This week in St. Louis, Howard County Council member C. Vernon Gray made a transition into a much larger political world.
He rubbed elbows with members of the Clinton administration. He traded deep thoughts on "connectivity" and "knowledge-based economies" with noted futurist Alvin Toffler, informal adviser to chief executives, prime ministers and Newt Gingrich (R), the former House speaker.
And he boogied with rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry.
On Tuesday, Gray (D-East Columbia) was sworn in as president of the National Association of Counties (NACo). It was the capstone event of the group's national convention in St. Louis. Gray, 59, now heads an organization that represents 1,800 counties and 75 percent of the nation's population.
With increasing emphasis in Washington on allowing local governments to solve local problems on their own, Gray expects to be a busy man. He will spend much of his volunteer job working the halls of Capitol Hill, lobbying members of Congress on the issues that have counties most concerned: Y2K preparations, economic aid to rural counties and sustainable development. He may even, on occasion, travel down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to chat up members of the Clinton administration.
Back in Howard County, political wags are wondering if this new prominence means Gray has his eye on a bigger office. Perhaps county executive? Term limits prevent him from running for a sixth term as a County Council member in 2002. Gray, the longest serving member of the council, declined to discuss his plans.
"I believe in keeping my options open," he said from St. Louis. "I have enough on my plate now."
The dominant issue on his plate is the Y2K glitch, the computer problem that threatens to disable anything run by computers--banks, airports, government benefits and just about all other government functions--when the year 2000 begins. About 70 percent of urban and suburban counties, including Howard, have been more or less cleansed of the problem. But smaller rural counties are lagging behind, according to Gray.
"We have to get these counties where they should be," he said.
To that end, NACo under Gray will be sending out Y2K tool kits to all member counties. The kits will explain the problem in detail and give phone numbers of people and agencies that can help. NACo also will be doing live satellite workshops for the counties still struggling with the problem.
Another proposal Gray will champion in the coming year is a tax on Internet commerce. Congress is studying the issue. What is clear is that enormous amounts of tax revenue could be generated by taxing purchases made on computers--an electronic sales tax. What is unclear is how the spoils would be divided among federal, state and county governments. Gray said his mission is to make sure counties get a piece of this pie.
"There is millions in potential revenue for Howard. Think of the services we could provide with it," he said.
Gray said one of the highlights of the five-day convention was Toffler's presentation. The author made the argument that the engine powering the modern economy is not the factories of old but minds and ideas. Gray noted that this outlook was once considered ahead-of-the-curve but is now mainstream.
"He had phenomenal insights. He said we need to focus less on the future of the economy and more on the economy of the future," Gray said.
The convention ended with a ballroom party Tuesday that had the theme "Red, White and Blues 2000." Outgoing NACo president Betty Lou Ward, a council member from Wake County, N.C., swore in Gray. Then, with the first notes of Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," the convention-goers let off some steam.
"You have to remember, these people have been in meetings all week," Gray said.