D.C. Mayor Gray uses speech on state of city as a turning point

March 28, 2011

Mayor Vincent C. Gray, whose first months in office have been saddled by questionable hiring practices and spending on staff salaries, delivered a State of the District address on Monday that largely ignored the troubles lingering for his administration.

Instead, Gray (D) used his remarks to shift the public conversation over his administration’s troubles to the District’s longtime tale of two cities, exacerbated last week by new U.S. Census numbers that show the black population has dwindled to barely 50 percent in the once predominantly African American city.

In a 22-page speech, Gray opened his address by boasting about the District’s growth to 600,000 residents and rankings as “happiest city,” “fastest-growing retail market” and “most socially networked city in America.”

“The truth is that the growth in our city has been a miracle for some and a mirage for others,” Gray said. “For those left behind, the picture I have just painted of the city’s successes is not a self-portrait, but something closer to a foreign landscape. You can gaze at it admiringly, but it doesn’t look anything like your neck of the woods.”

Gray, a 68-year-old native Washingtonian who grew up in a one-bedroom Northeast apartment to parents with little education, juxtaposed the District’s “accolades” with other statistics: More than half of high school students do not graduate, and one in three adults is unemployed in some neighborhoods. About 22 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line.

Gray delivered his speech at Eastern High School to a standing-room-only audience that applauded and even laughed at times during a speech that made little news and was more than an hour long.

Gray said he has acknowledged “missteps” previously and said he wanted to focus his speech on improving education, generating jobs and reducing crime. “I didn’t want tomorrow’s headline to be this,” he said, referring to the controversies swirling around his administration.

Gray, a former D.C. Council chairman and Ward 7 council member, said he would work to make the Anacostia River, often seen as a division between rich and poor and black and white, “a unifying force.”

“I will work to make one city out of the two very different realities that coexist today,” Gray said.

But the controversies of his nascent administration have affected Gray’s popularity and his base. Gray defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) last year with a slogan of “character, integrity and leadership” and a promise of “one city.”

The controversies surrounding his administration, along with recent troubles of some D.C. Council members, could affect the fiscal 2012 budget. Gray is scheduled to submit his first spending plan, which has to tackle a more than $320 million budget deficit, to the council Friday. Employees are taking furlough days on holidays to help close this fiscal year’s budget gap.

Gray said he was focused on putting residents back to work, but he noted that the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program needs reform. On Friday, TANF recipients who have gotten benefits for more than 60 months will begin to be weaned off the program.

“In some quarters, we have created a culture of dependency,” Gray said. “Public assistance should be a hand up, not a permanent handout.”

The mayor’s first address came on the same day a D.C. Council committee held a hearing on his administration’s hiring practices, including the employment and termination of former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown.

Brown, a 40-year-old unemployed auditor who has had several run-ins with the law, landed a $110,000-a-year job as a special assistant in the Department of Health Care Finance. After he was dismissed last month, he alleged that he was promised a city job in return for verbal attacks on Fenty in the election. He also alleged that he received payments from Lorraine Green, Gray’s campaign chairman, and Howard Brooks, a consultant on Gray’s campaign. Gray, Green and Brooks have denied the allegations. The Washington Post has not been able to independently verify any payments.

Brown’s allegations have prompted federal and local probes. They have also been lumped in with criticism of other hiring practices, such as the employment of five children of aides in Gray’s campaign or government staff, including Green and Brooks.

In recent weeks, four of the five children have resigned. Only Green’s daughter remains in her job, in the Office of Film and Television. Gray also fired his chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, whose son had been hired but resigned.

Many of his top aides are making tens of thousands of dollars more than their predecessors in Fenty’s administration. The mayor recently ordered salaries that exceeded city caps be reduced.

“What you will see in the months to come is the government you deserve,” Gray said. “One that takes seriously the notion of public trust and accountability. If that trust is violated, you can expect swift action.”

Gray shared a few accomplishments with the audience. The District is the first city with “on-demand treatment” for residents who have received HIV diagnoses and has created a commission to tackle the disease, he said. He added that his administration has launched a $55 million pilot program that offers incentive payments to contractors for hiring residents on school modernization projects.

Gray also said fighting truancy is a priority of his administration.

He humanized his speech by acknowledging Shamekia Murray, a single mother who lost her home but was helped by a city housing program, and Wendell Kyler, a high school student who has helped raise $5,000 for charities. He challenged the audience to help others. “When the story of this moment is written, let it be said of us that we met these challenges of one city,” Gray said.

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