Earlier this month, Mayor Vincent C. Gray formally launched his reelection campaign — one that seemed unthinkable 18 months ago. But polls show that public approval of his job performance have rebounded since then, and a significant portion of the Democratic primary electorate is willing to look past the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
Gray (D) sat down last week, accompanied by campaign manager Chuck Thies, for an hour-long, no-ground-rules interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
What struck us in our poll is that we’re very much in the same position we were four years ago, where residents believe the city is heading in the right direction but aren’t convinced the incumbent mayor is the best leader going forward. Is that ironic to you?
I look at the fact we’re ahead, which I think is a little bit different from the case four years ago. Your polls showed me ahead of the then-incumbent at the time, and it sort of continued that way. So I don’t think I see the parallel there.
The only issue where we saw serious weakness with your reelection was honesty and trustworthiness. What can you do to reestablish your personal integrity in people’s minds?
I can continue to do the job that I’ve been doing. There’s nothing about the job that I have done that would lead people to that conclusion, in my opinion. I’ll continue to work on those things I said I was going to work on: fiscal stability, education, unemployment, economic development, public safety, of course, affordable housing and sustainability.
Many of those participated in our poll said, “We think that Vince Gray has done a good job; we just don’t know with this investigation.” They don’t feel they’ve heard enough from you about what you knew. Can you say additional things to alleviate those concerns?
I don’t think there’s additional things for me to say. I’ve said all that I know. We’ve turned over everything that has been asked. And I actually hope that the U.S. attorney will go through those documents very quickly. I’m absolutely certain that they will find nothing and that they will announce that.
Would you go into the U.S. attorney’s office and answer whatever questions they have?
We’ve done the documents. We’ve done everything that’s been asked of us in that regard. I don’t feel the need to do anything else at this stage.
But in terms of you personally discussing some of these matters . . .
I think the information has been put on the table. You’re going to go back and forth. Let’s talk about the issues of this campaign. You’re not going to do an interview on 2010. There have been umpteen interviews that have been done. Let’s talk about the future of the city.
But I want to push you on a few specific questions about this. One of the things that has been represented is that you have been invited to go into the U.S. attorney’s office, and you have not done so. Is that true?
I have nothing further to say about this. I have said all there is to say. I have given the information that has been asked of me. I’m not withholding any information.
There was a meeting between you and Jeffrey Thompson, the alleged funder of what has come to be known as the “shadow campaign,” shortly after you entered the race. You’ve said he didn’t ask you for anything. Can you say any more about that meeting?
I have already addressed that in the media, so I don’t know what else to say. I have nothing more.
What did you understand during the course of the campaign what your friend Vernon Hawkins was up to? We reported that one of your official campaign aides approached you and asked, “Hey, what’s going on with Vernon?”
I don’t recall having that conversation with him, and Vernon had no official role. He volunteered his services in some ways. He was not directed by me to do anything.
People close to you have said the first time you learned about the “shadow campaign” was when Jeanne Clarke Harris, a Thompson associate and a friend of yours, came to your office in January 2011. We haven’t heard you say that.
I don’t even remember when I heard about it at this stage. That seems immaterial. This is now three-plus years ago and I have tried to be as cooperative as I could. I have put information on the table. We have submitted documents. We have done what was asked of us. I don’t know what else to say.
We’ll move on. The basis of your case for a second term is things are on the right track in the city. Economic development is gangbusters; unemployment has decreased. But your opponent Muriel Bowser has argued that the economy in the city is like a train steaming down the tracks, and it doesn’t really matter who the engineer is.
The facts are that this city was in trouble financially when I took over. We were teetering on the brink of falling off the edge. Our fund balance has doubled since I was in office. You look at the economic development activity. I went to an O Street Market groundbreaking about a month and a half before the election took place, only to find out that they had no financing for that project. We came into office; we worked with the developer to get the financing. We worked to get CityCenter on track. That happened on our watch. Anybody who suggests all of this stuff is purely happenstance either is out of touch or just simply being disingenuous.
On education, your opponent Andy Shallal has suggested there’s too much standardized testing. Do you think that’s true to any degree?
I don’t think that I would want to answer a question of whether we have too much, too little or just enough testing. We need to be able to get to the point we fully understand how to measure how well our children are doing. Some of that is by teacher assessment. Some of it is by testing. Some of it is by how parents see their children actively progressing. Any school or any teacher that is focusing huge amounts of time solely on teaching a kid how to take a test, I don’t think that’s appropriate for children.
Moving on to public safety, the fire department has been a constant source of headlines. What’s your perception of what the issues are there?
I think Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is a good leader. And I would like to see Ellerbe fairly evaluated. I think he’s tackled some issues that have been there for a while. Eighty to 85 percent of runs now are EMS rather than fire runs. We’re having to change the department, which some people like and some people don’t like. He’s taken a lot of the heat for changing things that some people don’t want changed.
What changes would you make to the city’s marijuana laws?
It is a complicated issue. I want to hear from people. I have indicated that decriminalization is something that I support. What should be the fine, I don’t know, and I obviously will have to make a decision on that based on what the council reports out. There are some people who believe that $25 is so minimal that you might as well not have any penalties associated with it.
If voters were to endorse full marijuana legalization, as our poll suggests they would, will you be on the front lines making sure it doesn’t get overturned by Congress?
When we get to that stage, I’ll speak out on what my opinions are on legalization. And whatever, at the end of the day, is the will of the people of this city, I’m going to work to make sure that’s supported.
What’s been your biggest disappointment of the last three years?
I wouldn’t want to talk in terms of disappointments. I would talk in terms of the challenges we continue to have before us. We want to continue to build schools. I’m anxious to see the opening of Ballou High School. I’m anxious to see more economic development plans having been completely translated in reality. For example, who in the world would have ever thought Microsoft would have made a commitment to be in Ward 8? This city is moving along with intentionality. I’ve got the plan on affordable housing. I’ve got the Sustainable D.C. plan. I’ve got the five-year economic plan. Any candidate who wants to talk about that, I’ll be happy to talk about that. Let them put on the table what their plan is, because I have yet to hear it.
Is there one new idea you expect to focus on in a new term, something above and beyond what you’ve talked about the last three years?
I want to put on the table what an affordable city is. I’m actually working with a think tank now, to put through some of the thinking about what those ingredients are. Having affordable early childhood education, that is a huge factor. I didn’t support the Large Retailer Accountability Act, as you know, but I heartily supported an increase in the minimum wage. Why? Because that is opening the door to everybody being able to earn more money rather than just a sliver.
Do you think the city can continue growing at the same pace – 1,000 a month or more?
I think we’ll continue to be in demand. The issue for us is the current supply of housing. We should be making huge investments as much as we can in keeping housing affordable, because otherwise we won’t be able to be the kind of diverse population we want to be.
Is this campaign an opportunity for you to clear the slate, to start from scratch? An opportunity for vindication?
I don’t see it as vindication. I see it as an opportunity to do a job that I think that I and we have done very well. I believe that a lot of where we are today is because of what we’ve done with intentionality on our watch, and I just simply want to continue doing things that will make life better for the people in this city.