Vincent Gray needs to ask D.C. voters’ forgiveness for 2010 campaign scandal

Robert McCartney
Columnist December 4, 2013

District Mayor Vince Gray needs to learn how to ask voters properly to forgive him for the rampant corruption that marred his 2010 campaign.

It might not be enough to get him reelected. Personally, I doubt he even deserves forgiveness.

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

But the mayor should at least take responsibility for failing to supervise those behind the illegal campaign funds and dirty political tricks. He should stress that his reelection campaign, announced this week, will be legally pristine. He should fill it with citizens known for their integrity, to ensure that past mistakes won’t be repeated.

It would be the right thing to do for the city. It also would help defuse the one issue that could seriously hurt Gray in the campaign.

Unfortunately, judging by his clumsy handling of the corruption issue this week, Gray needs urgent, special tutoring.

In testy, self-pitying responses to reporters Tuesday, the mayor acted as though he were the scandal’s principal victim. He complained that there was “no end” to questions about it — even though he’s the one who has repeatedly refused to provide details about what went wrong.

In fact, the mayor was the principal beneficiary of the sleazy campaigning in 2010. He was also the man in charge who should have prevented it from happening.

Today, Gray has enough popular support, and faces such divided opposition in the April 1 Democratic primary, that he entered the race as the front-runner. He still retains a strong base in the city’s eastern wards and has impressed the elite business community satisfied with the city’s economic success.

Greater Washington Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar said he has been “very pleased” with what he called Gray’s “consistency” in implementing pro-development policies inherited from former Democratic mayors Tony Williams and Adrian Fenty.

But Gray is vulnerable on the corruption issue, which is “kind of like the $1 million question,” said veteran Democratic pollster Ron Lester. Voters are happy overall with the state of the city, so Gray would cruise to victory except for the scandal.

“The investigation is the fly in the milk. The investigation has the potential to turn the race around in an instant,” Lester said.

Gray wants us to forget the whole thing because he says he did no wrong and hasn’t been indicted.

That’s not enough. Four people involved with his campaign, including longtime personal associates, have pleaded guilty. It’s well established that the campaign received $650,000 in illicit funds and paid fringe candidate Sulaimon Brown to make aggressive oral attacks on incumbent Fenty.

The mayor has refused to provide details of his personal involvement. He has resisted cooperating with U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, who has complained that the administration’s intransigence has slowed his investigation.

Gray’s stonewalling has left the public wondering whether he knew more about the malfeasance than he’s admitted. That hasn’t been proved, however, and perhaps Machen will not be able to do so.

Gray’s attorneys don’t want him to say any more than he has to. But the mayor has a responsibility to District voters that goes beyond his need to guard against self-incrimination, especially when he’s asking for a second term.

He needs to tell us more about how he let the 2010 campaign go so awry. He needs to spell out in detail how he’ll guarantee a clean race now.

Oddly, a person who seems to understand all this is his newly appointed campaign manager, Chuck Thies. In a telephone interview Wednesday, Thies said many things I’ve been waiting to hear from Gray himself.

“Some people in the mayor’s [2010] campaign, and some external to the campaign, failed him,” Thies said. But he added that Gray’s “management style” was also at fault.

“Ultimately, the candidate is responsible for the campaign,” Thies said. “The mistakes were made by other people. His management style did not pick up on those mistakes. He’s learned from that, and he’s corrected it.”

Thies seemed to agree that Gray’s statements have been insufficient.

“I think people want to hear this explained in a way that is easier to digest,” he said. “I have not spoken to the mayor about how to talk about the 2010 campaign. I will ask him to listen to my advice.”

I don’t know if a new campaign manager can help address a problem that’s lasted more than three years. But here’s hoping.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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