D.C. Mayor Gray seeks to shift public focus away from stumbles to ‘new economy’

February 7, 2012

With a tumultuous first year in office under his belt, Mayor Vincent C. Gray delivered a State of the District address Tuesday that sought to shift the public’s focus from last year’s stumbles to an agenda that includes creating a “new economy,” preparing residents for jobs and stabilizing the city’s budget.

Gray’s 19-page speech carried his oft-mentioned theme of a tale of two cities as he pushed his “One City” theme, the campaign slogan that he has tried to turn into policy. He defined “One City” as all residents living in safe neighborhoods and having access to quality public education, among other city services.

The mayor told a standing-room crowd at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue that “One City” will be achieved with an economy that is “less reliant on the federal government and less dependent on real estate development.”

Health care, the hospitality industry and the tech sector will be the new focus, he said. At the same time, Gray (D) said he would continue to push a “cradle to career initiative” that will better prepare residents to join the workforce. That initiative begins with pre-K classes and extends to job training.

“The fundamental question we face as a city at this moment is whether we will seize our future,” Gray said. “Will we settle for a city where some are increasingly well-off while a large number live nearby in enduring poverty and without opportunity?”

After Gray’s speech, an ambulance was called for D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) after he appeared ill. But the call was soon canceled, said D.C. fire/EMS spokesman Lon Walls.

Barry, a diabetic, took medicine to control his insulin level, and he was eating at a restaurant late Tuesday, said Joyce Clements-Smith, his chief of staff.

In his speech, Gray announced few new initiatives, but he drew applause when he announced the future launch of grade.dc.gov, a Web site that will allow residents to rate city services and customer service. And he received a standing ovation when he said the city should be able to conduct business without congressional interference.

“Yes, we should become a state before the moon does,” he said.

Unlike the speech he delivered in March, Gray acknowledged controversies that have saddled his administration. Last year’s speech was fresh on the heels of concerns about questionable hiring and salaries and allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he was paid and landed a city job in return for disparaging then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in the 2010 primary, on Gray’s behalf. The mayor has denied the accusations, which are the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Gray said Tuesday night that he has instituted new hiring policies and has developed an ethics manual. He also noted the city’s suspension Monday of nearly 90 employees for receiving unemployment benefits while they were working in their city jobs.

He added that action would be taken against 40 former employees who were also receiving benefits in an alleged scheme that has cost the city an estimated $800,000 since 2009. All the current and former employees could face prosecution.

“This is a start at earning back people’s trust, and I will work every day to continue to achieve that,” Gray said.

The mayor also said his administration is restoring confidence in the city’s finances, recently boasting a $240 million surplus. The Fenty administration was criticized for depleting the city’s “rainy-day fund,” but Gray said the fund is now at $1.5 billion under his leadership.

In a veiled reference to a tussle with council members, including Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D), over how to spend the surplus, Gray warned that the city must remain cautious.

“Now, there isn’t a mayor or governor in the country who wouldn’t trade their financial picture for ours in a heartbeat, but we are not there yet,” Gray said. “If things improve, let us all be pleasantly surprised, but I won’t go back to the dark days of spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year from our rainy-day fund.”

Following his promise to be more engaged with the public than Fenty, Gray will hold his “One City Summit” on Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The $600,000 event is expected to draw 1,000 people interested in helping to set the mayor’s agenda and to guide the budget.

Gray did not acknowledge open contentiousness from firefighters who staged a mass walkout at Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe’s “state of the department” speech last month to protest a proposal to change from 24-hour to 12-hour work shifts.

Dozens of firefighters packed the chambers Tuesday and did not applaud during Gray’s speech.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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