As next D.C. mayor, Gray will have to deal with debt to unions

Then the Democratic mayoral nominee, Vincent Gray laughs with volunteer Karen Williams as he works the polling place at Senior Wellness Center on Election Day.
Then the Democratic mayoral nominee, Vincent Gray laughs with volunteer Karen Williams as he works the polling place at Senior Wellness Center on Election Day. (Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)
By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 10:34 PM

After three years on the political margins, organized labor has a seat at the table. It did not come easily.

Unions delivered a barrage of phone calls, direct mail and door-to-door canvassers to help D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray complete a stunning upset of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in this year's city elections. But even that wasn't quite enough to earn labor a top role in Gray's transition.

A day after Gray introduced his 16-member transition team - which included a former mayor, a nationally recognized budget expert, a philanthropist and a former university president - Joslyn N. Williams, president of Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, said he was "concerned" that no labor leaders were among the senior members of Gray's transition team.

Now, Gray has quietly added Williams to co-chair the economic development team, joining D.C. Chamber of Commerce chief executive Barbara Lang and former George Washington University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.

The appointment reflects the balance Gray has tried to strike between acknowledging the contributions of unions to his election and facing up to the governing decisions that await him in the months ahead. On one hand, unions gave his campaign a volunteer base that helped offset Fenty's fundraising advantage. On the other, as mayor, he must tackle a budget deficit that could balloon to $500 million before his four-year term is up.

Williams said that he is now "satisfied that everybody's in the room" but that he still expects broader labor participation in the Gray transition and administration. "I want to make sure we have input in every one of the groups," he said.

But it is unlikely that every labor demand will be so easily met. Leaders of public employee unions, in particular, are hoping for a sympathetic ear; many city employees, including police officers and firefighters, have been working under expired contracts and are hoping for a more responsive negotiating partner.

Gray said unions will not get special treatment. "Contrary to any popular belief, there were no promises of anything," he said of organized labor's support.

About a year ago, the leaders of the city's largest public employee unions made the first of several private visits to Gray. They felt marginalized by Fenty, who was elected without broad union support in 2006, doubted labor's political clout in the city and had raised millions for his reelection bid.

Four men - Kristopher Baumann of the Fraternal Order of Police; George Parker of the Washington Teachers' Union; Ray Sneed of the International Association of Fire Fighters; and Geo T. Johnson of District Council 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - put the hard sell on Gray. They wanted him to give up a sure thing - reelection as council chairman - and run against Fenty in the Democratic primary only 10 months away. Johnson took to calling the group the "gang of four."

In March, their wish became reality.

Gray's victory has union leaders enjoying a new appreciation of their political relevance.

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