Clock ticking on Mayor Vincent C. Gray's honeymoon

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 10, 2011; 7:37 PM

Mayor Vincent C. Gray is a man with a plan. Many plans, actually.

During his campaign against Adrian M. Fenty last summer, Gray (D) unveiled a series of long, turgid documents detailing his plans on education, jobs, public safety and the "public trust."

Unfortunately, having plans doesn't necessarily mean you've got a plan.

Gray has the distinct misfortune of stepping into the shoes of a guy, Fenty, who spent his early days in office in an unprecedented whirlwind, which followed a whirlwind of a transition period. Before taking the oath, Fenty (D) moved to sell lawmakers on a sweeping plan to take personal control of the D.C. public schools. The day of his inauguration, Fenty unveiled his plan, and by June, it was law.

Fenty also put together a list of 200 goals for his first 100 days in office, funding new recreation centers, buying new ambulances and overhauling the city's economic development apparatus.

But for Gray, that well-worn benchmark for energetic executive governance doesn't hold a lot of truck. "Everybody has a 100-day plan," he said at a news conference this week. "Why don't we have a 200-day plan?"

The message there in isn't too difficult to parse: Slow and steady wins the race. Or, for the less charitable: Whatever period it used to take to get things done, you can double it.

Gray admits the city has big problems: a chronically high unemployment rate, an education system that's still a long way from leaving no child behind and a massive budget deficit.

But in the first 40 days of his administration, it's hard to point to what Gray has done to address any of them, aside from acknowledging their existence. He has made key appointments that stand to have a great effect on those issues. But filling out the organizational chart only goes so far, especially for those already skeptical of Gray's commitment to action.

Here's a line from the Gray jobs plan: "As Mayor, Vince Gray will sign an executive order on his first day in office, directing the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to actively oversee First Source compliance."

"First Source compliance" refers to an employment program, popular among city politicians, that requires government contractors and companies that are doing work on city-aided economic development projects to hire a proportion of D.C. residents. Putting the deputy mayor in charge of oversight would potentially send a strong message to those contractors that First Source is ignored at their peril. But none of the last five issues of the D.C. Register contains such an order.

That's not to say progress isn't being made. This reporter's calls are being returned swiftly, his questions answered fully, and his public-records requests processed professionally - a notable departure from the Fenty regime. Gray has made good on promises to appoint new deputy mayors to coordinate city services and has changed contracting practices to increase council oversight.

But the most noticeable changes to the administration have been cosmetic. Gray's "one city" logo adorns news releases and lapel pins. The mayoral security detail has returned in a big way. The once-fallow sixth-floor office suite is back in business. News conferences are exquisitely choreographed, with reserved seats and formal introductions. Fenty's "bullpen" has been dismantled to restore private offices for city employees.

In appearances, it amounts to a bridge back to the 20th century, as Bill Clinton might say.

In his first general weekly news conference Wednesday - another trapping of the ancien regime of Anthony A. Williams, albeit one dearly appreciated by the city press corps - Gray hinted that he has big things in the works, soon to come.

He promised an upcoming "major initiative" on HIV/AIDS. On jobs, "we are now working on an initiative that we'll announce next week or the week after on how we will approach some of these major projects in the city," he said - alluding, perhaps, to a plan to increase D.C.-resident employment on city projects. (D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown has outflanked Gray by introducing a bill to toughen First Source standards.)

Gray said that "nothing that exceeds the importance of fiscal stability in the city" - a reference to the soon-to-come budget trauma. With some mayoral officials talking about a cumulative budget gap of $600 million or more, Gray is right to be sharpening his budget ax - or budget chain saw, for that matter - in preparation for the spending plan due in April.

But the budget threatens to drain Gray's political capital before he even has an agenda on the table.

Come April, the council will be occupied with scrubbing a shrinking budget to save its pet programs. And Gray might realize there's a reason those first 100 days matter.

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