Gray’s friends urge him to pick up the pace

Robert McCartney
Columnist October 1, 2011

District Mayor Vince Gray knows full well that his administration is in trouble, yet he hasn’t moved sufficiently quickly or decisively to fix it. Not even close. Even his supporters say so.

Gray still hasn’t recovered from the personal and political damage he suffered from the burst of hiring scandals that hurt the opening months of his tenure last winter and spring.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Let down then by some top advisers and close friends whom he no longer consults, Gray has been slow to assemble an effective new team to push forward what are actually pretty solid and smart policies for the city.

The mayor especially needs to make changes to strengthen his communications and political operations. He plans to do so but has been delayed by excessive loyalty to current staff, persistent problems with vetting job candidates, and a stubborn unwillingness to accept advice.

This portrait of a struggling mayor comes not from Gray’s political enemies, but from his friends. It’s based primarily on recent interviews with five people who back Gray, talk with him regularly and give him advice. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about their worries.

The group mostly welcomed Gray’s recent appointment of a new chief of staff, Chris Murphy, but complained it was long overdue. The advisers worry that the early troubles aggravated Gray’s innate caution and plodding approach. Those traits were pluses in his previous job as D.C. Council chairman but are drawbacks today.

“That slowness, that deliberate style: It works well for a legislator. It doesn’t work for a CEO,” an adviser said. The source added that Gray seemed to be growing even more wary of making changes “because there have been so many mistakes.”

It’s vital for the city and the rest of the region that Gray put his administration on track. He hasn’t even celebrated his first anniversary in office. Nobody wants to see a weak D.C. government limping through the next three years.

“At the end of the day, I have to take responsibility. It’s hugely important to regain the public’s trust,” Gray said in an interview.

It hasn’t helped the mayor that the other main branch of government, the D.C. Council, is doing even worse. It held a closed meeting to urge members to stop cussing at each other in public. Chairman Kwame Brown and Ward 5 Council Member Harry Thomas Jr. are under investigation for financial irregularities.

For Gray, evidence of trouble abounds. A June opinion poll by The Washington Post showed a 24 percentage-point jump in people with a negative opinion of him. There’s little focus in communicating an agenda to the public. Prominent supporters from his campaign gripe that the mayor’s office solicits advice but then ignores it with little explanation.

On the bright side, Gray has managed the budget and stayed the course on school reforms. He certainly works hard: 15-hour days, six or seven days a week.

But he only recently unveiled a major initiative to create jobs, one of his signature campaign issues. It’s too early to say whether the plan will work.

Then there are the mayor’s legal troubles. They stem from the U.S. attorney’s investigation into the Gray campaign’s dealings with former minor mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown. Gray can’t regain the city’s confidence unless and until the allegations are fully dispelled.

That scandal deeply hurt the mayor, because of the stain on his reputation and because it ended a longtime, close association with former campaign chair Lorraine Green. Other hiring scandals early in his term led to the departure of another friend, former chief of staff Gerri Mason Hall. It took Gray until the end of August, five months after Hall left, to pick Murphy to replace her. At the same time, he tried to repair problems in the political and communications teams by handing those portfolios to a new deputy chief of staff, Andrea Pringle. That backfired, though, when it turned out (again) that the nominee hadn’t been adequately vetted. He’s still looking.

Gray needs to speed up the metabolism and deliver more impact. The next budget is going to be challenging. He needs to build consensus to close underused schools. His political base in the less affluent, eastern wards wants to see progress on economic development and improved job training. While awaiting the U.S. attorney’s decision, he needs to be rebuilding his public standing.

“If he can pivot now and show he’s not being controlled by either events or mismanagement, then his critics will be proven wrong. If he can’t, then the critics will be proven right,” a District Democratic Party strategist said.

An indictment could derail the mayor permanently. If he’s cleared, though, there’s still time for him to do a lot to help himself and the city.

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