At a recent meeting of African American ministers on the District’s eastern edge, a pastor stood and demanded that Mayor Vincent C. Gray “be honest with us.”
“If you knew something was wrong, tell us,” the Rev. John Chaplin said, referring to the scandal that has come to define the mayor’s 2010 campaign victory. “It will be a heartbreak to see you carted off.”
“I didn’t do anything,” the mayor replied, staring from behind a podium at the pastor in the second row. “I’m looking at you straight in your eyeballs. If you want me to come a little closer and look in your eyeballs and say that, I’ll be happy to.”
As he enters the final weekend before the Democratic mayoral primary, with D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser pulling even in polling, Gray is staking his political future on the black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River where he won overwhelming support four years ago. And he is rebutting with renewed vigor any questions about his ethics.
The strategy offers a stark contrast to the promise of racial unity he evoked four years ago with his “One City” slogan. On most days, Gray’s schedule is packed with appearances in east-of-the-river Wards 7 and 8, while his campaign produces radio ads aimed at black audiences and promotes an endorsement from Marion Barry, who is popular among African American voters.
At the same time, his Democratic opponents, his supporters and even his own attorney talk about the likelihood of prosecutors bringing charges against him, speculation that gathered intensity March 10, when businessman Jeffrey S. Thompson implicated Gray in a secret scheme to funnel more than $400,000 into his 2010 campaign.
They ask: Will the mayor be able to perform his duties while tied up in court? Can the city afford a leader who may be fighting to save himself from prison?
“I don’t mind defending myself,” Gray said at the ministers meeting. “This situation has been going on for three years and I haven’t been distracted.”
If the scrutiny has worn on him, the mayor retains a well-practiced poker face. There are exceptions, as at the recent news conference in which a reporter asked how he was faring.
The mayor performed his best rendition of an anguished moan. Then he burst into laughter.
“I’m going on with my life,” he said. “I’m going on with running the city.”
More than a week after Thompson’s guilty plea had roiled the primary, Gray traveled to Ward 7, where he cut the ribbon at a complex of subsidized housing on Minnesota Avenue NE.
The event was not only an opportunity for the mayor to tout a project in his political base — “Ward 7 is moving!” he gushed — but also a chance for him to bask in loyalists’ adoration.
“You never see his enthusiasm wane,” Victor L. Hoskins, a deputy mayor, told the audience as his boss listened from the first row. “He loves this city; he loves what he’s doing; we love doing it with him. We salute you.”
Two days later, the mayor traveled to a church in Barry’s Ward 8, where the council member and former mayor declared him “a man of integrity” and endorsed him. Not to be outdone, C. Matthew Hudson, the church’s pastor, anointed Gray “the best mayor this side of heaven.”
Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, has said the mayor has citywide support. Yet in 2010, Gray relied on an overwhelming turnout on the city’s east side to defeat incumbent Adrian M. Fenty.
In those three wards, Gray amassed nearly 39,000 votes, or more than half of his total. Gray even won Fenty’s home base at the city’s northern tip.
The dynamics of the 2014 race are different, not only because of the scandal but also because Gray is facing four council members, including Bowser (Ward 4) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6), who are expected to perform strongly in their home wards.
The intense competition for votes has forced the mayor to focus on the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia, where he lives and launched his political career a decade ago when he was elected to the council.
In recent weeks, Gray has announced a number of initiatives aimed at his political base, including a job-training program for Ward 8.
He signed a property tax exemption bill for low-income seniors, many of whom reside in those neighborhoods, and announced plans for a new hospital in Congress Heights.
Since mid-March, he has made more than a dozen appearances across the river, presiding, for example, over a groundbreaking at Skyland, a massive development that the mayor takes credit for pushing forward after years of delays.
On March 20, he attended three events in his own Ward 7, and two days later he returned for three more, including a walking tour in which he joined city officials and advocates for the elderly inspecting whether the sidewalks could accommodate seniors.
Although it was not a formal campaign event, Beatriz Otero, the deputy mayor for health and human services, began the tour by introducing Gray to the small crowd as a “a great guy” and saying, “Let’s make sure he’s here for four more years.”
A few minutes later, the mayor met Melvin Johnson, 72, who looked up from tending his front yard to say that his sidewalk on Grant Street NE needed repaving to accommodate wheelchairs.
“Nice to see you, sir,” Gray said. “Don’t forget to vote April 1.”
“Vote,” the mayor repeated. “April 1st.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay.”
That night, Gray was back in Ward 7, at Denny’s, where he ate dinner with Barry, a moment his campaign later recounted on Twitter with a photo of the two men sitting in a booth, menus spread out before them.
On another day, the mayor was on the Southwest waterfront, celebrating the groundbreaking for a huge project along Maine Avenue.
“You knew the details better than I did,” developer Monty Hoffman said, praising the mayor before a throng.
“What a great day!” Gray told the crowd. “Can you imagine people fishing in the Potomac?”
His moments of gusto may seem incongruous for a man who has been tainted by scandal for three years and whose future is so uncertain.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the District of Columbia is hot!” he shouted at another crowd at a downtown ribbon-cutting for new luxury apartments.
Yet the mayor also displays flashes of testiness when his forehead turns into a mess of creases and his right eye twitches.
“You know I’m not a race-
baiter,” he snapped at a news conference, referring to an editorial that accused him of being divisive.
At another point, he turned to a photographer and said: “How many pictures are you going to take? You got that thing in my face!”
Except for council member Jack Evans (Ward 2), whom he often praises, Gray is dismissive of his opponents, accusing them of claiming his ideas as their own, proposing measures he has already implemented or being wholly unqualified to take his job.
“I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone,” he often says.
At his appearances, strangers ask him to pose for photographs, a request he obliges with a crooked grin and an arm around their backs, the “Vince” monogram on his shirt cuff peeking out.
But even in those moments, the subject of the scandal is never far off.
“It’s unfortunate what people are trying to do you, Mr. Gray,” Rufus Mayfield, 44, a heating and ventilation technician, told the mayor when he saw him on Minnesota Avenue NE. “I see they’re trying to destroy you.”
The mayor grinned and reminded him to vote.
Gray’s endurance is something his advisers like to tout as they follow him through the tumult. “We keep wondering what could happen next,” said Steve Glaude, the mayor’s political director. “We believe in him. Otherwise I’d be golfing in Florida somewhere.”
The following day, the mayor was back in Ward 8 on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, where he presented his vision for a new hospital building and announced the start of a monthly produce market sponsored by Whole Foods.
Before a row of television cameras, Hudson, the minister in whose church Barry endorsed Gray, praised the mayor for “visionary, steadfast leadership” and described him as a “man of impeccable character.”
Afterward, as Gray’s security detail led him to his car, the mayor was surrounded by a scrum of reporters asking familiar questions.
“C’mon, guys,” Gray said. “Don’t crowd me.”
The questions kept coming: Has the U.S. attorney investigating the 2010 campaign been “out of line?” Does the mayor have the campaign machinery necessary to turn out his vote? Will he go negative against Bowser?
Gray reached the door to his black SUV and turned.
“We’ve got a great record,” the mayor proclaimed, before disappearing behind a door that slammed shut.