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Mayor Vincent Gray has done little — as promised

By Michael Schaffer,

Talk to supporters of Mayor Vincent Gray about his first year in office, and one word pops up again and again. Outrage about hefty paychecks for mayoral aides? A distraction. Anger about jobs for children of administration insiders? Another distraction. Fringe mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown lands a $110,000-a-year auditing job, gets fired after two weeks, then claims to have been given cash in exchange for helping Gray’s 2010 campaign, setting off a federal probe? Distractions, all!

But for the pesky allegations of cronyism, nepotism and corruption that plague the mayor and his allies (including D.C. Council member Harry Thomas, who resigned his seat and pleaded guilty Friday to embezzlement and tax-related charges), Gray would be off and running — or so the logic goes.

Looking back at his candidacy, though, it’s tough to argue that distractions have had much impact on what sort of administration Gray has run. This isn’t to say that his team hasn’t seemed adrift. Far from it. It’s that his first year as mayor would probably have been just as unimpressive in a happy alternative universe where Brown et al. had never distracted a soul.

Ponder the distraction-free scenario. Just what did the man who ousted Adrian Fenty in 2010 propose to accomplish? Not much. What made Gray’s initial victory so surprising to outsiders was that it seemed to defy the rules of politics. Unlike many successful challengers, his campaign never argued that the incumbent was a failure — which was smart, since polls were generally positive about the city’s direction.

Likewise, Gray never promised dramatic change. When he sat with my colleagues at Washington City Paper in the weeks before the vote, he had a hard time naming a single Fenty policy he’d undo. The best he did was knock the incumbent for paying insufficient attention to the University of the District of Columbia — which may have been true, but wasn’t exactly a policy.

“Measure us on the things I said we were going to do,” Gray said at the beginning of January. The problem: For all the bullet-pointed plans that any competently managed campaign can produce, he never announced some broad governing agenda. Instead, his victory was based on an implicit political promise. Unlike his polarizing predecessor, he would treat with appropriate deference the institutions and individuals — unions, clergy, longtime pols, neighborhood activists — who have dominated local politics in 30-plus years of home rule. And, by doing so, he would express appropriate humility to the largely African American, middle- and working-class voters who identify with those figures, and who remain the largest chunk of the electorate.

If that agenda was enough to defeat a shockingly tone-deaf incumbent, it hasn’t been much to govern on. In the District, like other places, most successful leaders have a goal that can be boiled down to a single sentence. Marion Barry was going to make government serve a long-neglected majority. Tony Williams was going to tidy up the city’s books. Fenty was going to improve its schools.

Gray, by contrast, conveyed no similar, singular passion. (Even if he had, the budget deficit that Fenty left behind would have crimped most ambitions.) “There is far more that brings us together than there is that drives us apart,” Gray said on inauguration day. “Whether we get around by car, bus, train, foot or bike, this is one city — our city.” See anything in there to disagree with?

But change, over the past dozen years of District politics, has always brought disagreement. Williams’s and Fenty’s tenures were dominated by what amounted to a culture war over government: How benevolent an employer would the city be? How comprehensive would its safety net be? And how far would it go to woo residents — or potential residents — who weren’t needy?

Gray’s two predecessors moved the needle on some of those questions. Williams improved services such as the DMV in part by punishing underperformers; Fenty appealed to new, younger residents by building bike lanes and proposing a streetcar along H Street NE’s emerging strip of fashionable bars and restaurants. Each faced significant criticism. Threatening to can longtime employees was called insensitive. Bike lanes were lampooned as a yuppie amenity.

After more than a decade of mayoral battles, Gray’s inclination to avoid warfare has its upsides. It’s been a year free of the Fenty era’s unnecessary fights over silly things such as politicians’ sports tickets. However, the downside looms large. Didn’t the new boss’s desire to make nice with political insiders influence whoever approved the hiring of their kids?

The overall effect, though, is a sense of stasis. Tellingly, the mayor’s own list of triumphs, as reported recently in The Washington Post, featured mainly unobjectionable efforts: rebuilding the city’s rainy-day fund; a sustainability initiative whose details won’t emerge until spring. The sheer variety underlines the lack of focus.

Having demonstrated in his thumping of Fenty that mayors ignore less-well-off voters at their peril, for instance, Gray has wisely spoken out about jobs. But where he might have attacked the city’s job-training bureaucracy along the lines of Fenty’s battle with the school system, Gray’s efforts aren’t likely to upset staffers responsible for the presumably unsatisfactory status quo. Instead of revolutionizing the government he runs, he’s asking companies to hire locals by offering tax incentives. Gray’s soothing campaign slogan — “One City” — now adorns every available piece of civic property, but there’s little sense that much has changed about the District’s trajectory.

It’s quite a contrast. By the end of Williams’s first term, the control board had given back day-to-day supervision of city government. By the end of Fenty’s first year, the mayor had won control of the District’s school system. The most dramatic moment of Gray’s rookie season, on the other hand, was his arrest at a protest of a federal bill that undercut District home rule — a righteous cause, but sadly not a question decided by city government.

The continuity is not all bad. The murder rate is still falling, and city services haven’t gone off the rails. More killings and unplowed snow would have been far more serious reversions to the bad old days that Gray’s foes so frequently invoke. Census figures released last month showed that the District’s population had grown by a larger percentage than any state’s.

Those successes, though, explain why inertia at the Wilson Building is such a shame. The very divide that helped Gray win office is still there and isn’t becoming any less pronounced.

Take those census numbers, for instance. The vast majority of the newcomers are college-educated and young. They’re far more affluent than many Washingtonians, but considering the sky-high housing prices in their new city, their children probably won’t be able to opt out of public schools the way the kids of yesteryear’s affluent newcomers did. So they’ll be competing for limited city resources with the poorer residents who helped elect Gray. And they’ll be doing so in a city that features truly grotesque economic inequality: In the past 30 years, the median wage for D.C.’s college graduates has risen by 30 percent; for those with a high school diploma, it has gone up by just 1 percent, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

Few things discomfit city dwellers more than rapid demographic change. That was true in white, ethnic enclaves in the 1960s, when African American newcomers and the longer-term, blue-collar, white residents who resented their arrival at least shared a rung on the economic ladder. And it’s true today. No matter how comforting the mayor’s civic slogan is, last year’s census announcement that the District’s longtime black-majority status had slipped away represents a possibly bigger challenge to Washington, where the African American community is remarkably diverse in economic terms, but where the newcomers who’ve made the city whiter are by and large from the professional class.

Gray got his job because Fenty failed to manage the politics of D.C.’s demographic revolution, and longtime residents felt they were losing even as their city was winning. By talking up jobs and courting non-yuppie businesses such as Wal-Mart, Gray has done a better job looking like he cares about how everyone feels.

Still, the public policy questions remain. Can the city meet the needs of newcomers in ways that improve the lives of old-timers? If so, how? Whoever figures that out holds the key to local politics in a city where the electorate has been transformed.

The distracted Mayor Gray hasn’t offered much of an answer. Then again, neither did the non-distracted candidate Gray.

mschaffer@washingtoncitypaper.com

Michael Schaffer is the editor of Washington City Paper.

Read more from Outlook:

Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray and the politics of race and class

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