D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray: at work while under siege

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray summoned his senior advisers to a conference room adjoining his office at city hall. During the previous 24 hours, another close associate had pleaded guilty and the U.S. attorney had described Gray’s 2010 campaign as corrupt.

Now, as Gray (D) addressed his team, his aides noticed that his face seemed drawn, his eyes tired. At one point, as he spoke, the mayor paused and held up his hand. Was he choking up?

Gray told his staff that he had done nothing illegal. “I wouldn’t risk that to get elected,” he said, according to three aides who were at the meeting. The District was his home, Gray told them, the place where he launched a political career. He would not quit. He would finish his term, he said, and “leave the office better than we found it.”

Even as Gray was exhorting staff members to stay focused on their work, three D.C. Council members were preparing to call for his resignation. Gray went off to a groundbreaking in Northeast Washington and then he swore in members of the Commission on Human Rights. At 10 p.m., he played in his weekly softball game, under the lights at a field off South Capitol Street. His team won 23-2, and afterward, he happily posed for photographs with the opposing team.

Across the weeks and months that scandal has shadowed his administration, the mayor has sought to project the image of a man focused squarely on his job. He’s always had a reputation for working long hours and obsessing over the minutiae of governance.

There have been near-daily mayoral appearances across the city, and his office has sent out a steady stream of news releases. “Mayor Gray Signs Landmark Bullying Prevention Act,” one release proclaimed. “Mayor Vincent C. Gray Focusing Resources on Economic Development,” another announced.

“I came here to do my job, and I will continue to do my job,” Gray told reporters Thursday night, repeating some version of that declaration no fewer than three times.

Persistent questions

Yet, in recent days, as investigators disclosed new details about an illegal “shadow campaign,” Gray’s footing appeared to grow more tenuous by the hour. His political future — whether he should resign, whether he would be charged with a felony — became an ever-present part of the city’s chatter.

Do you awake every morning afraid that you will be “pulled away in handcuffs”? a television reporter asked Thursday.

“I’m not afraid of being pulled away in handcuffs,” the mayor replied.

On Thursday, he traveled to Children’s National Medical Center to announce the launch of an enhanced 911 system. That night, he accepted an award from the National Forum for Black Public Administrators. On Friday, he sat for an hour-long live interview on NewsChannel 8, during which he lashed out at the council members who asked for his resignation.

“I would have even appreciated something other than just a phone call,” Gray said, expressing disappointment over receiving a voice-mail message from Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) saying that she planned to ask him to step down.

Gray said that he wished he could speak more freely about his role in the 2010 campaign but that his attorney, Robert S. Bennett, advised against it. “My makeup, my propensity really is to talk, and talk as extensively as I can about issues,” he said, “so this is not really consistent with who I am.”

Then the mayor went off to the Southeast neighborhood of Congress Heights to ask more than a dozen fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to “practice civic responsibility” and refrain from selling drug paraphernalia, including rolling paper and water pipes.

“Can I come in and speak to you for a minute?” he asked the merchants, who suddenly found their shops crowded with mayoral aides, police officers, community leaders and journalists.

If Gray’s goal was to focus public attention on what he considers an important issue, that didn’t keep reporters from asking about the federal investigation and whether he could perform his duties.

“The cameras seem to be following you everywhere. Is this a distraction?” a Fox News reporter asked as Gray arrived.

“I’m doing my job,” the mayor replied.

Another reporter asked about the challenges of staying “hands-on” in a political campaign, at which point the mayor said, “Let’s stay on this issue, okay?” and, “I want to stay focused.”

“It annoys me,” he added before walking away, an apparent reference to the persistent questions.

The walking tour was organized by community activist Philip Pannell, who told the crowd at the start “it’s not every day” that the mayor of a large city will look shop owners “in the eye and say ‘Stop it!’ ”

“Thank God, and thank you, Mr. Mayor, for this day,” Pannell said as Gray smiled.

Pannell has known Gray for more than a decade, and he volunteered for Gray’s 2010 campaign. Yet the past few weeks have been wrenching for Pannell, as they have been for many other Gray supporters.

Pannell said in an interview that he has been ruminating on the mayor’s troubles and pondering whether the stain of the federal investigation has made it too difficult for Gray to lead the city.

Pannell described himself as being “devastated” by the prospect that a man he had believed possessed “unimpeachable ethics” might have committed wrong.

He said he has found himself wondering whether the mayor is telling the truth when he says he was unaware that his campaign staff was engaging in illegal acts. Gray, after all, is known for his command of details, and he is the kind of executive who stays up late reading documents and staff memos.

“It reminds me of the parents who see their kids come in the house — no jobs, yet they got on expensive clothes, sneakers and bling, and the parents choose to ignore it,” Pannell said. “For any candidate to have all those resources, and you say you didn’t notice. It’s unfathomable.”

Doubts and regrets

Paul Savage, a onetime Gray supporter who lives in the mayor’s neighborhood in Ward 7, said he is worried that the investigation undermines the administration’s effectiveness. “There’s no way you can be mayor without all these distractions keeping you from doing the work,” Savage said. “He has lost the moral authority to govern. He has lost the confidence of a lot of people.”

Across town, Herb Miller, a developer who was Gray’s fraternity brother at George Washington University, recalled Gray telling him before the 2010 campaign that the administration of then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was rife with cronyism and that he wanted to “clean up the city.” Miller supported him.

“When I hear all this stuff now,” Miller said, “I think, ‘How could he do anything dishonest when he ran because of dishonesty?’ I want to know, what is the story here? I don’t understand.”

The revelations of corruption have stirred regrets among supporters who abandoned Fenty to work for Gray because they thought his administration would be free of scandal.

“I feel I made a huge mistake,” said a former Gray supporter, a man who has worked in politics and government for 40 years. He had worked to persuade friends to join him in leaving Fenty for Gray.

“It’s like staying one dance too long,” he said. “I should have stayed out of the campaign.”

Staff pep talk

Inside the city’s John A. Wilson Building, Gray’s aides fretted over their boss’s future and the possible implications for their careers. At one point, Christopher Murphy, the mayor’s chief of staff, gathered the community outreach team to assure them that Gray wouldn’t resign.

“Don’t worry,” he told them.

Murphy and Stephen Glaude, who heads the Office of Community Affairs, advised the employees what to tell residents who ask them about the scandal. Glaude said that among the talking points he suggested are: “The mayor called for the investigation” and “The mayor is not going anywhere.”

Gray repeated that message during his meeting with senior advisers, sitting at the head of the conference table and telling them, “I would have never done anything illegal.”

Then he looked around the table and praised them, one by one, for their work. He complimented a deputy mayor for presiding over $2 billion in economic development projects and another for the drop in the city’s HIV/AIDS rate.

“I could take hours and talk about what each one of you do,” Gray said. “I have never worked with a more talented group of people.”

Gray talked of running for mayor to unite the city, and he said he was offended by those who ridicule his campaign slogan, “One City.”

“It hurts me,” he said, “because I believe in it.”

His chief of staff told the mayor that he admired his resilience, especially under the circumstances. Then one of his deputy mayors, Beatriz “B.B.” Otero, said she wanted to speak to him not as an adviser, but as a friend.

Maybe, Otero said — a touch of levity in her voice because she knows her boss’s work habits — it was time for the mayor to take a break. A vacation. She said he could use one.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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