By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; A01
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."
While even detractors acknowledge Gray has helped professionalize the council, his critics say he is a micromanager -- the kind of leader who orders up meetings to prepare for other meetings. They also say the deep-rooted hostility between him and the mayor has damaged the government, a problem compounded by Gray's resistance to police other members of the council.
"I think one of the reasons he has gotten so much unanimity on the council is he usually gives in to the most aggressive council member on any particular issues," said Attorney General Peter Nickles, who frequently speaks for the mayor. "To me, that's not leadership."
But Gray counters that he seized the reins of leadership almost immediately upon being elected in 2006 when he had to assign committees. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), one of the body's more senior members, was jockeying to become the chairman of the education committee. Despite his longtime connection to Barry, Gray eliminated education as a standalone committee and put it under the control of the committee of the whole, which he chairs and all members sit on.
"That in some ways captures the entire Gray approach to governing," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has not endorsed a candidate in the mayoral primary. "Instead of forming the education committee and appointing himself chairman, he moves it so everyone is a member, and that is really Gray's style of inclusion."
From that perch, Gray sought to stake out his piece of education reform by writing the 2008 bill that provided additional funding to enroll more 3- and 4-year-olds in pre-kindergarten and toughen training standards for pre-kindergarten teachers.
Yet, Fenty administration officials question Gray's efforts on the campaign trail to take credit for the recent expansion of pre-kindergarten. The real growth in slots, administration officials say, has been in the public schools because of funding increases proposed by Fenty and Rhee. They note that the legislation Gray championed largely directed money for community-based pre-kindergarten slots. Since the 2006-07 school year, the city has added 2,261 pre-kindergarten spots, with 98 percent of them in public and charter schools, according to administration records.
There is greater clarity about Gray's drive to bolster the long-troubled University of the District of Columbia. He has steered millions of dollars for capital projects to UDC and pushed through a proposal last year giving the school's board independent budgeting authority, freeing it from the city's procurement procedures.
"As someone who is an advocate for more self-determination, I view this as our state university," said Gray, who said he dreams of a school that has on-campus housing and NCAA sports teams.
UDC President Allen L. Sessoms said the university, which launched a community college last year, "wouldn't be anywhere near where they are" had it not been for Gray. "He called me up one weekend [last year] and said, 'What would it cost to build a student center?' " Sessoms said. "I said, 'It's $40 million.' A few weeks later, at our commencement, without any prior notification, he told the students that the council just voted to give you $35 million for a student center."
But Gray's love for UDC has led to confrontations with the Fenty administration.
The 15-member UDC board of trustees has eight vacancies, and the council has repeatedly rejected or stalled Fenty's nominations because Gray has challenged their qualifications. In all, administration officials say, there are about two dozen Fenty nominees to boards and commissions that the council under Gray have yet to hold a vote on.
Gray said the logjam could have been averted if Fenty consulted with the council before decisions, so the body felt "respected." Yet reaching agreement has been difficult because of his fractured relationship with the mayor. In the past year, for example, Gray said he and Fenty have met only once.
Instead, Nickles served as a go-between, meeting with the chairman at least once a month, although that stopped after Gray announced his mayoral candidacy in March. In one meeting in October, Nickles said he confronted Gray for not speaking up after Barry implied at a hearing that the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation should be "black or brown."
"I said, 'I expected more of you,' " Nickles recalled. "He didn't have a response."Bogged down in probes
Under Gray's leadership, the council has also gotten bogged down in some major investigations into the Fenty administration. Several, including the probe of Fenty's decision to donate a fire truck and ambulance to the Dominican Republic, have not turned up evidence of major wrongdoing.
And some Fenty supporters say that what they consider Gray's heavy hand has at times stood in the way of reform.
After Rhee laid off nearly 100 central office employees for poor performance in 2008, Gray demanded that the administration hand over their personnel files so he could review whether the dismissals were appropriate. Administration and school officials protested, arguing that the request was an unreasonable infringement on Rhee's authority.
"He is the leader of the group, and it's up to him to set the tone and direction," said Bill Lightfoot, Fenty's campaign chairman and a former council member. "But he's left Adrian standing alone on many, many issues of major policy."
Unlike some previous council chairmen, members say, Gray doesn't lead through intimidation and rarely uses his power to whip members into supporting one policy or another. Instead, they said, Gray carefully watches legislation as it unfolds in committees, usually injecting himself only when he encounters signs of conflict among members or committees.
By giving his committee chairs latitude to set policy, Gray has been involved in the passage of numerous major pieces of legislation, including David A. Catania's same-sex marriage law and Mary M. Cheh's bill requiring some of the most stringent school lunch standards in the country.
"There has been conflict and shifting alliances for years, but Gray gets a lot of credit for corralling the legislative body and passing some very serious and difficult legislation," said Wayne Turner, a local activist who had lobbied since the mid-1990s for legalizing medical marijuana.
Catania (I-At Large) has not endorsed a candidate in the primary, but he called Gray a "great blocker," saying he uses his authority to fend off interest groups or business interests before they can organize to try to derail controversial legislation.
"I have had some biggies come at me -- CareFirst, Pepco, the beverage industry -- and it could have been quite a different scenario if I had someone else as chair," said Cheh (D-Ward 3), who also has not declared for a candidate in the race.
But some in the government said Gray at times gave committee chairs too much freedom, allowing shadow governments to be established that lack oversight.
"He let them run wild, and no one is afraid of him," said one senior government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to talk freely about the chairman. "An executive has to be feared. . . . Look at Lyndon Johnson: No one crossed him in the Senate or when he was president, because they knew there was a price to pay. With Gray, there is no price to be paid."
Despite several scandals involving its members, some recent polls show the council has an approval rating of at least 50 percent, which Gray says is one of the highest of any legislative body in the country.
"He's made people believe that the council functions well and is performing in their best interest," said Cyril Crocker, a developer and community activist in Brookland. "The natural tendency here is to be cynical, so in a city like D.C. to get a 50 or 60 percent approval rating is pretty remarkable."