First Person Singular: D.C. Council chairman and mayoral candidate Vincent Gray

(KK Ottesen)
Sunday, May 30, 2010

In graduate school, I had a professor who said to me, "What do you know about mental retardation?" I was a clinical psychology major, and I said, "Well, to be honest, not a lot." She said, "I'm on the board of the Association for Retarded Citizens, and I would really like you to think about taking a summer job there and see what you think." So I did. They sent me to a conference at Forest Haven, a really infamous institution. I walked around the grounds, up to this really high chain-link fence. While I was standing there, this staff person literally herded about 20 women out who had absolutely no clothes on and started hosing them down. It was one of the most dehumanizing things I've ever seen. I stood there, I looked at it, and it was one of those defining moments. I said: I think I could do something that makes a difference here.

So I went to work for the ARC. After a couple of years, I became the executive director and set out on a journey to reform how people with mental retardation -- now called "intellectual and cognitive disabilities" -- were treated. We did a lot of work with the [D.C. City] Council, got legislation developed, changed a number of laws in the city, and became only the second jurisdiction in America to be institution-free. It was one of the most exciting things I ever did in my life. It made you realize that if you really have a vision for what you want to do, you can use the legislative and regulatory process to effectuate that vision.

Taking that job was a risk, and certainly going into political life was a risk -- running [first] against a three-time incumbent in Ward 7, running the council chair's race against someone really formidable, and I'm in another one now. You've got to do your own soul-searching, but I think if you believe that you can really do something different and better, you need to make the decision to step up. I had an experience in life once where I was a really good baseball player in high school -- I mean, really good -- and I had a tryout with a couple major-league teams. But I just stopped after a point, didn't pursue it any further. And it's really kind of plagued me all my life. You almost want to have failed rather than to have walked away from something because you didn't make the commitment to really try.

Interview by KK Ottesen

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