Gone may be the 2010 supporters who expected Gray to clean up the city political scene. And scattered may be those who voted for him as an alternative to then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. But supporters and independent observers see a path to victory in the April Democratic primary, thanks to a crowded field and a smoothly operating city.
“I would say he starts out as the front-runner,” said Ron Lester, a veteran pollster who worked for Gray’s 2010 campaign. “The mayor has the largest base of all of the existing candidates.”
Twelve contenders are circulating nominating petitions for April’s Democratic primary, including four D.C. Council members who claim significant bases of their own.
In 2010, Gray won a comfortable primary victory by capitalizing on discontent in majority-black neighborhoods with Fenty’s brusque governing style. Those voters, mainly in the city’s eastern half, remain the cornerstone of Gray’s electoral coalition, observers said.
In 2014, Gray’s challenge will be getting them to the polls amid uncertainty about the federal probe and without some of the tail winds he enjoyed three years ago.
Widespread frustration with Fenty animated many of Gray’s 2010 supporters, as did several independent get-out-the-vote efforts — most notably a major endeavor by labor unions and, prosecutors allege, a $653,000 “shadow campaign” waged on Gray’s behalf but never reported, as required by law.
In one of the few public polls released in recent months — a July survey commissioned by council member Tommy Wells — Gray had the support of 21 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in a four-way race against Wells (Ward 6) and council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) and Jack Evans (Ward 2). The three challengers each enjoyed between 13 percent and 17 percent support. Nearly a third of the respondents were undecided.
But a September poll conducted by backers of a “living wage” measure vetoed by Gray found that only about a third of registered voters either approved of Gray’s performance or had a favorable impression of him.
Still, Lester said, the arithmetic remains in Gray’s favor. “In a one-on-one against Fenty, you had to get 50 percent. In this case, with  candidates and four serious candidates, the bar is lower,” he said. “I think 35 percent will win, and the mayor starts out closer to that than the other candidates.”
A record and a base
On Friday morning, Gray stood in the rain, holding a ceremonial shovel to mark the groundbreaking for a 214-room Hyatt hotel on E Street SW, south of the Mall.
Asked about his development efforts, Gray also ticked off a list of projects east of the Anacostia River — the renovation of St. Elizabeths Hospital’s east campus as a technology hub, the new Coast Guard headquarters on the hospital’s west campus, the Wal-Mart-anchored Skyland Town Center project.
But he was less certain about where his political base of support resides. “I don’t know,” he said. “Ask me in a few weeks.”
Gray’s rivals are, with a few exceptions, competing with one another for the same voters: those who either never supported Gray or who have been disillusioned by the 2010 campaign revelations, including felony guilty pleas by four campaign associates.
Bowser has played up the breadth of her appeal, noting her roots in working-class Ward 5 while also wooing Fenty voters in the more-affluent western wards. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) is honing a populist pitch meant to win votes in the eastern half of the city. His message so far is heavy on his support for a minimum-wage bill that was unanimously backed by the council Tuesday.
Lester said those areas should remain Gray strongholds. “You have to remember,” Lester said, “he’s been active there publicly since he got out of high school. Walking down the street down there, he pretty much knows everybody.”
At Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, what was a blighted lot surrounded by a chain-link fence when Gray took office has given rise to a 376-unit apartment building with the trendy name “Park 7.”
Next door is a new city jobs center, where on a recent weekday truck driver Anthony Webb, 49, smoked a cigarette while waiting for a training class to resume. He’s looking for a job as a security worker or in a warehouse. And he’s optimistic: Two of his Anacostia neighbors were somewhere next door working construction jobs on Park 7.
“I’m gonna vote for him again,” Webb said. “Things are going real well. There’s jobs. Things are moving.”
Labor and business
Chuck Thies, the manager of Gray’s thus-far skeletal campaign, said the incumbent has room to grow beyond his base of longtime, mostly African American residents.
“There’s a lot of voters — whether they’re new residents or people who have been here a long time — who believe the city is headed in the right direction,” he said. “I think those voters, when given the choice between a mayor with a proven record and contenders with ideas but who can’t show results . . . will go with proven success.”
Gray can also count on some labor support — particularly from the public employee unions he negotiated contracts with this year — to provide him with the campaign muscle needed to get his message out.
“This union is going to support him 150 percent,” said Geo T. Johnson, leader of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which includes about 6,000 city residents. “From walking the street to polling to canvassing, anything we can do to help him win, we’re doing to do.”
But police, fire and teacher unions, which supported Gray in 2010, are all locked in contract fights and unlikely to embrace his reelection effort. And Gray’s veto of the living-wage bill, aimed at large retailers such as Wal-Mart, has frayed relations with private-sector unions and the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO.
On the other hand, Gray’s relations with the business community have grown more comfortable, which is certain to help him fill his campaign coffers.
“When the mayor says we have $1.5 billion in the rainy-day fund, and test scores are up and crime is down . . . I think the business community sort of looks at that and goes, ‘That’s a pretty good report card,’ ” said Charles “Sandy” Wilkes, a real estate developer and longtime friend of Gray’s.
The shadow of 2010
The federal investigation remains the major obstacle between Gray and the Democratic nomination. Gray has issued a blanket denial of wrongdoing but indicated at a recent news conference that he is not inclined to answer further questions about his involvement or knowledge.
That won’t stop his opponents from raising questions. “If there is any feeling of impropriety there, he needs to explain it and explain it in full,” said Andy Shallal, a restaurateur trying to appeal to progressives as an outsider candidate.
Even Gray’s supporters hope for a more thorough accounting. “I suspect there will come a time when he will feel comfortable providing some additional insight into the last campaign,” Wilkes said. “He was out there as a hardworking, dawn-to-midnight candidate that outsourced or delegated a lot of the fundraising or reporting, and I suspect, looking back, he thinks that was a big mistake.”
Steps have been taken to distance the reelection effort from the 2010 debacle. Among the campaign’s first hires is a compliance officer, Elizabeth Leith, a certified public accountant.
Thies said he sees little point in Gray’s engaging in a colloquy on the previous campaign with “bitter-enders” who “aren’t voting for him anyway.” But he does see an opportunity for Gray to mend some fences.
“Forgiveness and redemption is a powerful feeling, and everyone is entitled to it,” Thies said. “But to get it, you have to ask.”
Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.