Gray reverses course to back D.C. streetcars after late-night budget maneuver

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 27, 2010

It was midnight Tuesday, and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray had it all figured out. To help close a projected $550 million budget gap, he would take an ax to the city's plan to build a new streetcar system -- one of his mayoral rival's pet projects.

But hours later -- after a backlash from at least one member of Congress and hundreds of residents who jammed government phone lines, community e-mail groups and Gray's Web site -- the late-night maneuver had been scrapped. By midday Wednesday, Gray was back at the council dais, telling his colleagues that he and city finance officials had found $50 million to keep the streetcar program on track.

The saga of the streetcars is emblematic of one of the central tensions between the campaigns of Gray and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as well as the voters they're targeting. Fenty has been criticized for favoring newcomers over more established Washingtonians and for using scarce resources to build dog parks, recreation centers and streetcar lines instead of bolstering more traditional social services.

Gray has sought to capitalize on that sentiment by establishing himself as a champion of those who feel left out, but he must do so without turning off voters who value the new services.

In the days leading up to Wednesday's budget vote, Gray had sought to navigate political land mines surrounding proposals to establish a soda tax, increase taxes on the wealthy and restore millions in proposed cuts to social service programs.

Touting himself as the candidate in the September Democratic primary who can unite the city, Gray tried to fashion an election-year budget that would keep him from making enemies in a city often divided by class and race.

"This council deserves credit for what we've done, because it's a far cry better than what we got" from Fenty, Gray said.

Gray insists he only wanted to delay the streetcar project for one year to allow for more planning, which he said would result in savings for taxpayers. But the fact he was forced to change course so quickly demonstrates how the political culture is changing in the city.

"We don't know how that could happen in the dead of night, especially after [Gray] had been supportive in recent weeks and in the past," said Jason Broehm, chairman of the transportation committee of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, who supports the streetcar plan. "It's really disappointing to see how this all unfolded, backroom deals that no one had a chance to react to."

A city divided

However, winning approval of the city's 2011 budget Wednesday represents Gray's efforts to transition from legislator in chief to a mayoral candidate in a city divided over how to spend a shrinking pool of city revenue.

For instance, after nutrition advocates were disappointed that the council would not support a plan by member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) to enact a 1 cent-per-ounce tax on soda, Gray agreed to extend the city's 6 cent sales tax to sweetened drinks. He also spent hours restoring millions in cuts made by Fenty to social programs. However, Gray, who is to be endorsed Thursday by the firefighters and police unions, opposed raising the income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 8.9 percent for residents who make $350,000 or more a year.

"I think he has done as well as you can with this [budget] mess," said council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).

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