In primary race against Adrian Fenty, Vince Gray has put his political skills on display

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, September 9, 2010

To succeed in politics (or most anything else), you've got to be lucky or smart. In positioning himself as the front-runner to become the District's next mayor, Vince Gray has been both.

Gray has been fortunate because the incumbent, Adrian Fenty, has suffered a self-inflicted political meltdown -- mainly by neglecting to preserve good relations with the District's African American majority.

But it wasn't all happenstance. Although his political skills are often overlooked, Gray has adeptly navigated some treacherous reefs. He has minimized potential problems over some of the biggest personalities in D.C. politics, notably former mayor Marion Barry and Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and over controversial issues such as same-sex marriage.

He also used a string of quick endorsements and surprise victories in early straw polls to build momentum despite an enormous disadvantage in funding.

Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council, hasn't won yet, but recent polls show him with a large lead over Fenty heading in to Tuesday's Democratic primary. Victory there generally ensures winning the office in November in the heavily Democratic city.

It has been a remarkable campaign, considering how many naysayers predicted Gray wouldn't stand a chance. As recently as March, the headline on a commentary in a competing publication read, "Vince Gray for mayor is a suicide mission." (Full disclosure: Although I urged Gray to run in a column in December, saying that Fenty needed some genuine competition, I also guessed Gray would stay out of it in my end-of-year "2010 predictions" quiz.)

Gray has been thinking about a possible run for mayor in his typical deliberate way at least since May 2009. I know that because we discussed it then, the first time I had lunch with him. Gray said he was going to wait until March or April of 2010 to announce whether he was going to challenge Fenty.

Sure enough, Gray's announcement came March 30, and it was deft in several ways. By letting it be known for months that he might run, Gray made sure that other potential rivals such as council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large) and millionaire developer Don Peebles stayed on the sidelines. Gray also waited long enough to be sure Fenty was vulnerable.

"The beauty of how he's run this is that he made himself seem like the reluctant savior. He sized up Adrian early, took advantage of Adrian's failings and used them against him," said a council member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has to work with both camps.

Even before the announcement, Gray made some important, helpful political moves. In particular, he inoculated himself against suspicions he might be too close to Barry. The Ward 8 council member is anathema to some voters, especially white ones, because of his drug conviction and other controversies.

Gray and Barry have been friends for 35 years, and both have political bases in the predominantly black wards east of the Anacostia River. But Gray brought the council together March 2 to censure Barry and strip him of his committee chairmanship for helping a girlfriend get a city contract.

Nevertheless, Barry is supporting Gray in the mayor's race. So Gray has managed the neat trick of putting distance between himself and Barry while still benefiting from the latter's backing. Moreover, as one Gray adviser noted, by the time Barry's support for Gray was getting a lot of attention in the media, the chairman had already received a kind of offsetting endorsement from council member Mary Cheh, who represents mostly white Ward 3.

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