D.C.’s Mayor Vincent Gray, an incumbent playing catch-up

Just about 24 hours after declaring his reelection bid, Mayor Vincent C. Gray traveled to a community meeting in the District’s poorest ward, ready to recite a list of accomplishments to a room filled with neighborhood leaders and residents.

The mayor greeted his newly hired, sleep-deprived campaign manager, now working without a salary because Gray has raised no money. A few feet away, Gray’s deputy chief of staff, Sheila Bunn, worked on her own time, collecting signatures for a petition the mayor needs to fill with 2,000 names to qualify for the ballot.

When she asked a graying man with a mustache, he declined, a response that caused Bunn to playfully reproach him. “Shame!” she said, before turning to her left to ask Phillip Houghton, who also refused.

“What has he done?” Houghton, 39, a Southeast Washington resident, said later. “I don’t feel like things are improving.”

As a mayor seeking reelection, Gray has an array of advantages over his opponents, not the least of which is command of the city’s political stage, which assures him that microphones and cameras will follow his every move.

The candidates

See the Democrats who have picked up nominating petitions for the District's April 1 primary and find candidate profiles and video coverage of the race.

Yet, because of a federal investigation into Gray’s successful 2010 campaign — a probe that has cast a shadow over his nearly three years as mayor — he is returning to the stump devoid of an incumbent’s usual muscular political machine.

Since Gray’s announcement on Monday that he will seek a second term, his newly formed campaign team is a work-in-progress, scrambling to catch up with opponents who for months have been honing their messages, raising money, opening headquarters, signing up volunteers, distributing lawn signs and collecting signatures.

At the same time, Gray’s former colleagues on the D.C. Council, including five who are eying his job, are sniping at him. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. is showing no sign of backing off his investigation after obtaining indictments against four of the mayor’s former campaign associates.

And voters who embraced Gray four years ago are considering their options.

Instead of traveling the city with an incumbent’s sunny confidence, the mayor often finds himself responding to questions about how he got elected.

“I know what I want to do,” Gray told a well-wisher, smiling at one point this week as he answered how he was feeling about his decision to run after months of deliberation. At another point, though, he seemed strained, raising his voice to castigate reporters who were questioning his achievements and asking about the investigation.

When a reporter asked whether he was feeling undue tension, the mayor burst into laughter before offering his own version of what he believes voters care about as they ruminate on their choices in 2014:

“What have you accomplished, Gray?”

Already bruising

The mayor’s entrance into the race raises to 11 the number of Democratic candidates seeking the party’s nomination in the April 1 primary. The field includes four council members: Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Vincent B. Orange (At Large).

Andy Shallal, the owner of the Busboys and Poets restaurant chain, and Reta Jo Lewis, a former Clinton administration official, also have declared their candidacies.

The Democratic nominee could face potential opposition in the general election from council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who has formed an exploratory committee. Catania long ago called on Gray to resign.

The campaign is already bruising. Wells and Bowser have harped on questions surrounding what federal prosecutors have described as an illegal “shadow campaign” that helped propel Gray to victory in 2010. A former city contractor has been implicated in the alleged funneling of hundreds of thousands of dollars into the shadow campaign, none of which was reported.

The mayor’s future has been the subject of speculation for more than two years. Even many of his supporters have questioned whether the investigation has been too damaging for him to seek reelection. His advisers acknowledged their surprise when he made his announcement Monday.

“It’s about damn time,” Pedro Ribeiro, Gray’s communications director, recalled telling the mayor after learning the news.

Gray’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies, said an “emissary” told him Sunday that it was “possible” the mayor would announce the following day.

Thies, a political consultant who hasn’t managed a campaign since 2005, said the mayor invited him to his office Nov. 19 to discuss the race. During their three-hour meeting, Thies said, Gray asked a question: If he ran for reelection — “and ‘if’ was a major caveat” — would Thies manage the campaign?

Thies agreed, and they discussed three possible dates for an announcement, the last of which was when Gray declared.

“There’s no money, no bank account. I’m working as a volunteer,” said Thies, who accompanied Gray on Tuesday night to an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting on Good Hope Road SE to distribute petitions.

“You don’t have the distinction of being the first volunteer,” Thies told a man who offered to collect signatures, “but you’re in the top 10.”

Nagging questions

At the ANC meeting, the mayor talked of the city’s financial surplus, the reductions in crime on his watch, the increase in jobs and the new development projects, such as one on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

He told the audience that he no longer refers to wards 7 and 8 as “east of the River” — long-standing shorthand for “east of the Anacostia River” — because “it sounds like the other side tracks.”

“I will call it ‘East End’ from this point forward,” he said, eliciting a smattering of approving nods from the audience.

In case anyone needed reminding of his successes, the mayor’s aides handed out what now suffices for his campaign literature — a red, white and blue taxpayer- funded flier titled “Why the District of Columbia is the Place to be.” Below the title is a list of accolades, such as “#1 New Tech Hotspot” and “#2 Hippest City,” as deemed by Forbes magazine.

The next morning, Gray traveled to Georgia Avenue NW, where he appeared at the kind of event that he hopes will demonstrate the city’s progress to voters: the opening of a Wal-Mart store where a Chevrolet dealership once stood.

Outside, dozens of customers waited for the doors to open, some of them shaking hands with the mayor as he walked the line. One shouted, “Gray all the way!”

“I’m glad to see people having a wonderful opportunity to shop,” Gray said, in between posing for photos.

A few feet away, Peter Brooks, a Gray supporter, was asking people to sign the mayor’s petition. The day before, Brooks had followed Gray to a Lafayette Square vigil for Alan Gross, an American political prisoner in Cuba, and asked people for their signatures (the first name listed was “Vincent C. Gray”). Brooks also hunted for signatures when he trailed the mayor to an appearance at a public charter school in Northeast Washington.

Outside the Wal-Mart, Eric White, 63, a librarian, agreed to sign the petition. But White said his signature should not be confused with his vote. “There’s controversy,” White said, “so I have to keep my options open.”

Even when he tries to focus on his achievements, the mayor cannot control the questions he faces. The day after announcing his reelection campaign, Gray sought to tout his administration’s economic record, speaking for an hour in a building adjoining the refurbished O Street Market in the Shaw neighborhood.

“We are good,” he said, expressing an unwillingness to describe the District as anything but world-class. “We are not going to be Charlie Brown, okay?”

During the news conference, a reporter asked whether the mayor was claiming accomplishments initiated by previous administrations.

“Aw, c’mon, man,” Gray answered, his voice raised. “You’re just plain wrong.”

Asked about allegations surrounding the previous campaign, the mayor said, “I intend to talk about the future of this city,” an assertion that he repeated a half­dozen times.

He said that “2010 is going to be four years ago.”

Ending the news conference, Gray headed for the elevator but found himself surrounded by reporters still asking questions.

“I’m done, ya’ll,” the mayor said, trying to find a way out.

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