On a Saturday three weeks before he was to leave office, Vincent C. Gray deployed his ceremonial scissors — the title “Mayor” across the silver blade — to cut the ribbon at an indoor city pool in Southeast Washington.
An hour later, the mayor and his scissors traveled across the city to Georgetown, where he dedicated a remodeled playground and reminded his audience that his administration had renovated more than 30 parks, with an additional 10 on the way.
Were people aware, the mayor asked, that a medical college had designated the District the country’s fittest city? Did they know that a magazine had hailed Washington as “the coolest city in America”?
Gray (D) may have lost his bid for a second term, but he was still touting his accomplishments. But now the prize had become burnishing a reputation tarnished by an unresolved federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
Even to his supporters, Gray’s tenure largely is defined by allegations of campaign fraud and the specter of “Uncle Earl,” the nickname the mayor gave a businessman who says they schemed to funnel $650,000 into his reelection bid.
Yet the mayor’s term also has been marked by many bright moments, including stabilizing the city’s finances, implementing early childhood education improvements and presiding over a construction boom that turned the skyline into a jumble of cranes. In his administration’s final weeks, Gray was pushing initiatives such as a new soccer stadium on the Southwest waterfront.
“How he won the office destroyed what could have been a pretty amazing legacy as mayor,” said Bryan Weaver, a Democratic activist. “The bully pulpit was taken from him immediately, and no matter what he did, Washington looked at him with skepticism.”
To his acolytes, Gray remained focused despite the maelstrom of an investigation that resulted in six campaign associates pleading guilty. At varying points, D.C. Council members and civic leaders openly talked about whether the mayor would be indicted, speculation fueled by U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen’s reminders that the probe was ongoing.
Whatever the chatter, the mayor has maintained his innocence, a robust public schedule, a poker face and, to anyone who has asked, the mantra that he was on the job. The best evidence of a solid performance, perhaps, is that Gray’s political opponents, including Muriel E. Bowser (D), his successor, did not propose a new course for the city.
“No matter what, he kept on doing,” said Sandra Seegars, a supporter. “He continued to do the work.”
Yet even Gray’s admirers struggled with whether he was truthful, particularly when he denied knowledge of the illegal funding of his campaign despite a reputation for absorbing details.
“The entirety of Vincent Gray’s four years in the mayor’s office has been overshadowed by a cloud of illegitimacy,” said Tony Bullock, press secretary under former mayor Anthony Williams (D). “Gray knows the District and the government better than any other mayor. He is undoubtedly capable, smart and hardworking. But it doesn’t matter if you did a great job flying the plane if you didn’t have the right to be in the cockpit in the first place.”
The mayor, when told of Bullock’s remarks, responded in the near-monotone that is his trademark. “I had the right to be there,” he said. “I had the right to be there not only because I won, but the job was being done in a way that created the right to be there.”
On another day, the mayor was leaving a ribbon-cutting in Columbia Heights, this one for new housing for the homeless, when a police officer who is retiring asked to pose with him for a photo.
“Retiring?!” Gray responded, his burst of laughter suggesting that the concept was ludicrous.
At 72, he has not eased his pace, and the prospect of his own departure seemed difficult to accept. Seven months after he lost the primary, two lawn signs touting his candidacy were still in front of his house.
At one point, he expressed annoyance that his last speech was titled a “farewell address.”
“I wish they’d call it something else,” he said. “It feels a little bit like a downer.”
His election as mayor was a feel-good story about the hometown boy who grew up to lead his city. His parents raised him in a modest one-bedroom apartment on Capitol Hill. He attended Dunbar High School, then George Washington University, after which he worked for the Association for Retarded Citizens, where he rose to executive director.
In 1991, then-Mayor Sharon Pratt appointed him head of the Department of Human Services, after which he ran Covenant House. In 2004, at 62, Gray entered politics, winning a council seat. Two years later, he won council chair.
In 2010, he defeated Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), espousing the slogan, “One City” to encapsulate his pledge that all neighborhoods were equal. Gray, a resident of Ward 7 on the city’s eastern edge, won with overwhelming support among black voters.
Weeks after his swearing-in, critics accused the mayor of cronyism because his team had hired five relatives of his associates. By mid-2012, after Machen had described Gray’s “shadow campaign,” three council members demanded Gray’s resignation.
The mayor tried to seem unfazed by the din. He held his regular staff meetings, attended civic events and parried with reporters. On occasion, he’d snap at a jostling scrum of cameras, but mainly he was composed.
Along the way, he won praise for restoring financial reserves depleted under Fenty. Wall Street raised the District’s bond rating. Projects stalled by the recession started up again, including downtown’s City Center, Shaw’s O Street Market and the Marriott Marquis across from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
In Ward 7, construction crews remade the forlorn intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE and broke ground for Skyland Town Center, a project that community leaders had been desiring for decades.
“I’d give him huge credit for being a stabilizing influence,” said Richard Bradley of the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District. “Fenty had no discipline around the budget, and Vince came in and said, ‘I’m going to get control of the expenditures.’ The city has regained what it lost and more.”
Gray extended school reforms begun under Fenty and won accolades for supporting ethics reform and transgender rights. He issued an executive order barring police from questioning people about their immigration status.
“What he was able to push forward was very progressive and often not what people who originally supported him wanted,” Weaver said. “To many, he was elected by the eastern side of the city. But the things he fought for were important to people on the west side.”
At points, Gray’s policies prompted criticism, much of it obscured by the prosecutors’ investigation. Advocates for the poor hammered the mayor’s management of homeless people, some of whom were sheltered at city recreation centers. The unemployment rate, while declining, remained in the double digits among blacks.
And while the District completed projects in the city’s poorest wards, the verdict was far from unanimous that the mayor had established One City.
“We’re still a city divided, the haves and the have-nots, the whites and the blacks,” said the Rev. Anthony Motley, a Ward 8 community organizer. Referring to the expressway that connects Anacostia to downtown, he said: “When I go across the bridge to the other side, I see lights and life. When I come back to this side, I see darkness.”
A year ago, after the mayor announced his reelection bid, a poll showed him with a 2-to-1 lead over Bowser. Two months later, on what would become known as “Machen Monday,” prosecutors announced that business executive Jeffrey E. Thompson, a.k.a. Uncle Earl, had implicated Gray in the fraud scheme.
Within days, Gray’s lead had vanished.
“Okey-doke,” he said on primary night as the numbers rolled in and his campaign manager told him the election was lost.
Seventeen days before his term was to expire, the mayor sat in his city hall office, contemplating something he insisted he has not thought about: his impending unemployment.
Aside from a buying a car to replace his city-issued SUV, he cited no plans. A widower who routinely works until midnight and beyond, he struggled to recall a vacation that lasted longer than 10 days. For the first time, he said, he is leaving a job without lining up another.
“I don’t know how to do nothing,” the mayor said. “Am I looking forward to leaving? No.”
He resisted an invitation to pinpoint achievements that define his legacy, saying, “I want you to say the first words out of my mouth were, ‘A city that’s better functioning.’ ” He rejected the suggestion that his promise of One City was unfulfilled.
“One City is not meant to be that all races get along,” he said. “One City to me was, if you live in Area X you should have the availability of the same things people have in other areas. We’ve moved the ball on that.”
He understands that the investigation into his 2010 campaign shapes the way Washingtonians view him. But he conceded no torment over how he views himself. “When I look in the mirror, I see someone I respect,” he said. As for how others see him, he said, “I refuse to expend energy on things over which I have no control.”
At the same time, he lashed out at the editorial page of The Washington Post, which endorsed Fenty and then Bowser over him. The paper’s editorials about the investigation, he said, “helped to contribute” to racial division, the evidence of which was his weak showing among white voters.
“Look at how your paper grabbed onto this,” he said. “It was almost as if they couldn’t wait to get their hooks into me. I think The Washington Post resented that I had the nerve to run against Adrian Fenty.”
Contemplating his future, the mayor said he plans to keep working and does not expect the investigation into his campaign to complicate reestablishing himself as a private citizen.
“I don’t know why it should,” he said. “What have I done?”
Twelve hours later, the mayor presided over another ribbon-cutting at Ballou High School in Southeast.
“All I can say is, ‘Wow!’ ” he told a cheering audience. “Y’all seen the courtyard? How about a brand new swimming pool!”
That night, the mayor stood before an auditorium of supporters at Dunbar, his alma mater, delivering his final address. Before he began, aides distributed copies of “One City, The Final Report of the Administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray,” which included 70 pages of facts and figures and 32 photos of the mayor.
His two-hour speech contained not a single reference to federal prosecutors, the 2010 campaign or Uncle Earl.
“I have the temptation to say, ‘Don’t stop,’ ” the mayor said, basking in the audience’s applause.