Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery is a Washington Post blogger. She is also author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (Harper) and Do Me Twice: My Life After Islam (Simon and Schuster).
I was not surprised to read that D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray knew in January that associates did not properly report money spent on behalf of his successful 2010 election. Campaigns can get out of hand, with overzealous behavior from the ranks.
Reading The Post’s account this morning of Gray’s January meeting with Jeanne Clarke Harris, the public relations consultant who admitted Tuesday to helping orchestrate the “shadow campaign,” I was immediately reminded of a time when I was working for a local elected official and one of my colleagues went rogue. Thankfully, the chief of staff was forceful enough to tamp down the outsized ambition to win.
My colleague had planned a fundraiser with a questionable donor. The chief of staff told him “no,” but he went around her back to get approval from the candidate, who, of course, was too busy, distracted — and determined to win — to think it through. My colleague, who had planned the fundraiser, was verbally dressed down by the chief of staff for his actions. He got cursed out so badly, my stomach turned for him. I felt badly for him at the time, not fully understanding the potential consequences of a rogue campaigner.
This same chief of staff saw me one Saturday when I was out gathering petitions for our candidate. I was excited although the competition was nil. I greeted potential voters outside a Safeway, approached them with a smile, clipboard in hand, pen extended for them to scribble their signature. The problem was I had my twin baby brothers working with me. Who could resist the smiles of little kids, right? Wrong. I didn’t know that it was illegal to have minors working with me. The chief of staff spotted me, informed me, and I was happy to find later that the campaign collected more signatures than we needed without me pimping out my baby brothers.
That was about 10 years ago. Now, I know better. Candidates can’t know everything at all times, which makes it paramount that they surround themselves with workers whose knowledge of the law, ethics and values closely match their own. Campaign workers can get excited about winning. Overzealous even. Somebody on the inside has to have the courage and temerity to hold the line.
It doesn’t always work out that we correct internally before inappropriate — or illegal — behavior becomes an all-out embarrassment. I have seen candidates become so overzealous themselves that their staff fights them tooth-and-nail to hold the line on ethics. “We can’t do that!” the staffer screams. I have had those fights myself.
Was Gray an overzealous candidate, or did he have rogue staff venturing out further than he would have knowingly allowed? How much did Gray know, and when did he know it? I imagine the man’s head is spinning right about now. I’m guessing he knew some of what was going on. It’s quite possible to get caught up in frenzy.
Clearly, lines were skirted in the 2010 election. What’s worse is discontent with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty was so high that Gray likely would have been won without tricks and shady dealings. Gray won the race, but public trust in government and its processes was lost.
I was not surprised that Gray called for an investigation into his campaign last year – after Sulaiman Brown’s allegations raised to fever pitch rumors that had been circulating about campaign irregularities in the 2010 election. Some call it a dubious ploy by Gray. But I like Gray, and hold onto my belief that he is, at the core, a man of integrity who would like to see public trust restored.
Follow her on Twitter @Sonsyrea.