentionality. Have you ever seen a five-year economic development plan in the history of the city?

In the history of the Soviet Union, yes. In the history of this city, no.

In this city there never was one. That’s why those folks who would say this would have happened no matter what, I’ve got a stack of documents like this. I’ve got the plan on affordable housing. I’ve got the Sustainable D.C. plan. I’ve got the five-year economic plan. All of those are a framework for guiding the development of this city, and any candidate who wants to talk about that, I’ll be happy to talk about that. Let them put on the table what their plan is, because I have yet to hear it.

Is there one new proposal, one new idea you expect to focus on in this new term, something to move the ball forward above and beyond what you’ve talked about the last three years?

I want to put on the table what an affordable city is. What are the ingredients of an affordable city, and how do we make this city affordable? There are other cities that are growing, and there are people who have a great deal of difficulty being able to live there. I’m actually working with a think tank now, to put through some of the thinking about what those ingredients are, what those ideas are. We know that the federal government having cut food stamps for people has a deleterious effect on people being able to sustain themselves where the cost of living is going up. Having affordable early childhood education – that is a huge factor, especially for people who may be economically challenged. It will keep them in the city, and they will be able to go get a job, something they otherwise might not have been able to do because of this. I didn’t support the Large Retailer Accountability Act, as you know, but I heartily supported an increase in the minimum wage. Why? Because that is opening the door to everybody being able to earn more money rather than just a sliver. Being able to bring more retail to the District of Columbia – that’s creating jobs. So being able to define what an affordable city is and being able to say to people this is the framework we need to be pursuing, and this is what we have to do to keep people here in the city.

Do you think the city can continue growing at same pace – 1,000 a month or more? Or is that an expectation that will be hard to maintain?

I think we’ll continue to be in demand. The issue for us is the current supply of housing. The demand won’t change. But how do we keep it affordable for those who have made the investment over all these years? The seniors who want to continue to live here, the people who may be of modest incomes who want to continue to live here. We should be making huge investments in as much as we can in keeping housing affordable, because otherwise we won’t be able to be the kind of diverse population we want to be.

Going into a possible second term, do you have any sense right now about your team, who is going to stay on and who isn’t? In particular Chief Lanier and Kaya Henderson, both of whom are popular. Have you talked to them about what their commitment is to a second term?

We haven’t gotten into details, but I hope they both would want to stay. I enjoy working with both; I think they are very high achievers. I meet with the chancellor every week, and the deputy mayor for education, and I feel certain that the chancellor would like to continue. I don’t have any reservations about asking her to continue.

Chief Lanier?

If she wants to stay, I like the chief; I think she’s done a great job. Somebody wanted to corner me on that and say, “Well, you didn’t say you really wanted her to stay.” I would love it if Chief Lanier wants to stay. I want to continue to work with Chief Lanier.

If you are re-elected, do you expect a lot of turnover in your team? Have you found it hard, especially the last couple of years to get the caliber of personnel you want, considering the clouds with investigation?

No, I haven’t. Look at our director of health, Joxel Garcia. This is the man who at one time was the top health officer in the nation. He was commissioner of health for Connecticut. So no, we have not. I have not talked to anybody about leaving or staying. I’ve not gotten into that kind of detail. But I will tell you this, Mike: Some of the people who were most vocal about me running for a second term were the people who worked with me every day.

The day you went to the Board of Elections to pick up ballot petitions, I had a conversation with Chuck Thies. He said basically this is an opportunity for you to clear the slate and prove to everybody who ever doubted Vince Gray or had doubts about whatever past campaign, that this is an opportunity to start from scratch. Is this an opportunity for vindication?

I don’t see it as vindication. I see it as an opportunity to do a job that I think that I and we have done very well. It’s a job I love. I was born and raised in the city. I love this city. I believe that a lot of where we are today is because of what we’ve done with intentionality on our watch, and I just simply want to continue doing things that will make life better for the people in this city.

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 · January 23