Mike Madden is the editor of Washington City Paper.
On Monday, Democratic voters in the District started casting early ballots in the party’s primary, set inauspiciously — or perfectly, depending on your view of D.C. politics — for April 1. Voting began a week after businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson pleaded guilty to what prosecutors call a massive illegal scheme to help Mayor Vincent C. Gray win the 2010 election. As D.C. voters head to the polls, what myths about Gray might they have on their minds?
1. Gray is the anti-Adrian Fenty.
In 2010, the city split between Gray and then-Mayor Fenty. Fenty did best west of the Anacostia River, among white voters and new residents. Gray picked up a huge majority east of the river and among longtime Washingtonians who viewed Fenty as governing for the newcomers. And yes, Fenty loyalty still seems to animate some supporters of Gray’s seven rivals for the Democratic nomination this year, especially those who back Ward 4 D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser, who succeeded Fenty on the council.
When it comes to policy, however, Gray’s done what he said he’d do during his campaign: the same things Fenty did, but with a softer edge.
Gray let pugnacious Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee go — then appointed her deputy, who, like Rhee, has proposed closing public schools . He rode into office on complaints that Fenty worried more about dog parks and bike lanes than services for poor residents — then opened a planned bike lane on L Street NW and banned U-turns across the Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Gray kept Fenty’s director of planning, Harriet Tregoning, and backed her vision of a denser city through proposed changes to the zoning code and height limits. He promoted Allen Lew, who’d been in charge of building Nationals Park and renovating schools under Fenty.
By the time Thompson appeared in court, Gray was even using a message like the one that failed Fenty four years ago: As long as voters are happy with city services and municipal coffers are flush, why dwell on any of the mayor’s shortcomings?
2. Gray rebuilt D.C.’s economy and restored its fiscal health.
This is one of Gray’s main arguments for keeping his job: The unemployment rate when he took office was 10 percent; now it’s 7.4 percent. The District’s rainy-day fund grew from $930 million at the end of 2010 to $1.75 billion at the end of January. Budgeted tax revenue grew from $5.6 billion in fiscal year 2012 to $6.5 billion in fiscal year 2015. Construction cranes are abundant west of the Anacostia.
But how much credit Gray deserves for all this is debatable. (Ask Jack Evans, who chairs the D.C. Council’s finance committee and is running for mayor on the same rosy stats.) Gray rarely mentions that he took office as the city was emerging from the worst recession in 80 years. During the crisis, the District had to spend more on services as revenue from income and property taxes and other sources fell. Global financial markets slowed as well, stalling construction projects. Fortunately for the District, the federal government and relatively recession-resistant industries such as lobbying, contracting and consulting helped the city’s fortunes improve quickly.
Voters must wonder: Would any mayor who took office as the recovery began have presided over similar growth?
3. Investigations of alleged corruption in D.C. are politically motivated.
When Thompson pleaded guilty, Gray said, “You wonder about the timing of something like this.” Some of his supporters did, too. Besides the fact that the plea came so soon before the primary, the question remains: Why is the black mayor of a plurality-black city the latest target for federal prosecutors who also ensnared two African American members of the D.C. Council and its African American chairman?
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., though, has said that the election has nothing to do with the investigation’s schedule. Thompson’s stalling affected the timing of his plea: He fought aggressively to keep Machen from reviewing 23 million pages of documents that federal agents seized in a raid on his house in 2012. And some of Machen’s prosecutions have nothing to do with Gray. The mayor, for instance, wasn’t involved in former council member Harry Thomas Jr.’s decision to steal $350,000 earmarked for at-risk kids. And President Obama — the nation’s No. 1 Democrat — appointed Machen, while Machen’s boss, Attorney General Eric Holder, voted for Gray.
4. Gray can depend on the city’s African American voters — but has little support beyond them.
A recent Washington Post poll found that only 8 percent of white voters support Gray. Not long before the 2010 primary, Fenty’s campaign e-mailed reporters a picture of former mayor Marion Barry, now the Ward 8 D.C. Council member, campaigning for Gray. The subtext was hard to miss: Gray represented the District’s old guard. And in a place still known as Chocolate City, the old guard is mostly black.
Yes: Four years later, Gray’s base is still east of the Anacostia in Ward 7, which he represented on the council, and in Ward 8, where Barry endorsed Gray this past week. But grafting a racial map onto D.C. politics oversimplifies reality. Bowser, Gray’s leading challenger, is also black, and she represents a racially diverse swing ward where Gray stomped Fenty four years ago. The black vote isn’t any more monolithic than the white vote; an NBC4 poll showed Gray winning only 41 percent of African American support. And independent David Catania, a white council member who will run in the general election, tried to reach black voters with his campaign launch this month.
Wealthy white developers such as Doug Jemal and Gary Rappaport have backed Gray this year, too — he’s the incumbent, after all.
5. Gray’s chances of winning another term are slim.
You’d think this would be an easy call: Will an incumbent mayor with support from less than 30 percent of likely voters win reelection? What about an incumbent who, according to his lawyer, will probably be indicted?
Surprisingly, Gray’s got some pretty good reasons to be optimistic. He’s led most polls released in the race. His seven rivals offer voters a fractured field, and the three closest to him in the polls (Bowser, Evans and Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells) are vying for the same votes. Meanwhile, some labor unions that backed Gray four years ago still do; his campaign announced an endorsement from the Teamsters on Monday. And Gray had $710,393 left to spend on turnout as of March 10, more than any other candidate, though Bowser was close behind.
Should he win the primary, Gray would face Catania in the general election. Several of Gray’s fellow Democratic candidates say they wouldn’t stand with him. But that’s months away. If the mayor is nominated again so soon after Thompson’s revelations, he may feel politically invincible by November.
Who could blame him?