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Strings attached to Gray's coalition

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2010; C01

In the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor, Vincent C. Gray has told supporters of District charter schools that he will provide funding parity to the 28,000 city students who attend the schools, a $140 million promise.

The D.C. Council chairman has said he is committed to training the city's workforce for jobs in emerging fields. Ward 7's jobless rate is 19 percent, and Ward 8's is near 30 percent.

And on his mayoral campaign Web site, he vows to invest in early education -- universal pre-kindergarten and universal infant and toddler education -- as well as find money for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical staff.

Gray's wide-ranging and potentially expensive policy positions have helped him amass a coalition most politicians would envy. He has received endorsements from the AFL-CIO, public employees unions, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the D.C. Tenants Advocacy Coalition, the D.C. Realtors Association, nurses, social workers, and gay and Hispanic Democratic groups.

Observers say the coalition is crucial to Gray, whose war chest, at last report, was about one-tenth the $3 million amassed by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The broad support could translate into financial backing and volunteer workers, and it could bolster Gray's standing as an establishment candidate.

For the most part, supporters say Gray hasn't made specific promises, although they are drawn to his reputation for collaboration and want to be closer to the levers of power. But with the city government likely to face continuing budget shortfalls, if he is elected, Gray can expect to be tested quickly on how well he can say no.

"Anytime you win, everybody is responsible for you winning, whether you win by one vote or a landslide," said Julius W. Hobson Jr., a consultant who headed the city's intergovernmental affairs office in the late 1980s. "You didn't get there without them, and that is what [Gray] is going to face."

Council member Marion Barry (Ward 8), a former four-term mayor who has a long-standing relationship with Gray, said he had better "be prepared" for an influx of demands because "the American way is to the victor goes the spoils."

"The unions are going to come. All the advocacy groups are going to come. I'm going to come," Barry said. "I have a self-interest in this race. We want major development east of the Anacostia River. People want jobs, training programs. And he's just going to have to be prepared for that."

Some friends and advisers said privately that it might prove difficult for Gray to say no to supporters, given his big-tent management style and compassionate leanings. It was also noted that in another era, he and some of his supporters held office in a city government that wasn't known for spending money efficiently.

Gray said in an interview that he has generally shied away from making far-reaching promises and that he is up to making difficult decisions. He pointed to his experience as executive director of the D.C. Association of Retarded Citizens in the 1980s and of Covenant House of Washington in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"You want to be compassionate, but people have put me in these positions to make decisions," Gray said. "I follow two principles, and that is if I make a promise, I will do everything I can to fulfill it, and, second, if it is something I can't do, I won't make the promise in the first place."

Go-slow approach

Gray has hired several outsiders to help run his campaign, but friends and supporters say longtime Washingtonians with ties to former mayors Barry and Sharon Pratt continue to influence decisions. Some supporters are concerned that Gray has not presented detailed policy goals and worry that the campaign will be paralyzed by his go-slow, consult-first style.

"If Adrian Fenty is the hare, Vince is definitely the tortoise," said someone who has worked closely with Gray and who asked to remain anonymous to maintain their relationship. "There is no question he surrounds himself with lot of people and that can slow decision making."

For instance, the education policy his campaign rolled out last month had been vetted by more than 100 teachers, union leaders, parents and other stakeholders. And as council chairman, some colleagues said, Gray has been too slow at times to fire poorly performing employees. But some council members say Gray gives latitude to committee chairs to set policy and cut deals, choosing to act more as a referee and mediator.

"I look at him and think, 'Would he treat his Cabinet similarly?' " asked one council member, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely. "If he hired good people and provided good support, that would be a very good way to govern. The problem is, what if he hires bad people and lets them simply get away with being bad? Then we are in trouble."

Gray's nice-guy image aside, he has at times experienced difficulty managing competing interests. In April, Gray spoke to a Jewish social advocacy group and left the impression that he would spare social service programs from major budget cuts, even if it meant higher taxes. A month later, Gray and the council ruled out higher taxes, prompting some additional cuts.

At the end of May, Gray decided to cut funding for a new streetcar system, but within hours, he had reversed himself in the face of a public outcry.

Max J. Brown, a former legal counsel to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and a Fenty supporter, said steady leadership is required to improve schools, lower crime and spur economic development. "It's like a football game," Brown said of city politics. "If you are the defensive tackle trying to get the quarterback, you are not going to say, 'Excuse me, offensive line, can I get around you?' " It's a contact sport, and sometimes you just get the job done and you ruffle a few feathers."

Brown said one reason that Fenty has been able to thin out a bloated bureaucracy was that he was elected with little support from unions and other interest groups. But some business leaders and advocates say Fenty's style, which is often characterized as abrasive, comes at a cost, because he has been unable to build the effective coalitions needed to ensure lasting reforms.

"We've got some very serious decisions to make as a city, and that is going to require a consensus builder," said Gray supporter Barbara Lang, executive director of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Some tough issues

Fenty often points to his scrapping of the zoned taxi system in 2007 as an example of him taking on a difficult issue to make the city more business- and tourist-friendly.

But the change capped fares within the District at $19, which cabdrivers say threatens to run them out of business. Novell Sullivan, former head of the taxi commission, and other Gray supporters have distributed a letter Gray wrote to the city's 6,000 licensed cabdrivers two weeks ago in an attempt to address their concerns.

"I have already tasked my staff with thoroughly reviewing your ideas and possible avenues for collaboration between government and industry on this critical matter," Gray wrote. The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, didn't promise higher fares but indicated that Gray hoped cabdrivers would support his campaign.

Campaign advisers said the letter shows that Gray is willing to reach out so that people feel they have a stake in city government. "A collaborative approach doesn't mean a debilitating approach," said Mo Elleithee, a senior Gray strategist. "A collaborative approach means everyone has a seat at the table, but at the end of the day, he will make the ultimate decisions."

Gray supporters said his performance as council chairman proves that he has the ability to make tough decisions and continue the changes started by Williams and Fenty. Gray, they noted, led the council effort last year to censure Barry and strip him of his committee chairmanship after allegations that Barry had misused city resources. Despite intense pressure from nonprofit groups, Gray also eliminated council earmarks last year. And budget hawks said Gray has generally shown more restraint then Fenty when balancing the budget.

"When the time comes, he will say no," said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Still, issues such as taxi fares could present a dilemma for Gray. Gray wants to help cabdrivers, but a Washington Post poll in January found nearly six in 10 residents -- including 80 percent of white residents -- support the taxi meter system.

Gray's positions on the police department could require another balancing act. The Post poll found that Chief Cathy L. Lanier had a 68 percent approval rating. But the head of the chairman of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police labor committee, a Gray supporters, said she should be fired. "I think what we need to see is a real cleaning from all the ranks," Kristopher Baumann said.

And whether the city can afford what the candidate promises is a question that never goes away. On the campaign trail, Gray has declared that he will provide funding "equity" for charter schools. The pledge has rallied supporters of charter schools, who note that millions of dollars flow to traditional public schools outside the uniform per-student formula.

"We are excited Gray has become a champion, and we plan to absolutely hold him to his promise," said Barnaby Towns, a spokesman for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools.

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