Gray gets flak over late-night flip-flop on streetcar funds

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 3, 2010; 1:16 PM

The legend of Vincent C. Gray goes something like this: First at the John A. Wilson Building, last to leave. Forges consensus in a single bound. Loves hearings so much he holds 'em on Saturdays. Huddles each night in his wood-paneled corner office, alone but for a stack of briefing books and a tank of midnight oil.

It's all great imagery for his campaign against Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), not especially known for his studiousness. Alas, it was one of those late nights at city hall that got the D.C. Council chairman in trouble last week.

In budget language finalized in the small hours last Wednesday, Gray highlighted for a swath of voters -- well-off, mostly white, living in gentrifying neighborhoods and inclined to vote -- every doubt they ever had about him. That he's not forward-thinking. That he's an old-school, backroom operator. That he's plodding and overly cautious. That his commitment to good government is mere lip service.

At 2:27 that morning, a Gray staffer e-mailed the final draft of the city's 2011 budget that was to be voted on by noon the next day. A few hours later, as caterers prepared made-to-order waffles for legislators' traditional pre-meeting breakfast, an active and increasingly powerful group of District voters got the bad news.

David Alpert, who runs the influential blog Greater Greater Washington and who serves as the de facto ringleader of a group of smart, dedicated transit and planning activists, found out that the late-night draft sliced millions from the city's streetcar program -- delaying its debut by at least a year and probably longer. Shortly after 9 a.m., he posted the news on his blog, linking it on Twitter, and the activists went berserk.

Gray was able to save the streetcars by 3:30 p.m. -- by squeezing an additional $47 million in scarce capital dollars out of Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi -- but his mayoral campaign blog already hosted dozens of nasty comments.

Like this one: "You're a moron. Fenty it is."

Budgets, of course, are messy things. When you spend more than $5 billion in local taxpayer funds in a plan hundreds of pages long, that doesn't typically get done on a 9-to-5 schedule, as Gray pointed out. Late nights, he said, are "often the case with the budget. There's a lot of work to do. You get to crunch time."

But with Gray in the middle of a mayoral race in which he boasts that he's "governed in an open and transparent manner," as he said at a candidates' forum Wednesday evening, and trying to position himself as the sober, deliberative alternative to what he sees as Fenty's manic impatience, it's hard to defend late-night shenanigans of any type.

And the streetcars might not even be the worst of it. In another little-noticed move, Gray's late-night budget transferred a 358,000-square-foot former school from the city -- which had been using it to train firefighters and social workers -- to the University of the District of Columbia with virtually no public participation.

In an interview Wednesday night, Gray suggested for the first time that the streetcar change was due to a staff error and that he did not approve the wee-hours reshuffling. He also defended his decision to include the Harris transfer in budget legislation, rather than move the school via a separate bill -- which would involve an open hearing. "The community college is a huge part of our budget," Gray said.

The bad news for Gray: Neither explanation bolsters the image he's trying to project over the next 100 days. The good news: Gray actually came out of this pretty well. Leaders on both sides of the issue say the mayoral wannabe managed not to completely squander their goodwill.

Meg Maguire, a leader on streetcar issues for the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which has opposed overhead wires in certain historic areas, says she's pleased that Gray's compromise included a requirement for more comprehensive planning. "It seems to be moving in a direction that is going to end up with a reasonable set of policies," she said.

And Alpert credits Gray for "listening to what the residents thought." Never mind the flip-flop: "The 2 a.m. part of it was certainly color that drove the point home a little bit. But what people really cared about was the outcome."

And the outcome is what Gray -- usually just as occupied with process -- would like to focus on in this case. "I am where I said I was," he said Wednesday. "At the end of the day, I'm supporting streetcars."

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