For Gray, a methodical path to the mayor's office

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 11:23 PM

Vincent C. Gray, who defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the Democratic primary by promising to be a peacemaker in District government, easily won election Tuesday by overcoming token opposition and a write-in campaign by some Fenty supporters.

The 67-year-old D.C. Council chairman's primary victory over Fenty was watched closely for its implications on post-racial politics, education reform and the changing demographics and culture of urban centers.

Such pressures prompted Gray to hold nine town-hall-style meetings, treading a difficult line as candidate, presumptive mayor-elect and soother while pledging to bridge the city's racial, class and geographic differences.

In a repeat of the primary, D.C. election officials struggled to get results out Tuesday night. The first update was not released until after 10 p.m. At 10:45, the results of fewer than 24,000 votes had been released, and Gray had 78 percent of them. Nearly 20 percent of votes were cast for a write-in candidate, although election officials did not release the names written in by voters. Assuming Fenty got the majority of those votes, the write-in campaign appeared to make inroads in predominantly white Ward 3 and gentrifying pockets of the city where voters said they were writing in the mayor out of protest and in support of school reform.

Gray's triumphant rise as the District's seventh mayor appears swift and inadvertent. In six years, he went from running the nonprofit Covenant House to mayor of the nation's capital. But his friends, advisers and one-time opponents describe him as a man who has been at the right place at the right time and always prepared to take advantage of every opportunity.

In the primary, Fenty's $5 million campaign coffers scared away most competitors. Outmatched by an army of Fenty paid workers, Gray cobbled together support from labor unions and business interests to pull off what some thought impossible a year ago.

Gray also abandoned door-to-door knocking, the campaign tool that became the stuff of politicking lore because of Fenty's holey-soled shoes in 2006. Instead, Gray met voters in their living rooms and back yards and talked to them about balancing the budget, training residents for jobs and expanding public education.

"In many ways, his campaigning style is a throwback," said former Ward 7 council member Kevin P. Chavous, unseated by Gray in 2004 in his first public-office win. "The new consultant tells you to touch as many people as possible. He touches less people, but the conversations are probably more meaningful. . . . That approach has worked for him."

'One step at a time'

A decade ago, Gray was working with low-income residents in Lincoln Heights when Chavous confronted him on the street about a rumor. "Are you running against me?" asked Chavous, who was in his second term and in a vulnerable position since waging an unsuccessful 1998 run for mayor.

"I've thought about it, Kevin," Gray told him as Fenty, Chavous's aide at the time, looked on.

Fenty reflected on the conversation as an example of Gray's methodical and political timing. "Always looking toward the political future but not rushing," Fenty told a room of Democrats on Sept. 15, the day after Gray defeated him. "Taking it one step at a time."

In an interview Tuesday outside a voting precinct in Ward 3, Gray described himself as more politically thoughtful than politically shrewd. Each time he ran for office - Ward 7 council member, chairman and mayor - he talked to people for hours and mulled strategies for months.

After that encounter with Chavous, Gray spent the next few years building a political résumé. His early career was focused as an advocate for the mentally disabled, but Gray was tapped in the 1990s by then-Mayor Sharon Pratt to head up the city's Department of Human Services. After that, he returned to the nonprofit world with Covenant House.

In 2003, Gray decided to run for president of the Ward 7 Democrats in what turned out to be the first of a string of back-to-back victories. Vince Spaulding, former president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association in Ward 7, recalled that Gray was an energetic newcomer when he took the helm of the local Democratic committee.

"He's a good organizer," Spaulding said. "He held regular meetings, publicized the meetings. He gave it [Ward 7 Democrats] a real sense of direction."

Gray elevated the status of the Ward 7 Democrats, and in turn, elevated himself, community leaders said.

By 2004, he was ready for Chavous.

Concerned about appearances

Gray, known for his diplomacy and etiquette, asked Chavous to meet him for breakfast before he announced publicly that he would, in fact, run against the incumbent, making reality out of the four-year-old rumor.

"I think you've outgrown this," Gray told Chavous, whose aspiration to be mayor, constitutents said, came at the expense of their concerns.

Chavous, a national advocate for school choice, can laugh now. "I thought it was a classy move. He stroked my ego big time, and then he ran against me," Chavous said.

In that contest, Gray portrayed Chavous as an incumbent who had lost touch. "He caught me when I was disengaged," Chavous said.

Gray wasn't on the council a year before rumblings began about who would be running for mayor. Fenty, then the Ward 4 council member, and Linda W. Cropp, then council chairman, emerged from a crowded field.

Cropp had to resign her seat to run, opening an opportunity. Then-Ward 3 council member Kathy Patterson, as a three-term incumbent with a lengthy legislative record, was poised to replace her. But Patterson's incumbency and championing of some issues had racked up influential enemies willing to back a challenger.

Enter Gray.

The presumptive mayor-elect said the decision to run could have cast him in the same light as Chavous, a politician looking for a higher office. He said he spent three or four months "studying the idea" and asking the opinions of community leaders. "I said, 'I'd rather stay right where I am than be looked at as someone who is opportunistic,' " Gray said Tuesday.

With Ward 7 stakeholders on board, Gray was ready for Patterson.

Patterson, who is white and grew up in California, said in an e-mail that her 12 years on the council were no match for Gray's "compelling personal story."

"It always started with, 'I'm a native Washingtonian,' " Patterson recalled.

Pollster and political consultant Ron Lester said the personal narrative reflected a base of support. Although to a majority of white residents and newcomers Gray was the lesser-known candidate, he was well-known to longtime black residents who remembered the standout Dunbar High School graduate. "He had a feel for the community based on a 50-year history," Lester said.

Adjusting to run

Gray, who is black, applied many of the same tactics from his successful 2006 campaign for chairman to this year's mayoral primary. Although the outcome was slightly different, Gray again won more white voters than his opponent did black voters, a good, if not always guaranteed, path to victory in a majority-black city.

After weeks of apparent indecision, Gray decided to challenge Fenty: He recast the issue of education and countered Fenty's hard-charging style with a more conciliatory, deliberative approach. Gray said Fenty needed an opponent, win or lose. "If you had asked me the question in November 2009, am I running? My most optimistic answer was, 'No, but I am going to consider it,' " Gray said. "I basically pushed all my chips into the table and said, 'I'm in.' "

Being in meant making adjustments, according to friends and advisers who say Gray recognized the challenge of running against Fenty. Although reluctant, Gray eventually sported a slightly different haircut, new suits and an updated pair of eyeglasses. He agreed to early attack ads against Fenty.

Gray also asked some longtime friends to take a back seat as he hired professionals, such as campaign consultant Mo Elleithee, to handle day-to-day operations. "It was a good mix of old and new," Elleithee said.

Avram Fechter, who worked as Gray's Ward 3 campaign coordinator in 2006, said it's a reflection of how Gray works. "He doesn't have a kitchen cabinet," Fechter said. "He has a kitchen army."

And then, he attacks.

"He's been lucky," Chavous said. "He can be calculating."

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