Time for D.C. voters to exit the Gray Area


From left, mayoral candidates Andy Shallal, Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Chris Carter, and Mayor Vincent Gray. (Marvin Joseph/Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 10

It’s always a bad uncle who messes it all up, right?

Before Vincent C. Gray was elected mayor, when he used words such as “cronyism” and “clandestine” to describe his opponent, he was secretly getting illegal help from a Mr. Moneybags whose code name was “Uncle Earl,” according to federal prosecutors.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

This uncle was Jeffrey Earl Thompson, a D.C. businessman who pleaded guilty in federal court Monday to throwing a lot of his substantial wealth around in federal and local political campaigns in ways he wasn’t supposed to. What happened in court this week could help determine who becomes the next mayor of the nation’s capital.

Oh, yes, names were named, including that of Gray (D), who Thompson said conspired with him to hide the 2010 “shadow campaign” and the illegal money being injected into the race. The allegations are a huge bombshell just seven days before early voting begins in the April 1 Democratic mayoral primary.

Gray insisted Monday that everything Thompson and federal prosecutors are saying about him is false.

“It’s shocking to me. Lies. These are lies,” Gray said in an interview with The Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis after the details of the case against Thompson came out in court.

And hearing these details is sickening.

It’s sickening because right now, with eight guilty pleas from folks around him, the mayor has the hubris to ask the people of the District for another term.

And it’s sickening because Gray is a remarkable man who had a solid turn on the D.C. Council, an exemplary career helping the city’s most vulnerable residents, an inspiring rise from a D.C. kid who never had a bedroom of his own to being an African American pioneer at George Washington University. And he did all of that without the help of a shady uncle.

One upside to having Uncle Earl in court one week before early voting begins? It’s going to make it a lot easier for District voters to make an informed choice in a crowded field of candidates.

Many D.C. residents — 51 percent of those asked in a recent Washington Post poll — say Gray has done a good job as mayor. But only 24 percent of those surveyed wanted him as mayor again.

A few months ago, I went all over town interviewing people about our mayoral choices. I couldn’t find a single person who didn’t have all kinds of messy, conflicting, bad-boyfriend thoughts about Gray. Their political loyalties were languishing in a Gray Area.

The mayor has taken the whole city on this roller-coaster ride for nearly four years.

Remember his early days, when his approval ratings were in the 20s? He was awash in mini-dramas, having ballooned his staff, raised their salaries, hired his friends’ kids and offered a job to a fringe mayoral candidate who said had been bribed to attack Gray’s predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty (D), when Gray was campaigning for his office.

Back then, all Gray had to do was hold a news conference to promote some public works initiative and reporters and live news vans descended, convinced that he was about to resign.

“I’m not here to resign,” he had to say. It was that bad.

Eventually, the mini-dramas receded, and Gray went about the business of being mayor. Many people seemed willing to give him another chance and let him govern. We listened as he refused again and again to comment on the guilty pleas that kept coming from folks tied to his 2010 campaign.

On Monday, all that changed when Uncle Earl pleaded guilty to charges that he subverted federal and local campaign finance laws and did about $2 million in off-the-books campaign spending.

Gray was defiant, vowing in his interview with The Post not to resign and not to withdraw from the race, insisting he had done nothing wrong. Thompson, who could face at most six months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release, made it all up to get a lighter sentence, Gray said.

Will voters believe him when they step into the voting booth?

This is the brightest light yet to shine on the shadowy world that is the Gray Area. Gray came in promising to clean things up. The District’s politics are now messier than ever.

For those of us who have been dwelling in the Gray Area for the past four years, it’s okay to leave now. Time to give someone else a chance to do this the right way.

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