Mixed reviews of D.C. candidate Vincent Gray's tenure at agency in 1990s

Voters in D.C. cast ballots Tuesday in the closely watched Democratic primary race for mayor between Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray.
By Ann E. Marimow, Henri E. Cauvin and Tim Craig
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 10:54 PM

When Sharon Pratt ran for mayor in 1990, she proclaimed herself a reformer, promising to clean up the District bureaucracy "with a shovel, not a broom."

One of her first tasks after her election was persuading Vincent C. Gray, not then a member of the city's governing class, to take over the troubled Department of Human Services, a sprawling agency that was widely viewed as lacking the structure, discipline and funds to fulfill its responsibilities to those who relied on it for medical care, food stamps and shelter.

Nearly two decades later, as Gray challenges incumbent Adrian M. Fenty for the Democratic mayoral nomination, Fenty and others have seized on Gray's record at DHS, saying he was an ineffective bureaucrat who mismanaged funds and helped bring the District to the brink of bankruptcy.

In interviews with more than two dozen former and current activists, lawyers and government officials, however, most said that Gray - now the D.C. Council chairman - delivered incremental progress at DHS and that he was a hands-on manager who cared for those whom the department sought to help.

But Gray, whose service as DHS director was bookended by administrations of four-term mayor Marion Barry (D), did not transform an agency that by all accounts needed nothing less. He did not make significant, lasting changes, according to observers, in part because his ambitions were no match for the deep-rooted fiscal and political challenges of governing the District during the national recession of the early 1990s.

"They weren't moving full enough or fast enough, but it was a government bureaucracy. They were more responsive than the Barry administration and the administration after that," said Donna Wulkan, who was an attorney in a class-action lawsuit against the District over conditions at juvenile detention facilities. "We were on opposite sides of the fence. . . . But I still felt he was advocating for the kids."

An agency in trouble

When he was appointed in 1991, Gray was the department's 11th director in 12 years, and the agency he inherited was the city's largest. It cost $1 billion a year to run the department, which employed more than 8,000 people and had a far-reaching portfolio that included juvenile justice, foster care, homelessness, AIDS and mental health. And the department was fraught with problems: 14 important functions had been declared substandard and placed under some form of federal court oversight. By the time Gray left, there would be two more.

Gray's undertaking was made more difficult by a record number of homeless families, one of the country's fastest-growing AIDS rates and a government payroll that had ballooned under Barry, now the council member for Ward 8. The deterioration of the city's finances had begun before Gray and Pratt arrived, not because of them, as Fenty has suggested.

"She was handed this disaster," said economist Alice M. Rivlin, who helped orchestrate the congressional takeover of the city government as President Bill Clinton's budget director after Pratt left office. But Rivlin noted that the financial situation under Pratt "did not get any better, that's for sure, and by 1995, the city was in free fall."

Rivlin, who supports Gray's mayoral candidacy, said it would not be "fair to blame the disaster on Sharon, much less Gray." But Rivlin said Pratt lacked the "strong political base" to lead a financial turnaround because "she wasn't an experienced politician."

Pratt, who also backs Gray, declined to be interviewed. But in a series of e-mails, she praised Gray for doing a "remarkable job of addressing entrenched, difficult issues."

For his part, Gray points to various accomplishments. On his watch, the city increased the number of social workers to shrink their caseloads; it shuttered the long-troubled Forest Haven center and transferred developmentally disabled people to community-based settings; the infant mortality rate declined. A list of achievements Gray provided, which runs eight pages and ranges from the minute to the monumental, underscores the breadth of the challenges he faced.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company