Vincent Gray plans town halls, aims to ease anxiety among white D.C. residents

Supporters at Vincent Gray's election-night party were overjoyed that that their candidate took the primary, though there seemed to be just as much emphasis on incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty losing as there was on Gray winning.
By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 8:27 PM

Minutes after D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray won the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, residents in large swaths of Northwest Washington sent dire messages on community e-mail groups and Facebook.

The missives predicted plummeting property values, rising crime and a swift return to a government that couldn't collect trash, fix streets or provide students with textbooks.

"Are you . . . kidding me DC?" one local businessman posted on Facebook the day after the election. "Back to the Marion Barry days we go."

Gray won as much as 80 percent of the vote in predominantly black areas east of the Anacostia River. But in the city's wealthier neighborhoods, which are mostly white, Gray couldn't muster 20 percent. His worst showing, 13 percent, was in a precinct near Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Georgetown.

"They really hate him," one local political strategist, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, said about voters in upper Northwest. "They think he represents a turning back of the clock."

Gray advisers dispute that the primary vote reflected distaste for Gray, suggesting instead that it was based on strong identification with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and his policies.

But in a city long divided by class and geography, Gray faces a challenge to his "one city" vision for the District while trying to govern in a way that keeps his base happy. Gray's advisers recognize that two years ago President Obama campaigned with a message about unifying Americans, only to see the nation's political fault lines grow wider, and that Fenty won every precinct four years ago only to lose in the primary to Gray.

Starting Tuesday night in Ward 5, Gray will hold a series of town hall meetings across the city that he hopes will ease tensions and allow residents to get to know him.

"I don't want to be in a situation where people routinely don't like you, so the onus is on me to reach out at this stage, and that is exactly what I am trying to do," Gray said in a recent interview.

'The city has changed'

L. Douglas Wilder, who was elected the first African American governor of Virginia in 1989, said Gray can succeed only if he governs in a way that makes supporters and detractors sense that they are being taken seriously.

"It's really unfair to be painted with any brush one way or another, notwithstanding how the polls turned out," Wilder said. "But Gray is seasoned enough to know you can't have a black audience and a white audience, and that the city has changed, gentrified."

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