New unemployment figures give Mayor Gray a reason to smile. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The District’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.1 percent in December, a post-recession low, the city’s employment services department said Tuesday. The citywide improvement included significant drops in joblessness in D.C.’s most economically disadvantaged wards, with Ward 8’s rate now standing at 17.7 percent, down from the 25 percent seen in 2011.

Expect to hear more about those statistics soon in a stump speech near you.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray highlighted the new figures — the lowest since December 2008 — in a news release and in comments to D.C. Council members at a Tuesday morning breakfast. Gray’s employment efforts are a cornerstone of his reelection pitch, and the new figures come at an opportune time as the mayor starts entering campaign mode ahead of the April 1 Democratic primary.

“With unemployment being a huge issue for everyone, it is exciting to see the direction we are going in,” he told the legislators Tuesday.

The citywide rate stood at 10 percent when Gray took office in 2011. The new rate is still a far cry from the sub-6 percent rates that prevailed in the city from late 2005 through mid-2008, and it is still well above the national unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. But labor force and employment numbers show that Gray can claim that employment in the District is back on the upswing after the city economy softened through most of last year. Evidence to buttress Gray’s claims of improving conditions in wards 5, 7 and 8 also helps, though the reliability of the ward-level data has been questioned.

“We have created 36,000 jobs in the private sector over the last three years,” Gray said Tuesday, echoing comments he has made on the campaign trail to distance himself from the effects of federal cutbacks. “That is flying in the face, frankly, of what is happening at the federal level, where we are shedding jobs rapidly. We have probably lost 12 to 14,000 jobs at the federal level. If they had stayed the same, our unemployment rate would probably be down below 8 at this point.”

While Gray has touted his “One City, One Hire” employment initiative and other investments in workforce development as driving the improvements, his opponents have questioned how much he gets to take credit to the state of city’s economy. One challenger, council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), said in an radio interview earlier this month that residents “see a mayor who has inherited a steaming engine.”

Update, 2:05 p.m.: Via Sarah Halzack’s rundown of the regional unemployment data, here’s a reason why the new numbers are not unmitigated good news for Gray: “[T]he rate drop likely was not a result of people simply ceasing to look for work. But the District shed 1,900 jobs overall, with its only growth coming in the government sector, which added 400 positions. Nearly every other category shed jobs, with the steepest losses coming from the education and health services sector and the professional services sector.”

That cuts against Gray’s recent tack of touting the city’s private-sector gains despite public-sector losses — evidence, he says, of a diversifying city economy.

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.