Gray should ignore Barry's depiction of scandals as political conflict

Thursday, March 17, 2011; 10:21 AM

If there's anybody who knows what it's like to run the District government while dealing with legal problems and other controversies, it's Marion Barry. So I sought out the man with experience to ask what advice he had for his longtime friend and ally, Vincent Gray, in the new mayor's time of trouble.

Barry welcomed the inquiry and was fully prepared to respond. Although a limping leg and stiff shoulder betrayed the wear and tear of his 75 years, the four-time mayor and current council member was mentally sharp.

"I am an expert on successfully maneuvering through a crisis," Barry (D-Ward 8) said at the start of our talk Monday. "I know what the game is."

Much of what Barry said was pretty conventional and has been said elsewhere. The mayor should have a game plan. Communicate well. Don't get distracted from the real work of leading the city.

But Barry also sought to cast Gray's predicament in what I saw as an "us versus them" context, an approach I hope the mayor rejects. He said Gray was the target of sniping by a hostile alliance of the media and a bloc of unfriendly council members. He called the latter the "Fenty Four," saying they supported former mayor Adrian Fenty, openly or otherwise, in last year's election.

"That makes it difficult [for Gray]. One of the anchors of managing a crisis is that you can control some things. [But] you can't control those four council members," Barry said. "The press is aiding and abetting the Fenty Four by always asking them what they think."

Barry identified the four as Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), David Catania (I-At Large) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). He called back Wednesday to say Bowser was telling people that she was going to break with the others, so the number might shrink to three.

Barry pointed to such comments as Evans's remarks about overspending and Catania's suggestion that Gray consider replacing his chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall.

(As it happens, Hall resigned Wednesday afternoon.)

Barry's analysis is wrongheaded. It's perfectly natural for Fenty supporters to take the lead in holding Gray and his team accountable for overpaying staff and nepotistic hiring. And it's not surprising that Gray is feeling heat over allegations by Sulaimon Brown, a minor mayoral candidate, that Gray's campaign gave Brown a job and cash in return for nasty attacks on Fenty. Gray has denied Brown's allegations, and The Post has been unable to independently verify any payments.

Council members sympathetic to Fenty never had a stake in promoting Gray's mayoralty in the first place. The press, obviously, is just doing its job.

Barry's argument is also mischievous. It effectively urges Gray to copy Barry's own strategy - employed in numerous past scandals - of rallying popular support by casting himself as a victim of malicious forces out to get him.

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