Critics question District Mayor-elect Vincent Gray's slow transition

By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 6:46 PM

Less than six weeks before Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray assumes control of the District, he has yet to name a single agency head or indicate which members of the Fenty administration he plans to retain.

Gray's slow-to-start transition is reigniting fears about his career-long cautious decision-making style and raising concerns that he won't be fully prepared to take over from incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D) on Jan. 2. Numerous officials inside and outside the District government say that they are having difficulty obtaining information from a transition team bogged down by meetings and confusion about who is in charge.

Gray (D) is heading into an intense period of work in his current job as council chairman, as talks on balancing a $188 million budget shortfall ratchet up in early December, and observers say he must step up the pace if he expects a smooth transition.

"We need a fully staffed government at the beginning of an administration," said Council member David A. Catania (I-At large), who remained neutral in the primary face-off between Gray and Fenty. "Times are too serious to have uncertainty at the top of the ranks. . . . What has been shared with the public so far suggests the transition is off to a somewhat slow start."

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), said he plans to talk to Gray "to find out what is going on."

"The transition should have started a couple days after the primary, because it was a foregone conclusion he was going to be mayor," said Barry, a strong Gray backer and former mayor. "I get the impression that hasn't happened quite that way, and I am little concerned."

Barry said he fears that Gray may be getting so "much different advice from different people" that it's slowing the process of making appointments.

Although Catania and Barry said they are confident that Gray will rise to the challenge before the inauguration, the slow-moving transition offers a window into the differences between the incoming mayor and the man he easily defeated in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary.

Gray said that his decision-making is measured but that it won't slow his ability to govern come January. "I think we're moving at our own pace," he said. "We're in this for four years. We want to make sure we get it right."

When to act

During their primary contest, Fenty portrayed Gray as someone who was too bureaucratic to govern a changing city, but Gray responded that although he likes to hear all sides before making a decision, he knows when it's time to act.

Fenty, who made getting things done "as fast as humanly possible" the mantra of his administration, relished his reputation as a fast-moving, hard-charging leader, even when he was criticized for reaching decisions too quickly and without consulting those affected by his moves.

At this point in 2006, Fenty had named a chief of staff, attorney general, city administrator, police chief and deputy mayor for education, as well as reappointed Natwar Gandhi as chief financial officer.

Bill Lightfoot, who headed Fenty's transition team, said the early appointments were instrumental in allowing Fenty to push through school reform as soon as he entered office and to react to the kind of early crises that often test an administration.

Fenty "could start to develop his plans before he got sworn in, because he had a team in place he could consult with," Lightfoot said. "There was no delay in the planning process, but that was Adrian's style. He was aggressive."

Some Gray supporters note that former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), who is helping Gray with the transition, waited until late December to start naming cabinet secretaries. And they scoff at comparisons with Fenty, noting that Gray has often overcome skepticism about his deliberate leadership style.

"That was the Fenty way," said Doxie McCoy, Gray's spokeswoman. "We're in the Gray way."

Reputation for caution

Throughout his political career, the 68-year-old Gray has battled skeptics who have questioned his reputation for caution.

This year, some supporters grumbled that Gray took too long to decide whether to challenge Fenty. Even after he announced his candidacy in late March, Gray took several weeks to put together a campaign team, which left supporters uneasy but proved to be no barrier to his election.

Leonard Steinhorn, a communications professor at American University, said the different approaches used by Fenty and Gray crystallize the choice voters made in the election.

"It's different types of characters, different types of public personas and different types of communicating," Steinhorn said. "I don't think because Fenty did it one way that Gray has to follow that way."

Former D.C. Council member Sterling Tucker (D) said that Gray "is very careful" and "very methodical," so he's probably focused on "getting the process in place" before he conducts a national search for top-shelf talent.

"I am hoping he just won't hire political hacks," Tucker said. "The one thing Fenty did well was go out and look for good people, and I am sure Gray is looking to do the same thing."

But Attorney General Peter Nickles, who has been close to Fenty and his family for many years, said Gray's hesitancy has left him "deeply concerned" over the direction of the District under Gray's leadership. Nickles, who sparred frequently with Gray and the council over the past four years, is stepping down next month.

Nickles said he had hoped to work closely with his successor, briefing the next attorney general on pending lawsuits, court orders and investigations. But Nickles said that the only contact he's had with Gray's team is a request from the transition staff for a meeting in the first week of December.

"There are issues with police, issues with fire, serious, outstanding issues that I need to tell them about," said Nickles, who served as Fenty's chief adviser. "If you wait to come in at Christmas, you will absolutely fall flat on your back."

Nickles said that agency heads are complaining to him about a lack of response from Gray's transition team.

Several agency leaders said that they had expected to get signals from Gray by Thanksgiving about who should plan on staying on past the inauguration and who should start packing up.

"To my knowledge, no one's heard anything," one agency director said.

James C. Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, said the business community wants to know whether Gray will keep some Fenty officials. "We expect to learn very soon who will comprise the senior team for Mayor-elect Gray," he said. "With the holidays upon us, we expect meetings will take place and decisions will be made."

Building a team

The day after the Nov. 2 election, Gray announced the creation of a 16-member transition team broken into eight committees.

Last week, Gray said that 1,200 residents, city employees, business owners and community activists had volunteered to help with the transition. But although the large corps of volunteers helps Gray fulfill a campaign pledge to be more inclusive than Fenty, advisers say that the large number of people consulting on the transition has made it difficult to manage.

The transition is being headed by Chairwoman Lorraine Green and Reuben O. Charles II, chief of operations.

Green, a longtime friend of the mayor-elect, is the transition's go-to person, but she is busy with full-time duties as an executive at Amtrak. And Charles has been struggling to quell ethical questions related to past business deals.

Gray staffers and informal advisers describe the transition, which is housed in the District's Reeves Center office building on U Street NW, as a collection of three camps: longtime supporters, campaign workers and newcomers - each vying for the mayor-elect's attention.

The Washington Post reported last week that Green and others have begun reviewing public records of potential candidates for top jobs. But Gray stressed that he had not been briefed on the candidates.

Gray's most substantive transition-related announcement so far was his plan to hold a "Jobs Summit" on Dec. 13. The event, which fulfills a campaign promise, is designed to bring business and community leaders together with residents to discuss strategies for reducing unemployment.

"What other mayor-elect held a major event like that?" Gray asked.

Gray noted that he is the first council chairman to be elected mayor, forcing him to split his time between his current office and the transition. But advisers want him to leave the council post and start acting mayoral.

Alice Rivlin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-chairwoman of the transition's budget committee, said the transition is "moving normally. When there's an election, everyone has to catch their breath. You can't focus on the transition until you win. As a candidate, you'd be criticized if you did, for taking it for granted."

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