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

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."

To combat what he views as unfair impressions, Gray has begun attending lunch and dinner parties with small groups of Northwest residents, the first of which was Sunday night in Spring Valley. In advance of the Nov. 2 general election, the Gray campaign also plans to send out mailers, and perhaps air television ads, to try to improve his reputation in the white community.

In the days after the primary, much of Gray's public schedule has him in settings with voters who probably supported Fenty in the primary. On Sept. 25, Gray campaigned at a bar in Dupont Circle that primarily serves white gay men. On Sept. 27, he addressed business leaders at an event downtown. Later in the week, he taped a segment on _blank"Q&A Cafe" with Carol Joynt, where he answered questions at the Ritz Carlton in Georgetown in front of a lunchtime crowd of socialites.

"Gray had a broad, wonderful mix of supporters, and this notion that it was just a group of unemployed people in Ward 8 that got him there is one thing that we got to debunk, because it's absolutely false," said Reuben O. Charles II, director of operations for the Gray campaign. "We have to invite everyone into this broad, robust conversation about moving forward."

Conciliatory humor

At the same time he courts Northwest Washington residents, Gray advisers say they understand the widespread sentiment among African Americans that Fenty favored those same upscale voters.

"Gray is not going to make the same mistakes Adrian Fenty made, neglecting the people who got them there," said City Council member and former mayor Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

After Barry was elected to a fourth term in 1994, he was widely quoted as saying his opponents in Upper Northwest had to "get over" his election.

Gray has been more conciliatory.

While speaking to Joynt, Gray said his childhood home in Northeast was in a neighborhood that is "gentrifying." Joynt asked him if gentrification was a "good word or bad word?"

"It's a description," Gray said to laughs.

'Burden is on Gray'

Gray faces only nominal opposition in the Nov. 2 general election, but his advisers worry that their transition could get off to a rocky start if large numbers of residents support a third-party or write-in candidate. More than 5,000 people have joined a Facebook page _blankcalling on voters to write in Fenty's name on their general-election ballots.

"I'm concerned he doesn't have an actual platform for the city," Steve Snyder of Logan Circle said of Gray. "He was elected because he ran against a personality, but he hasn't proposed anything concrete for the city."

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who endorsed Gray during the primary, said Fenty's television ads questioning Gray's oversight of the Department of Human Services in the early 1990s took their toll.

"The Fenty campaign did paint a rather dark picture of 'we don't want to go back,' " Cheh said. "It was completely convincing, or somewhat convincing, and now the burden is on Gray to dispel that because it seems to have scared people in Ward 3."

Gray is looking to Cheh and others to help.

"People just don't know who he is," said Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who supported Fenty during the primary but now is helping Gray. "Vince is a warm, genuine, good guy, and as he gets out there more and speaks more, it will help him a lot."

Some council members say Fenty voters will wait until Gray starts making appointments to top city jobs before forming an opinion on his administration. Cheh is lobbying Gray to send a "comforting" message to voters in Northwest immediately after the general election by stating that he will retain Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, whose popularity has been shown in polls.

One of Gray's biggest challenges is what will happen to Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. Polls show Rhee remains popular in Northwest, home to growing numbers of young white couples with children who appeared to overwhelmingly support Fenty. But many African Americans have an unfavorable view of Rhee.

"If Rhee stays, that is one thing, but if she goes, the voters who backed Fenty because of school reform are really going to want to have a strong opinion and voice on who becomes the next chancellor," said political strategist Chuck Thies.

When Gray attended the 17th Street Festival on Sept. 25 in Dupont Circle, where he only received 21 percent of the vote, a Washington Post reporter heard at least two passersbys yell "Michelle Rhee" as he walked through the crowd.

"My only concern is the schools," said Sarah Gilmore, 35, who attended the festival with her 5- and 6-year-old children. "I'm a big Rhee fan."

Until the question about Rhee's future is resolved, many expect that Gray will struggle to make inroads in the white community.

But some are coming around. A week ago, several members of the Federal City Council, largely made up of business leaders, said Gray delivered a powerful speech in which he vowed to continue school reform.

"It was an excellent, impassioned address," said Margaret Dunning of Georgetown, who heads the Washington office of Widmeyer Communications, a large public relations firm. "Change always brings concern, but I must say after hearing him I'm very favorably impressed."

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