D.C. Council member Yvette M. Alexander got her political start as the handpicked successor to Vincent C. Gray, who anointed her after he became council chairman and before he ran for mayor. Now, Gray, mounting a political comeback after losing the mayoralty, wants to reclaim his old council seat.
His former protege insists she is not retreating.
Alexander (D-Ward 7), in an interview, accused Gray of challenging her as a first step toward a 2018 mayoral bid that would avenge his loss to Muriel E. Bowser in the 2014 Democratic primary.
“He’s just trying to get his foot in the door,” Alexander said. “If Vince Gray is honest about it, he would tell the truth and say, ‘I want to run for mayor. I want to get revenge.’ That’s who he is, and Ward 7 knows it.”
Alexander, 54, was loyal to Gray during his worst moments as mayor, describing him as a “man of integrity” when council colleagues demanded his resignation during the U.S. attorney’s investigation into financial irregularities in his 2010 mayoral campaign.
Prosecutors closed the investigation in December without charging Gray. But six of his associates have pleaded guilty to charges related to campaign finances.
After Gray lost the primary, Alexander aligned herself with Bowser. She said she has not spoken with Gray since he left office 13 months ago and described herself as “shocked” by his decision to challenge her in the June 14 Democratic primary.
During a radio interview Friday, she said she would use the federal investigation to raise questions about Gray’s tenure.
“We can’t give him a break or a pass,” she told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi, suggesting that prosecutors did not charge Gray because he “had a very good attorney.”
Gray, 73, declined a request to talk about Alexander. But Chuck Thies, his spokesman, said Gray is running because he “feels he can do a better job than Yvette and he wants to make that case to the voters of Ward 7.”
Thies said Gray’s candidacy is not tied to a future plan to run for mayor and that “it has nothing to do with Bowser.”
“I’ve had hundreds of hours of conversations with Vince Gray since he left office, and I don’t think I’ve heard him say ‘Muriel Bowser’ once,” Thies said.
As for Gray’s past support of Alexander, Thies said, “Vince doesn’t feel that she has grown in the job. When you’ve been there for eight years and you’re not an influential council member, it’s time for you to go. At this point, Yvette is just taking up space. That’s not Vince’s fault.”
Gray is staking his quest to return to the city’s political stage on the hope that his tenure as mayor and on the council is enough to persuade past loyalists to renew their commitment to him.
But Gray’s decision to challenge Alexander also is a reminder that his 2007 endorsement of her was a key reason she won the election to succeed him in the ward after he became council chair.
“I supported her primarily because of Gray,” said Phil Hammond, a longtime Democratic activist in Ward 7. “It was a leap of faith, but I thought Gray was knowledgable enough. He supported her and pushed her. That’s part of his record.”
Johnnie Scott Rice, a former Gray supporter who was among the candidates who lost to Alexander in 2007, said she is not altogether pleased with Alexander’s performance. But Rice, who supported Bowser over Gray in 2014, said Gray’s quest to reclaim Ward 7 suggests another agenda.
“I don’t understand how he expects us to take out someone he put in there because he’s selfish enough to want her seat,” Rice said. “It’s not right for Vince Gray to go after Yvette Alexander. She did everything he asked her to do. I don’t give a damn if she’s not doing everything we want.”
In her three victorious campaigns, Alexander has not won more than 50 percent of the vote. Her detractors say she has few accomplishments to her credit since taking office nine years ago.
“Now she has a track record on her own, and he can easily say she didn’t do what he expected,” said Kevin Chavous, whom Gray defeated in 2004 to become the ward’s council member.
Gray is a well-known name in the ward, where he commanded 60 percent of the vote in the 2014 primary. He may also benefit from supporters’ anger that prosecutors’ long-running investigation undermined his quest for a second term as mayor.
“The thing that gives him the most advantage is the fact that his whole entire term was under a cloud that led to nothing,” Chavous said. “People feel like he was a victim.”
Two years after his 2004 election to the council, Gray decided to run for council chairman, he planned to anoint as his successor Carrie Thornhill, a prominent District Democrat he had known since high school.
Thornhill chose not to run. After winning the chairman’s race, Gray endorsed Alexander, whom he knew from Ward 7’s Democratic organization, to fill the vacant council seat.
“She’s got strong roots there. She works well with people,” Gray said at the time. He promised “to do everything to get her elected.”
Alexander said that after the endorsement, “my fundraising went through the roof. I probably raised more than $250,000.” Until that point, she said, she had “under $10,000.”
Gray himself contributed $500 and encouraged his loyalists to write checks.
“There were times we said no, but he insisted we support Yvette,” said H.R. Crawford, a real estate developer who previously held the council seat. He leased office space to Alexander’s campaign and gave her more than $2,000 himself and through his real estate company.
Crawford is among a number of the ward’s leaders who have questioned Alexander’s leadership in the past, saying that her office’s response to constituents’ concerns has been slow and that she has failed to produce significant legislation. Still, Crawford said he is “leaning” toward supporting Alexander again this year, in part because he is unsure whether Gray’s objective is to lead the ward or “to be a pest” to Bowser.
“Is he going to use this as a stair step,” Crawford asked, “and if he’s going to do that, why not wait two years?”
Alexander is seeking reelection at a time when many Ward 7 residents are complaining about the slow pace of change along their commercial corridors, a frustration that has persisted since before Gray represented the ward.
In a recent setback, Walmart canceled plans to open two stores in Ward 7.
“Across the city, things have changed, but not in Ward 7,” said Maceo Thomas, 44, a ward resident who works as a real estate agent. “Everything looks pretty similar to when [Alexander] started.”
Alexander, a garrulous presence on the council who previously worked as an insurance regulator for the District, portrays herself as an advocate for the ward with a staff that is responsive to residents’ needs.
As chair of the council’s Health and Human Services committee, Alexander said, she has overseen important issues, including the city’s implementation of universal health-care coverage.
Concerning development, Alexander cited several projects, including the opening of a Yes! Organic grocery on Pennsylvania Avenue SE that was eventually shut down. “It closed, but I got them there,” she said. “The residents didn’t support it.”
Alexander said she’s unwilling to assume sole responsibility for how the ward has fared.
“When Vince Gray was chair and mayor, he had the most power to do the most for Ward 7,” she said. “What did he do to work collaboratively to get it done? He needs to answer for Ward 7 development.”