Gray's bid for D.C. mayor unsettles council

Vincent C. Gray
Vincent C. Gray (Linda Davidson - The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Vincent C. Gray's decision to take on Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is troubling some members of the D.C. Council, who are anxious about the leadership void and uncertainty they say his candidacy creates.

The timing of the council chairman's announcement, two days before the mayor releases his spending plan Thursday, is another concern. It makes the recession-squeezed budget that much more difficult to manage as the city's top elected officials sharpen their positions in the run-up to the September Democratic primary.

Elevating the political tension, the majority of council members are up for reelection in the fall and at least two are already jockeying for Gray's job.

"Whenever you have turnover at the top of an institution, there is trepidation," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "This is going to be the most difficult budget in a generation for us to construct and that's challenging enough without having ambitious personalities inserting themselves in unhelpful ways."

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who leads the Finance and Revenue Committee, confirmed his candidacy for chairman Wednesday, saying he has been "preparing for years" for the race.

Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large), the top vote-getter in the 2008 at-large contest, announced on Twitter that he also plans to run. And council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), the top-vote getter in the 2006 at-large race, said he is "keeping his options open."

In his first term as chairman, colleagues say, Gray has been a patient, collaborative presence, presiding over an often rowdy group of a dozen other council members. Against the backdrop of a weak economy, he helped shepherd legislation that legalized gay marriage, imposed a 5-cent grocery bag tax and rewrote the city's gun laws to comply with a Supreme Court ruling. He also oversaw the unprecedented censuring of council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a former four-term mayor.

Several council members have privately expressed concerns about having Evans and Brown as leaders.

Evans, a Fenty ally, could be problematic, they said, because he would not have a majority of council members on his side despite his status as the longest-serving member.

Brown could be the best-positioned to win the chairman's seat, but several council members said he tended to make decisions based on popularity. He voted present, for instance, in the confirmation of Attorney General Peter Nickles, a vote that allows him to say he did not support Fenty's choice but did not oppose him either.

Politics has always been a factor when balancing budgets, but the stakes are higher this year because of the election cycle, a staggering shortfall and little room for borrowing. In the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Fenty and the council are confronting an estimated $555 million budget gap, representing nearly 10 percent of general fund spending.

Neither raising taxes nor cutting services is popular with voters, so the challenge for Fenty and Gray will be striking the right balance.

The blueprint Fenty presents to the council Thursday will provide the framework for the debate. The mayor has limited options: He has sworn off tax increases, is committed to remaking the public schools and has less federal stimulus money to tap.

Any changes the council makes under Gray's leadership will help define the chairman's candidacy for mayor.

Last summer, the council raised cigarette, gasoline and sales taxes to help balance the fiscal 2010 budget. But Gray said in February that there "does not appear to be an appetite" on the council for more tax increases. Council members have also expressed concern about making deeper cuts to social services and welfare programs.

"There's no doubt that Vince Gray is going to see what he does to modify the mayor's budget in the context of trying to convince voters that he is the better person to be running the city," said Ed Lazere, who leads the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a budget watchdog group.

Four years ago, there was a similar shake-up in the council ranks, with then-Chairman Linda W. Cropp running in the Democratic mayoral primary against two other council members, Fenty and Vincent B. Orange Sr. There were longer speeches, awkward moments and some spirited behind-the-scenes conversations.

Mendelson, who was an aide in the 1990s to then-Council Chairman David A. Clarke, said such transitions are "always a little anxious at the beginning, and then we settle down. It's a testament to Vince's skill that members are [asking], How will we survive without him?"

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