Mike DeBonis

'One City' under siege

Mayor Vincent Gray isn't living up to expectations.
Mayor Vincent Gray isn't living up to expectations. (Susan Biddle)

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Friday, March 11, 2011

Marie Drissel is a longtime political activist in the District. She lives in high-rent Sheridan-Kalorama - Precinct 13, to be precise, where on Sept. 14 she was a rare poll worker standing outside St. Margaret's Episcopal Church on Connecticut Avenue NW and stumping for Democratic mayoral candidate Vincent C. Gray.

"People were astonished I was there with Gray's stuff on. They were huge Michelle Rhee supporters and really completely against, totally against Gray," she said.

Drissel, a former director of boards and commissions for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, would explain to her friends and neighbors how she had grave concerns about Adrian M. Fenty's habit of appointing lightly qualified friends and political allies to key government posts, saying Gray was an ethical and conscientious public servant.

Didn't do a lot of good in Precinct 13 - Gray ended up with 94 votes, about 15 percent. In the general election, in fact, 44 percent of the precinct's voters wrote in a candidate rather than cast a vote for Gray or another name on the ballot.

But Drissel was proud to have helped elect Gray, and she expected that he would convince her Northwest neighbors that he wasn't the fellow Fenty made him out to be on the campaign trail - a throwback to the "bad old days" when service delivery took a back seat to cronyism and political dealmaking.

Gray has not lived up to those expectations.

The Washington Post and other news outlets continue to uncover Gray political hires who are campaign workers or are the children of Gray aides and confidants. And then there's Sulaimon Brown, the also-also-also-ran mayoral candidate (as in, 209 votes) who found himself ensconced in a $110,000-a-year city job after Gray took office.

Brown now alleges that he got that job in return for campaign-trail attacks on Fenty, allegations now being investigated by authorities. (Gray has said he promised Brown only a job interview.)

"We told you so" is what Drissel hears these days. "Why did you ever support Gray? How fast can he undo things?"

Two decades ago, the District's mayor might not have minded much if he alienated the richest, whitest swaths of the city. But Gray minds: He ran on a platform of repairing the city's racial, economic and geographic faults. He called it "One City," and after his election, he worked to make it a reality, visiting Ward 3 community meetings and neighborhood salons. But within a few weeks, Gray's political carelessness threatens to blow up his bridge-building efforts, Alec Guinness-style. He now has to act, lest the "One City" mantra that adorns his news releases, Web site and seemingly every other word out of his mouth turns into a hollow bit of rhetoric - a joke, even, in Drissel's part of town.

To do that, he will have to move decisively to show that city jobs have not become political favors to be doled out indiscriminately.

One scary sign was just where Brown ended up: the Department of Health Care Finance, which runs the city's Medicaid and HealthCare Alliance programs and administers more than a quarter of the city budget. In other words, this isn't parks and recreation, where a subpar employee merely means the grass might not get cut. Where Brown ended up, lax oversight stands to cost the city millions.

If Gray can't restore some confidence, his administration could be in serious jeopardy. His black middle-class base isn't the safe retreat it once might have been - both because of the city's changing makeup and the fact that his hiring controversies haven't gone over well in that demographic, either. For now, services are being maintained and bond ratings are solid. But the trickle of controversy can wash away the benefit of the doubt.

That's been the case for Drissel, a native Washingtonian like Gray who is "demoralized" by the administration's antics and is worried that a Republican Congress could again complicate the city's governance.

"I'm like a train wreck," Drissel said. "I don't know that Gray was told any of this. But I'm starting to believe some of it. . . . It's very painful."


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