The two dozen or so former campaign workers had gathered at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest Washington — a house of worship known for hosting jazz and blues sessions.
On this recent Thursday night, the decibel level was low as the church hosted a different crowd: supporters of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) who are frustrated by what they perceive as a directionless administration caught flat-footed by accusations of nepotism and cronyism and one that is unable to repay last year’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Gray was there and talked to them.
The meeting’s purpose, said Pierpont Mobley, Ward 5 coordinator for the Gray campaign, was to “regroup, to put this back on track.”
“My feeling is to stay positive and work through this,” said Mobley, who described the mayor as receptive.
But other campaign workers, who did not want to be identified because they did not want to publicly criticize the mayor, disagreed. The meeting “wasn’t good, in my opinion,” a former campaign worker said. “He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong. . . . It’s going to be a long four years. That’s if he makes it to four years.”
That some of his supporters thought the meeting, coordinated by D.C. insider Lloyd Jordan, was necessary underscores the mayor’s political distress.
Gray, who has been quietly making amends with disappointed backers, said in an interview: “The room was full. I was very uplifted by the fact that they were there.”
He said he began the meeting with an apology: “I want to apologize to those of you who felt you were sidelined.”
“People around the table clapped,” a campaign worker said. “But that was something he should have done with his State of the District speech” in March.
Gray has had a bumpy start, saddled by controversial hirings — and firings — and allegations that his campaign paid a failed candidate to attack then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) during last year’s election. The claims made by Sulaimon Brown have prompted investigations by the U.S. attorney’s office, a congressional committee and the D.C. Council.
Some supporters said they fear that Gray has failed to grasp the perception that the probes have hampered his ability to effectively lead and have eroded his base of support. “He hasn’t dug himself a ditch,” said a supporter who attended the meeting. “It’s a canyon.”
Gray played down the concerns but acknowledged that he has begun to seek advice from former campaign and transition volunteers to help guide his administration over the next several months. “I wouldn’t call it a kitchen cabinet. I’d call it an advisory group,” Gray said. “Kitchen cabinet sounds insular.”
Paul Quander, deputy mayor for public safety, has been pulling double duty as interim chief of staff since Gray fired Gerri Mason Hall. But supporters say Gray needs a top-notch pick with both managerial skills and political acumen. Some who helped with Gray’s campaign and transition are urging him to hire Jordan, a former director of the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. A former chief of staff for the mayor of St. Louis, Jordan served on the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission under Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “He knows the city,” one adviser said.
Gray has confirmed that he is also considering Christopher Murphy, who is deputy chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for the post. Murphy, who served on the HIV/AIDS Task Force in the Williams administration, is a former executive director of City Year, an AmeriCorps program.
The mayor declined to further discuss any job candidates, saying it was premature and could affect their current employment. Murphy could not be reached; Jordan said he would be willing to take a leave from his job as partner at a law firm to work as chief of staff.
For Susie Cambria, a public policy consultant who admires Gray and felt comfortable enough to e-mail him about a bake sale, solidifying the mayor’s staff and message should be priorities.
“I don’t have any idea what his plan is,” said Cambria, adding that she can’t understand Gray’s broader vision for the city. “It’s really hard to go to the right person in government to find out what’s going on.
“There’s this Lew crew,” Cambria added, referring to city administrator Allen Y. Lew and his staff. And then there are four deputy mayors. “I don’t know if they can speak for the mayor. I think they’re all working very hard. I just don’t know what they are working toward.”
Also, there are the inevitable comparisons to Gray’s predecessor, known to many as hard-charging but lambasted by others who accused him of governing in a bubble. “Adrian had this energy about him,” Cambria said. “With Vince, you can’t tell anything’s getting done.”
Gray said his administration has been transparent and has sought to engage residents and stakeholders. He pointed to his 10 town hall meetings on the budget, daily community events and weekly press briefings. On Friday, Gray posed for photos and talked to everyone who approached him at Freedom Plaza at a Bike to Work Day event, where he was the main speaker.
“I’m not insular at all,” Gray said. “I’m in the community all the time.”
Jordan said Gray’s challenge is “to manage people’s perceptions.” He said that the mayor has a plan but that it hasn’t been rolled out in a thematic fashion. Jordan said Gray’s other challenge is to manage what Fenty left behind, including a budget that required dipping into the city’s reserves.
“He has to let people know what he inherited,” Jordan said. “He has been busy putting his fingers in the dike.”
Gray said he is focused on the fiscal 2012 budget, one of his top priorities. The D.C. Council will take an initial vote Tuesday on his first budget proposal.
Gray said his advocacy for statehood and budget autonomy from Congress also has been on the front burner, recalling his protest of President Obama’s budget deal that led to his arrest on Capitol Hill.
“All of this is in the context of fiscal responsibility,” he said.
The mayor said he is hoping to strike deals with businesses while at the International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas this week to help him deliver on his often-cited campaign promise to create jobs.
Beyond the weekend and into summer, Gray will rely on a coterie of advisers, including budget expert Alice Rivlin; Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO; and Barbara Lang, president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
“I feel like I’m doing exactly what I said I was going to do,” Gray said. “And we are making progress.”