D.C. mayoral race

D.C. mayoral race: With grit and diplomacy, Gray pushes through agenda

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, left, questions Mayor Adrian M. Fenty about his fiscal 2011 budget. Gray hopes to unseat Fenty in the Sept. 14 primary.
D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, left, questions Mayor Adrian M. Fenty about his fiscal 2011 budget. Gray hopes to unseat Fenty in the Sept. 14 primary. (Gerald Martineau For The Washington Post)
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

When Mayor Adrian M. Fenty wanted to seize control of the District schools shortly after his 2007 inauguration, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray told him at a closed-door meeting that he needed to slow down.

It will get done, the new council chairman assured the new mayor, but not before "people had an opportunity to weigh in" at six hearings.

Gray (D) hoped that the council vote three months later in favor of mayoral control of the District schools would set the tone for a close "partnership" with Fenty (D), one in which the two branches of the District government worked closely on many of the mayor's priorities.

Instead, Gray said his relationship with Fenty was "dealt a blow" even before the school-reform bill became law. On the night before it was to take effect in June 2007, Gray said Fenty walked in his office shortly after 11 p.m. with "this lady." That "lady" was Michelle A. Rhee, and Fenty told Gray that she would be introduced as the new schools chancellor in the morning.

"I was just stunned and like 'How could you do it this way?' " Gray recalls. "When the paper came out the next morning, it was clear The Washington Post knew before I did. It was a bit offensive to feel he could trust the media more than the council."

The meeting, which was the first of several run-ins in which Gray said he felt disrespected, not only soured the relationship between the two but also spurred Gray to redefine how he would run the council, by steering members to work collaboratively, seeking more public input and ensuring that the legislative body was as visible as the mayor on landmark legislation.

Reputation for diligence

As he now seeks to unseat Fenty in the Sept. 14 mayoral primary, Gray's approach has come under fire from some of the mayor's supporters. They argue that Gray's reputation for diligence would slow the city's progress. But in an interview, Gray said nothing makes him angrier than when he reads news accounts calling him "deliberative."

"There is nothing that got slowed down under me," he said. "It was done in a thoughtful way, but when you look at the accomplishments of this council, it isn't as if it was some one-step-at-a-time and let's take nine years to do this. . . . I prefer the term 'thoughtful.' "

During Gray's 3 1/2 -year tenure as chairman, he wrote legislation expanding pre-kindergarten programs, became the leading advocate for the University of the District of Columbia and initiated a series of reforms at the council to bring more sunshine to the legislative process.

Gray, 67, also helped oversee the enactment of some of the most consequential pieces of legislation since home rule in 1973, including school reforms, the same-sex marriage law, the rewriting of gun-control regulations, the legalization of medical marijuana and the bag tax.

Observers and Gray's council colleagues say he has been successful because he carefully maneuvered through the web of personalities on the 13-member body with grit and diplomacy. Although he gave members latitude to pursue their proposals, Gray was always willing to swoop in to resolve disputes or finesse the final touches on a deal in a way that few emerged disappointed.

"He has elevated the operations of the council to a completely new level," said Tony Bullock, a consultant who served as communications director under former mayor Anthony A. Williams. "He's brought order and civility and decorum to what had often been a pretty theatrical environment, and he did it essentially through consensus-building exercises with members to show them they needed to respect each other."

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