Gray, Brown need to promote ethics, regain political savvy after mini-scandals in District

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 10:32 PM

What a debut. In their first two months in office, the most memorable stories about District Mayor Vincent Gray and council Chairman Kwame Brown revealed that they spent taxpayers' money on apparently nepotistic hiring and luxury SUVs.

These are only mini-scandals, because relatively little money was involved. But the damage to the city's reputation is unavoidable.

The problem worsened Monday when questions arose about seemingly extravagant travel spending by Allen Sessoms, president of the publicly funded University of the District of Columbia.

Think of the impact on just one extremely relevant audience, the new House Republican majority. It's already hellbent on cutting federal spending, including for vulnerable Washington city services. It's harder now for the District to defend itself by saying it's perfectly capable of managing its own finances, thank you, so Congress should butt out.

Then there are the District voters who opposed Gray (D) and Brown (D) and are now thinking, "We told you so." Many were worried that the elections would lead to padded city payrolls and excessive perks for public officials.

What is to be done? Gray and Brown need to change the narrative - and quickly. To start, they should strongly push some ethics measures, such as investigating Sessoms's travel and creating a promised new ethics watchdog body for the D.C. Council.

Perhaps more important, the mayor must recover the adroit political sense that helped him win a landslide victory last year but has deserted him since he took office.

Gray has ignored one of the most important rules in politics: Prevent vacuums. He hasn't used the now-vanished honeymoon period to promote big, bold initiatives on his signature issues of jobs and education. He seems to be content to manage the city rather than lead it. Now he's at risk of being defined by his missteps.

Brown is hampered by an even bigger embarrassment. First, his offense was more personal and more eye-catching, as it was so petty of him to have the city replace his taxpayer-funded Lincoln Navigator just because he didn't like the interior color. Also, he's likely to endure more bad publicity soon when the Office of Campaign Finance issues a report that he himself expects to describe inadequate record-keeping in his campaign operation.

Gray is still the man to watch, though, because the mayor's performance plays by far the biggest role in defining the District's identity.

Supporters and foes alike are amazed that Gray has turned so politically tone-deaf. Some think he's suffered because many of the campaign strategists who helped him win office - such as Mo Elleithee, Ron Lester and Adam Rubinson - didn't stay on to work in the administration.

According to these accounts, those now around Gray are mostly people who might be effective at running a bureaucracy but don't have the same political antennae - and it shows.

In particular, in his public statements, the mayor seems to be in denial about how the public would view revelations that city jobs had gone to children of his chief of staff, communications director and a close adviser. The hirings seemed especially hypocritical given that Gray unseated Adrian Fenty (D) as mayor partly by campaigning loudly against cronyism in his administration.

Gray denied there was a problem when I asked him at a regular news conference Tuesday what steps he'd taken to prevent such management issues from arising again. He said the young adults were qualified for their jobs.

"Should people be foreclosed from a chance to work in the government because they happen to be related to somebody? I don't think so," Gray said.

That might be true, but the mayor still needs to deal with the very reasonable suspicion that close relatives of high-ranking aides have an inside track in getting good city jobs.

Intriguingly, there's reason to believe that Gray is well aware of the negative perception but doesn't want to concede a mistake. A source close to Gray, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the mayor has described himself as being "furious" when he learned about the hirings after they took place.

Brown acknowledges that he needs to do better. He said he made mistakes over the SUV, which has been returned to the city, partly because, "I should just be paying more attention to what's going on in my personal office."

Speaking of the mayor's issues as well as his own, Brown also pointed to a learning curve. "Any time that you first get into office and you're making a transition, there'll always be some hiccups," he said.

Both Gray and Brown need to act forcefully to prevent such hiccups from becoming severe indigestion with symptoms that would afflict the entire city.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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