Mayor Vincent C. Gray ended his first year in office much as he started: trying to get out from under controversy.
During a recent morning meeting with a consortium of area university presidents, Gray pitched a five-pronged agenda that led with education reform and job creation.
Chris Murphy, his chief of staff, sat nearby, quietly editing a document titled “Gray Administration Accomplishments: End of First Year in Office.”
It began with a declaration that Gray has been successful “despite constant charges that his administration has been ‘distracted . . .’ ”
Murphy bracketed those opening words and inked a question mark on the page’s left margin.
The meaning of Murphy’s notation is unclear, but what is clear is that Gray (D) has arguably had one of the worst starts of any D.C. mayor. His administration launched with a series of missteps. He initially employed senior staff members earning salaries that exceeded their immediate predecessors’ pay. Several adult children of top campaign and administration aides were hired for city jobs. Some new employees had past legal troubles that were not detected by background checks or were ignored.
One of those hires, former mayoral opponent Sulaimon Brown, alleged that he was paid and promised a job by Gray’s campaign to attack then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the 2010 Democratic primary. Brown made the claims after he was fired , spurring investigations by the D.C. Council, a congressional committee, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI.
A grand jury investigating Gray’s campaign was still meeting in December and hearing testimony about how his campaign staff handled cash and money-order contributions, according to several people with knowledge of the proceedings.
Also, two of Gray’s political allies — D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) and council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) — have drawn the attention of federal investigators. Authorities are delving into expenditures by Brown’s 2008 campaign and allegations that Thomas diverted public funds to pay for personal travel and a luxury sport-utility vehicle.
“I think about it every day,” Gray, 69, said of the investigations.
But Gray — who did not enter politics until he was elected Ward 7 council member in 2004 — said he is pressing on.
“You can’t do this job living in fear,” he said in an interview. “You have to do it going forward, not looking backward over your shoulder.”
Gray turned the conversation away from the investigations, focusing on fiscal stability, education reform, crime prevention, job creation and, most recently, environmental sustainability. He discusses all those issues under the umbrella of an integrated government, whether he is before university presidents or in front of an elderly crowd from public housing at a holiday luncheon.
“More than any other mayor, he understands how agencies work together,” said former council member Charlene Drew Jarvis, who lost her Ward 4 seat to Fenty. “I like the way his brain works.”
In recent weeks, Gray has been getting some traction, or what he called “wins” during a recent evening Cabinet meeting. “I really think I know how this job is to be done,” he said.
His jobs initiative — One City, One Hire — set a goal of matching 10,000 residents to jobs outside District government in a year’s time. Three months in, the city has attracted about 300 companies that have hired about 1,350 city residents. The unemployment rate recently dipped to 10.6 percent from 11.1 percent, still well above the national jobless rate of 8.6 percent.
Hundreds of residents are participating in the city’s initial discussions on environmental-sustainability efforts. Homicides are at a record low.
Gray also has distinguished himself from Fenty by trying to rebuild the city’s fund balance — a rainy-day account drained by the former mayor to pay for various programs.
“What I’m going to say is not sexy,” Gray said. “We got that [budget] stabilized.”
What’s been his biggest failure?
“Dealing with this whole investigation thing,” he said quietly.
He stopped himself.
“On the service side, I don’t think we’ve failed on anything,” he said. “What did I say I was going to do? And what did I do? Look. Measure us on the things I said we were going to do.”
Most basic services, according to a Washington Post review of data from 311 calls, have improved during Gray’s tenure.
His initial hiring troubles have somewhat evened out. But it wasn’t easy. In the wake of scandal, Gray dismissed his first chief of staff, he pulled back his initial nominee to head the crucial Board of Elections and Ethics, and his pick to head the Public Service Commission has been stalled.
Now he has a new chief of staff and deputy chief of staff. There are four deputy mayors covering education, economic development, health and human services, and public safety. And he retained Allen Y. Lew, who headed the school modernization program under Fenty, as city administrator.
“I like the team he’s pulled together now,” said Lloyd Jordan, a Gray campaign consultant and transition team volunteer who has served as an outside mayoral adviser this year.
Gray does not have the star-power punch — Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, City Administrator Dan Tangherlini, transportation director Gabe Klein — that helped define the Fenty era and drew national attention. But he seems to be all right with that, saying there is little elbowing in his administration for the spotlight.
“They’re professionals in their fields,” Gray said. “They don’t have a strong interest in their own visibility.”
His senior staff, Gray said, is just like him.
The day he met with the university presidents, Gray began his day meeting with philanthropist Richard England, swapping stories about their childhoods and hoping to maintain England’s relationship with the city, which has led to generous grants for financially stressed local nonprofits.
The rest of the day was packed with appearances — such as the luncheon for the public-housing residents and a message of congratulations to two outstanding scholars at Wilson High School.
In between, Gray read in the back seat of a black Lincoln Navigator as two police officers from the security detail manned the front seat. The essentials were within reach: shoe polish, tissues and lots of pens.
He mostly studied “the book,” a binder prepared by his staff that includes his schedule and talking points for daily events. It is yet another contrast to Fenty, who was known for running the government from multiple BlackBerrys and driving himself in a pint-size SmartCar sans security.
Gray seems comfortable in the back seat but later expresses embarrassment at being chauffeured around.
“That’s not me,” he said.
But he said he knows security is as necessary as shaking hands at public appearances.
“I enjoy it,” Gray said. “I like being out and about.”
In an effort that was part open house, part mending fences, his administration invited residents and power brokers to the mayor’s suite at the Wilson Building for low-key holiday gatherings — about 600 guests divided over four nights. It was nothing fancy: trays of store-bought cheese, crackers, cookies and cupcakes and Turkey Hill eggnog, some coffee and make-it-yourself powdered apple cider that guests declined.
“We want you to consider this as the people’s building, the people’s office,” Gray told a crowd that Monday night.
Several of those invited that night had worked on his campaign. They were those who believe they were left behind at the start of Gray’s administration when a handful of aides were deciding whom to hire, who had access and who did not.
As with the employees Gray terminated or forced to resign — including his first chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall — he said he has cut ties with that circle.
Gray has worked hard to win back waning supporters, even attending a kind of private gripe session in May.
“If those people brought you to the dance, you have to take care of them,” Jordan said.
The mayor was running late to the Carter G. Woodson 136th-birthday celebration, sponsored by the National Park Service and Shiloh Baptist Church at the historic church in Shaw.
Gray got there just in time for photos — official and unofficial. People wanted to shake his hand, just say hello.
“I don’t think it’s me,” he said in an interview later. “I think it’s the title. People love to interact with this title.”
But Gray does not want the title that he has held for one difficult year to define what he sees as decades of public service. The former social-services administrator, council member and council chairman often runs into city residents who knew him during different phases of his professional life.
Earlier in the day, as he was leaving his office to go to another appearance, he ran into Ricardo Thornton, whose residence at the Forest Haven mental institution has been well documented by local and national media and in a made-for-TV movie. He and his wife, Donna, were both at Forest Haven and later married, raising a son.
Thornton was headed to the fifth-floor council chambers to testify at a hearing.
“Hey, Mr. Gray,” he said.
“Mayor Gray,” Thornton quickly corrected himself.
Gray later recalled how his advocacy for the closure of Forest Haven helped the Thorntons.
“That’s one of the biggest rewards — feeling like you did something for somebody,” Gray said.
But does he miss “Mr. Gray”?
“I would be fine being Vince and wouldn’t be disrespected at all,” he said. “I miss Vince.”