A former mayoral candidate said Mayor Vincent C. Gray urged him to drop out of the 2010 race and told him to speak with an associate who has admitted to participating in an illegal scheme to help get Gray elected.
Leo Alexander, the mayoral candidate, said he met with the associate, Jeanne Clarke Harris, in her apartment in August 2010, about a month before the District’s crucial Democratic primary. Alexander recalled that the meeting was brief and that when Harris asked about his finances, he told her that he had $40,000 in personal debt.
“I was bled dry,” Alexander said in an interview Friday. “That’s why you don’t see me running for a damn thing since.”
He said he also met with Gray about two weeks later at a home in Prince George’s County to have another conversation about leaving the race.
On Friday, the mayor acknowledged talking with Alexander about the race, including the meeting at the Mitchellville home, but denied that he told Alexander to speak with Harris.
“I talked to Leo Alexander a lot during the campaign. . . . I don’t know what I said, but the essence of it was, ‘I think I can win this campaign. I don’t think you can. And have you thought about getting out?’ That was the end of it,” Gray said.
Alexander said he did not ask for, nor was he offered, money to drop out of the race. But his recollection of separate meetings with Gray and Harris highlights last-minute efforts to give the mayor an edge in the contentious race against then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Alexander’s allegations also point to a potential new intersection between Gray and the “shadow campaign” Harris has admitted she helped organize.
Harris pleaded guilty in U,S, District Court last year to her role in a large-scale scheme to evade legal limits on political contributions and spending. She admitted that she participated in a $653,000 clandestine effort that ran parallel to the official Gray campaign. The funding, according to court records, came from a co-conspirator whom officials familiar with the investigation have identified as businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.
The $653,000 was deposited into the bank account of a company owned by Harris, according to the filings. Harris then disbursed the funds to pay for consultants as well as campaign materials and equipment used by the shadow campaign.
Thompson has not been charged, and his attorneys have declined to comment since federal agents raided homes and offices belonging to Thompson and Harris on the same day last year.
Harris referred questions to her attorney, Mark H. Tuohey III, who declined to comment.
When charges were filed against Harris last year, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. described the 2010 mayoral election as one “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.” A federal investigation into the campaign has also led to pleas from Gray campaign consultant Howard L. Brooks and assistant campaign treasurer Thomas W. Gore.
Brooks and Gore have admitted their roles in secret payments to another mayoral candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to disparage Fenty on the campaign trail in 2010. Gray has denied any wrongdoing, but his administration has been dogged by the federal probe since March 2011, when The Washington Post reported Brown’s allegations of payments and the promise of a job for his attacks on Fenty.
After Harris pleaded guilty in July, Gray said he had “known Jeanne for a very long time” and felt “very badly about all this.”
In January 2012 — before her role in the shadow campaign was revealed — Gray issued a ceremonial proclamation commemorating Harris’s 75th birthday. Gray and Harris also met that month in his mayoral office and discussed unreported campaign expenses that three people have told The Post are part of the shadow campaign.
Gray has not detailed any role Harris had in the official campaign. The campaign issued a $20,000 check to her public relations company, Details International, on Aug. 26, 2010, but it was voided and returned the day before the primary, according to finance records.
A former TV reporter, Alexander was one of the first candidates to announce he would challenge Fenty, launching his campaign in September 2009. His message was tuned to appeal to longtime African American residents — a group that would provide the foundation of Gray’s victory — with calls for greater spending on government social programs, a crackdown on illegal immigration and rebuilding D.C. General Hospital.
In Alexander’s telling, he first spoke with Gray about leaving the race in an August 2010 phone call. In that exchange, he said, Gray told him to speak with Harris.
Alexander said he did not know what authority Harris had; Gray “didn’t identify her with a title.”
“He said, ‘You should talk to Jeannie. Give her a call,’ ” Alexander said.
Alexander said he met Harris at her apartment after a campaign forum at Howard University Law School held by the Muslim Democratic Caucus of D.C. He did not know at that time of her role on the shadow campaign. “We had a very short conversation because I found her to be very rude,” he recalled. “She asked me if cigarette smoke bothered me. I said, ‘Yes.’ She lit up anyway.”
The meeting, he said, lasted at most 10 minutes, during which he explained that he was in significant debt. He recalled telling her that he owed $40,000.
Campaign finance records show that Alexander gave his campaign 159 separate contributions, totaling nearly $19,000 from August 2009 through September 2010 — more than half of his total donations.
Alexander said he left Harris’s apartment because he felt that only Gray personally could persuade him to leave the race, not a campaign “minion.”
While Alexander’s campaign lagged behind Gray’s in fundraising and never got much citywide traction, some political observers thought the Brightwood resident could be a spoiler in a closely fought race between Fenty and Gray.
Gray, 70, described viewing Alexander as a factor in the race. “Whatever thoughts I had on it was about just maximizing opportunities,” he said. “I think that goes on in campaigns all the time — don’t you?”
The Mitchellville meeting, both men agreed, happened late in the primary campaign. Alexander said that he was greeted at the home’s door by Mark H. Long, Harris’s godson. Long was Gray’s driver during the campaign. The Post has confirmed with several people with knowledge of the federal investigation that Long was paid through Harris’s business.
Alexander said Long, who did not return messages for comment, left the house after letting him in. “It was just Gray and I in the house chewing the fat,” he said. “He said he was going to win, but it would be nice to have my endorsement.”
“He thought it would be beneficial,” Alexander added.
Neither Alexander nor Gray said they knew who owned the home where they met.
Gray picked the location, Alexander said.
“It was suggested by somebody else,” Gray said. “I think it was somebody that he knew. I don’t know whose home it was.”
Alexander declined to drop out, and any fears he might play spoiler ended up unfounded: In the Sept. 14, 2010, Democratic primary, Gray handily defeated Fenty, 54 to 44 percent. Alexander got 908 votes, less than 1 percent.