Gray's 'intentionality' offsets slow start as mayor

For all those critics who say he's too deliberative and collaborative to get anything done, District Mayor Vince Gray has a one-word rebuttal: "intentionality."

He uses it to describe how he tells his new cabinet officers and other top deputies what he wants them to do: Make sure kids in the summer jobs program work a full day before they get paid. "Focus like a laser" on high-profile development projects that will revive neighborhoods. Rely on spending cuts more than tax increases to balance the budget.

Intentionality means "by design," Gray (D) said. "I've indicated to people these are objectives. When I say intentionality, I want to do these things, and your job is to make sure they happen."

Gray's comments, in a 40-minute telephone interview Friday, allayed some of my concerns about his transition and debut since taking office Jan. 2. Like some others, I thought he was off to a slow start. He doesn't yet have a permanent schools chancellor, and he hasn't appointed a deputy mayor for economic development. I thought his inaugural speech relied too much on the abstract "One City" theme from his campaign. Where were specifics to provide substance for his idealistic vision?

I felt better after talking to him. Important tests are still in the future, especially regarding the budget, schools and dealing with Congress. Still, Gray struck me as someone who moves deliberately, yes, but has a clear sense of where he's going and how he wants to get there.

For starters, Gray said there was no need to worry that Kaya Henderson is only the interim schools chancellor, because he's already put in place the city's other two top education officials, Deputy Mayor for Education De'Shawn Wright and State Superintendent of Education Hosanna Mahaley.

More important, sources familiar with Gray's thinking said he intends to nominate Henderson for the permanent job. The delay in doing so partly reflects a strategy of giving Henderson time to show the city that she has an inclusive, collaborative style distinct from that of her former boss, the often abrasive former chancellor Michelle Rhee.

"This is not so much not moving quickly, it's frankly about moving strategically . . . to establish that Kaya Henderson is not a clone of Michelle Rhee," a source said. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because Gray is honoring a 2007 law requiring consultations with teachers, union representatives, parents and students before nominating a schools chancellor.

Gray said he expects to announce his deputy mayor for economic development this week. He said it has taken a while partly because it was critical to have someone with "the respect of the development community." He also wanted someone who shared his strategy of creating individual entities - similar to the Anacostia Waterfront Corp. - for projects such as the ones at the Walter Reed and former St. Elizabeths hospital sites. He hopes that they'll generate commercial and housing development that will create jobs for District residents, as he promised in the campaign.

Along the same lines, Gray said he's told Rochelle Webb, his pick to overhaul the city's Department of Employment Services, that she's to create "a pipeline through DOES that makes sure we're training people for those jobs - green jobs, financial services, health services construction - that we know are growing in the city, and doing that with intentionality."

Webb also is supposed to fix the long-troubled summer jobs program so youths "get paid to work, and they don't get paid if they don't work," Gray said.

Gray was fuzzy about how he wants to close the deficit of more than $400 million in the budget he must propose this spring. He'd only say he expects spending cuts to account for more than half of what's required. He wouldn't even say flat-out that he thinks taxes need to rise - but he made pretty clear that's what he anticipates.

"People are beginning to realize that if you do it all through cuts, it's going to have horrific consequences on services in the city," Gray said.

In the interview, Gray sounded testy only once, when I told him that some D.C. Council members and community activists expressed concern that some of his appointments were part of the "old guard" from when Marion Barry (D), now the Ward 8 council member, was mayor. One is Mohammad Akhter, the new city health director.

Akhter is "an outstanding professional," Gray said. "I think it's really unfair to label someone who worked at a particular point in time as symbolic of anything."

Gray just laughed when I asked him if he were having trouble adjusting to being an executive. A rap on him has been that he was ideally suited to chair the council, as he did for four years before being elected mayor, but he is too much of a consensus-builder to be effective as the man in charge.

"What's hilarious about that is that is what I spent my life doing," Gray said, referring to pre-council jobs running nonprofit groups and the Department of Human Services. "Those were all executive positions."

We'll see if the "intentionality" he learned in those jobs can combine with the team-building skills he honed on the council to make the next four years a success.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section.
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