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.