Is Vincent Gray dog-whistling to black voters?

As D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray gets ready to defend his job in the April 1 Democratic primary, PostTV looks at the highlights and low moments of his administration. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)

A top aide to Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Thursday pushed back on the suggestion that mayor made subtle but divisive appeals to African American voters in his State of the District address Tuesday.

A Washington Post editorial published Thursday took Gray to task for making “not-so-subtle references to race” in his address, thus “insult[ing] every voter.”

Those mentions came in the course of responding to the new allegations, leveled by prosecutors in federal court Monday, that he knew of an illegal “shadow campaign” waged on him behalf in 2010 by businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson. They included the following:

• “To some in our city, I’m just another corrupt politician from the other side of town,” said Gray, who lives in Ward 7, not far from where he gave the speech.

• He also said that Thompson “sought to subvert the election of President Barack Obama,” referring to Thompson’s partially secret, illegal support for Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

The suggestion that Gray was playing to his political base of black voters incensed members of his administration (which includes three white men — Chief of Staff Chris Murphy, Communications Director Pedro Ribeiro and communications staffer Rob Marus — who had a role in writing the speech). Gray, throughout his citywide political career, has long portrayed himself as a unifier, aiming to create “One City” even while the bulk of his votes came from black neighborhoods.

“It’s the exact opposite of a dog whistle,” Ribeiro said Thursday, referring to subtle signals meant to be interpreted by only one segment of the speech’s audience.

He pointed to the portion of the text following the “other side of town” line: “I ask them to look beyond their preconceived notions, and instead to look at my record, both as Mayor and especially as a human being. … I’m not some caricature drawn up by an eager press corps; I’m a person. A person with a history and a track record. A person who has diligently worked to make this city a better place for all its residents, white and black, Asian and Latino, gay and straight, rich and poor, and the haves and have-nots.”

“I don’t know how anyone can look at that as racial or a dog whistle,” Ribeiro said.

Gray’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies, said the Post’s news and editorial pages have been “obsessed with race” and “it comes as no surprise” that the editorial would “see race cards where none exist.” He added: “As campaign manager, I’m not making decisions based on race.”

With Gray needing to rally a base that, polls show, has significantly contracted over the past four years, there’s a fine line between dog-whistling and smart campaigning. Other recent data points in support of charges of racial politicking: A recent campaign video titled “One of Our Own“; the Ward 7 location of the speech; and his choices of campaign forums.

But if Gray is engaging in tribal politics, he’s certainly doing it more subtly than the master of the trade, Marion Barry, who Post columnist William Raspberry once called a “master of us-against-them politics.” Barry, after his 1990 drug arrest and through his 1994 restoration to the mayoralty, was not shy about sending signals to his African American base — embracing the support of Louis Farrakhan and other controversial activists during his 1990 trial and later depicting himself as the victim of overzealous federal prosecutors.

So far, Gray has only gently criticized the feds, mainly commenting on the slowness of the probe and the timing of the Thompson plea. Even if he were inclined to take aim at prosecutors, he might not get very far in racial terms: While Barry was investigated by white prosecutors, Gray’s tormentor, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., is black — as is Machen’s boss, Attorney General Eric H. Holder, and his boss’s boss, President Obama.

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 · March 13