New to Council, Gray Seeks Chairmanship

Campaign manager Kimberly Bassett introduces D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray at the official start of his run for council chairman.
Campaign manager Kimberly Bassett introduces D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray at the official start of his run for council chairman. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 26, 2006

Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), arguing that a hands-on leader needs to step forward to unite a city increasingly divided by race and income, officially launched his campaign yesterday for chairman of the D.C. Council.

"I am that person," Gray declared to about 150 people assembled at New Macedonia Baptist Church in his ward.

Gray's decision to jump into the chairman's race after a little more than a year on the council has raised some eyebrows. Current Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) is running for mayor, leaving the position up for grabs. His most prominent challenger is Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who officially started her campaign last weekend. She was elected to the council in 1994 and has served three consecutive terms.

When he campaigned for the Ward 7 seat two years ago against incumbent Kevin P. Chavous (D), Gray, 63, promised that he would be a "full time" council member who would emphasize constituent services. Yesterday, he ticked off a list of his accomplishments, including pushing legislation to rebuild schools and libraries, and his work to bring more primary care physicians to the ward's underserved residents.

Sounding much like former vice presidential candidate John Edwards with his tale of "two Americas," Gray warned the racially mixed crowd that the city needs to address the growing gap between rich and poor, "lest we perpetuate the image of the District as the 21st-century version of Dickens's 'Tale of Two Cities.' "

The citywide contest will challenge candidates to go beyond their traditional political bases.

Gray, who is black, represents an area east of the Anacostia River that is overwhelmingly African American and includes neighborhoods that are affluent and poor. Patterson, who is white, represents predominantly white, upper Northwest neighborhoods that are among the city's wealthiest.

Gray said he will get off the council dais as much as possible and into the community. He pointed out that the person who wins the council chairman's post will lead a 13-member legislative body in which half the seats will be held by first-term lawmakers.

"I will look to build upon the legacy of current Chair Linda Cropp, whose manner of treating all members in a respectful, evenhanded and sensitive way deserves to be emulated," he said.

Gray promised to continue Cropp's tradition of closed-door breakfasts with council members, where many issues are ironed out in advance of legislative sessions.

"The whole time I've been down there, there's never been one decision made" during the breakfast meetings on how members will vote, he said.

With two colleagues battling for the chairmanship, the race threatens to divide current members of the council. Two of Gray's fellow members, Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), sat in the audience yesterday.

"I wouldn't mind there being a Vince and Vince administration," said Orange, who is running for mayor. He said that his attendance was not an endorsement of Gray -- and that Gray had not asked for his endorsement.

Brown, who lives in Ward 7, begged off endorsement questions, preferring to chat with constituents at the event. "Vince [Gray] is a personal friend of mine," he said later.

A native Washingtonian, Gray has a history of being precocious. A graduate of the city's Dunbar High School at 16, he received a bachelor's degree in psychology from George Washington University. While at the school, he was the first black student to rush a fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi, and was elected president of the organization twice.

Two of his fraternity brothers, Ken Trombly and Jack Bobrow, were on hand yesterday to support their former president. Trombly even wore his TEP DOES pin. "I'm sure I'm not the first one to say this, but in five years, he'll be mayor," Trombly said.

While executive director of the D.C. Association for Retarded Citizens, Gray fought for the closure of Forest Haven, a squalid, city-run facility that housed people with developmental disabilities. He later headed the city's Department of Human Services under Mayor Sharon Pratt (D) and was executive director of Covenant House Washington, a nonprofit social service agency for disadvantaged children.

Gray's campaign kickoff attracted other notable figures in local politics, including Gray's former boss, Pratt; former Ward 8 council member Sandy Allen; and Cora Masters Barry, estranged wife of former mayor and current council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

Upon leaving the church, Gray and his supporters hopped in cars for a motorcade that planned to make stops in all eight wards.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company