D.C. Mayor-elect Gray to make 1st White House visit Wednesday, meet with Obama

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 9:31 PM

D.C. Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray is billing it as a "get-to-know-ya meeting."

On Wednesday, Gray (D) will make his first visit to the White House for a luncheon with the man who will soon be his most famous and powerful constituent, President Obama.

Gray's 45-minute visit with Obama will mark what many believe will be the incoming mayor's best opportunity to make his case about what he and the residents of the District expect from the president. Obama still holds considerable clout over how the mayor and D.C. Council spend tax dollars and use the powers granted to them under Home Rule.

Gray, who has had only two fleeting introductions to Obama, said he will use the lunch - in a small private dining room near the Oval Office - to try "to establish a relationship that will have substantiative, enduring, value for the city."

Although Gray is finalizing his talking points for the meeting, he said he would probably bring up voting rights, federal funding for early childhood education and the planned relocation of the Department of Homeland Security to the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington.

The leaders of D.C. Vote have told Gray to ask Obama to publicly pledge to veto any bill that includes language that would undo local laws, such as the city's support for same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and needle exchange.

But Gray, the D.C. Council chairman who will be sworn in as mayor Jan. 2, said the meeting's goal is to make a new friend. "I want to have the kind of relationship where we can have a free exchange," Gray said. "I would want this to be episodic."

Julius W. Hobson Jr., a consultant who headed the city's intergovernmental affairs office in the late 1980s, said Gray should strive to continue what has been steady improvement over the years in relationships between presidents and D.C. mayors.

In the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan (R) took little interest in District affairs and had almost no interaction with then-Mayor Marion Barry (D), Hobson said.

Things improved under President George H.W. Bush (R). But Hobson said the real breakthrough in presidential-mayoral relationships occurred after Bill Clinton's election to the White House in 1992.

"Most people don't realize Clinton and Marion got along really well," said Hobson, noting Clinton's election marked the second time since Home Rule that a Democrat sat in the White House.

Even though George W. Bush's election as president in 2000 ushered the GOP back into dominance of the federal government, Hobson said Bush and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) strengthened their ties following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And after Obama's 2008 election set off a wave of excitement across the heavily Democratic District, he invited Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to a well-publicized lunch at Ben's Chili Bowl a few days before the inauguration.

"We've had this trend going, and Gray will want to continue that," Hobson said. "One way you will know if Gray's meeting has gone well is if [Obama] refers to him as 'my mayor.' "

However, local elected officials and observers said Gray shouldn't be too confident in his ability to become instant buddies with the president. Instead, they said, Gray's lunch could be his one and only shot to press the District's case with Obama.

And with Obama weakened politically after the Republicans' success in gaining control of the House in the Nov. 2 elections, observers said Gray would have to be careful how he uses his brief seat at the table.

"It's an entirely different meeting than if it happened in 2009" when the Democrats controlled both the House and Senate, said Chuck Thies, a local political strategist. "It's important not to ask the president what he can't deliver."

With the District facing a budget shortfall that could top $500 million over Gray's four-year term, city leaders say his biggest need from the president is more federal funding. However, Obama and GOP leaders have signaled a renewed focus on deficit reduction, including the White House proposal to freeze the salaries of federal workers for two years.

A more traditional request would be to ask the president to help advance the city's push for statehood or voting rights in Congress. But elected officials and observers are at odds over how many of Gray's precious minutes with the president should be used talking about an issue unlikely to advance under a GOP-controlled House.

Ilir Zherka, executive director of D.C. Vote, said his organization understands the city's struggle for voting rights now faces a more complicated political environment on Capitol Hill. But he said he has spoken to Gray about asking Obama to publicly pledge to veto any bill "that comes to him and changes local D.C. law."

Thies said the key to a successful meeting will be for Gray not to "blindside the president" or ask him "for something he can't deliver."

"This is a rare opportunity. I believe this will be Vince Gray's only meaningful meeting with the president between now and the end of Obama's first term," Thies said. "You don't want to walk out of that meeting and say, 'Oh, man, why didn't I bring this up?' "

Gray, however, isn't so sure that Wednesday's meeting will be his only face time with the president. He said he plans to ask Obama to tour the city with him. Gray also wants to invite him to walk over someday - drive if it makes the Secret Service happier - to the John A. Wilson city building about two blocks from the White House gates.

"It is my understanding that no sitting president has ever been in this building in 102 years," Gray said.

Staff writer Ann E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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