For Mayor-elect Gray, pressure piles up even before he takes office

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 7:10 PM

The head of the Dunbar High School Parents Teachers Association wants Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray to name a new principal and reduce class sizes.

District taxi drivers, key supporters of Gray (D) during the campaign, are demanding rule changes to make it easier for individuals to work for themselves.

And business leaders and advocates for public transportation are pressuring Gray to reappoint transportation chief Gabe Klein and retain the city's new bicycle and bus lanes.

Even before Gray is sworn in Jan. 2, pressure is mounting for him to deliver.

Not since Marion Barry won a third term after a bruising primary and general election contest in 1994, observers say, has an incoming mayor of the District faced so many immediate challenges that could further divide the city's electorate.

Gray, who toppled Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the September primary, now must decide whether to raise taxes, how to manage the new city-owned hospital and what level of social services the city can afford. In less affluent parts of the city, Gray's supporters are counting on him to make good on campaign promises by tackling chronic unemployment. Everyone is looking for a signal about how he plans to govern a city divided along racial and class lines.

His challenges are magnified by his showing in last week's general election, when nearly one out of four voters wrote in Fenty instead of casting their ballot for the D.C. Council chairman. In several precincts in Georgetown, Upper Northwest and Capitol Hill, more voters wrote in a candidate than supported Gray.

"He just has to hit the ground running," said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), a close ally of Gray. "He gets no honeymoon, not even in the transition."

There already are signs of trouble. On the day after the general election, Gray met with the leaders of his transition team. Noticeably absent were representatives of organized labor, many of whom had urged Gray to challenge Fenty. Unions spent hundreds of thousands supporting his campaign.

"We are going to be having some discussions about that," Dwight R. Bowman, national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 20,000 employees. "I was willing to give a honeymoon between the primary and the actual election Tuesday because he needed to be a politician. But now that the election is over, it's time to be an administrator and work with all segments of the city."

Thursday, Gray angered the leaders of the Fraternal of Police when he failed to show up at the funeral for Officer Paul M. Dittamo, who was killed Oct. 30 when his police cruiser struck a utility pole in Southeast. A Gray spokeswoman said he did not realize the funeral was taking place.

Gray also was scrutinized last week for deciding to hold his election night party at Love nightclub, which is owned by Marc Barnes. Barnes owes the city $860,000 in back in taxes, records show. And Gray faced questions about one of his top advisers, Reuben C. Charles II, who has a $236,000 tax debt in Illinois. Charles, widely viewed as a top contender to become the Gray's chief of staff, said the debt is related to a company with which he was formerly affiliated.

Mo Elleithee, Gray's communications strategist, acknowledged the transition got off to a bumpy start.

"As the transition progresses and more people come on board and the transition team gets up and running and more permanent staff gets put into place, you will see a marked difference," Elleithee said.

Four years ago, Fenty enjoyed an extended honeymoon from the public and media when he swept into office after winning every precinct in the Democratic primary. Viewed as an energetic reformer, Fenty was able to spend his first two years in office enacting landmark school reform and gaining praise for expediting the construction and renovation of long- awaited schools, playgrounds and recreation centers.

Former mayors Anthony A. Williams and Sharon Pratt also enjoyed relatively smooth and controversy-free starts to their administrations. But neither Pratt nor Williams had held elective office locally before being elected mayor, and the media and pundits gave them time for a bit of on-the-job training.

As council chairman for the past four years, Gray is viewed as an insider, heightening expectations that he should quickly settle into the job.

Because of Gray's close ties to most council members, he likely will start his term with good relations with his former colleagues. But the city's budget challenges will immediately test the mayor's and council members' ability to cooperate in setting priorities.

Competing interests

The District faces a $175 million shortfall in the current year's budget, part of a larger shortfall projected to be as much as $500 million over the course of Gray's four-year term. With Gray and the council hoping to start tackling the problem even before he takes office, battle lines already have been drawn.

Social service advocates are pushing for tax increases on the wealthy to avoid severe cuts to social programs. Such tax increases that could alienate residents in well-off neighborhoods who have been skeptical of Gray.

Absent a major tax increase, council members say, Gray could be forced to make cuts to public education just as he's trying to combat concerns that he's not fully supportive of school reform. Other budget cuts could be so severe, according to council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), that the city might have to reduce direct cash assistance payments to needy families.

"There is a great deal of denial about the depth of the cuts that we will have to make," Wells said.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said Gray needs to quickly engage in "a very somber conversation with citizens of the city to prepare them for" tax increases, layoffs and cuts to some popular programs.

Bowman, noting that many city employees enthusiastically backed Gray over Fenty, said the union is prepared to discuss possible layoffs or furloughs.

But he asked, "Who are you going to lay off? Is it going to be the EMS crews? Is it going to be the inspectors? Is it going to be the garage people at the police department who make sure the cars are running so the police can patrol the streets?"

At the same time, Gray will be under enormous pressure to continue efforts by Williams and Fenty to improve city services.

"He can't give the impression he is letting things slip," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).

The names game

Gray's first test, many advocates say, will be his cabinet appointments.

Fenty and Gray's appointment of Kaya Henderson as interim schools chancellor after Michelle A. Rhee stepped down last month generally was well-received. But Gray suggested last week he will be deciding "early in the year" whether Henderson, a protege of Rhee, will be the permanent schools chief.

And at a recent meeting of the D.C. Young Democrats, Gray was peppered with questions about alleged overcrowding at Dunbar High School, which school officials deny.

"We expect quick response to our concerns," said LaTanya Cherry, head of the Dunbar PTA. "These are our children, and time is of the essence."

Gray also is under considerable pressure to keep transportation chief Klein and Harriet Tregoning, the head of the Department of Planning, in order to send a signal he embraces Fenty's vision for bicycle lanes, more mass transit options and lively neighborhoods.

"There are people who are going to look at these appointments, and he needs to send a clear message he's going to move things forward, or he can send a message he is not," said Dave Alpert, founder of the Greater Greater Washington blog, which advocates for smart growth and public transportation.

Yet, as the election proved, amenities such as bike lanes have more appeal in Northwest then they do in some other areas of the city. In Southeast, where Gray won 80 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary after vowing to combat chronic unemployment, he will need to manage expectations.

"He has to keep them from instantly believing he can get them a job," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).

Meanwhile, demands on Gray keep piling up.

Derje Mamo, a taxi driver who helped run transportation for the mayor-elect's campaign, said cabdrivers already are pushing Gray to reshape the Taxicab Commission and allow for the creation of a medallion system. A medallion or certification system would limit the number of cabs operating in the city. Proponents of such a system argue that too many taxis are flooding D.C. streets.

"He's got one year, that's it," Mamo said.

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