His quest for reelection in peril, Vincent C. Gray traveled this week to the part of Washington that propelled his political rise, a neighborhood east of the Anacostia River, where he boasted of his accomplishments and declared himself a man of integrity.
Yet outside the elementary school auditorium where the mayor spoke, in one of the predominantly African American neighborhoods he has counted on in past elections, voters said they were not so sure.
At the core of their uncertainty, they said, are questions about the mayor’s honesty, percolating anew with fresh allegations that Gray himself had sought more than $400,000 in illegal campaign contributions in 2010 — accusations that he denies.
“It has just got me puzzled,” said George Hill, 58, a mechanic, standing outside his modest brick home in Ward 7’s Lincoln Heights. He voted for Gray in 2010 but now is undecided. “I don’t want to judge him, but I don’t know the truth.”
Around the corner, Dorothy Poston, 78, tending her front yard, acknowledged that she may not be able to vote for the mayor again. “What the heck happened?” she asked. “Are they going to charge him? I don’t know what to do.”
Four years ago, a massive voter turnout in wards 7 and 8 drove Gray’s victory over incumbent Adrian M. Fenty. Now, less than three weeks before the April 1 Democratic primary, a broad spectrum of civic leaders and political activists on the city’s eastern edge are expressing doubt that Gray’s support base will show up with nearly the same force.
Since January, the mayor has led seven Democratic challengers in polling and has won endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and an assortment of labor unions and interest groups.
But Gray needs an outpouring of votes from his base, if only to offset what he’s not expected to get in mostly white neighborhoods across town, where he did poorly in 2010. “The base is not solid,” said Stan Jackson, who was Gray’s 2010 campaign coordinator in Ward 8 but who himself is now undecided. “The base is ambivalent, and it’s not energized.”
Isaac Fulwood Jr., the District’s former police chief who lives in Ward 7, said voters he has talked to in Gray’s geographic base are torn between admiring the mayor’s accomplishments and being concerned about the scandal. “It’s a very uncomfortable election,” Fulwood said. “I’m looking at all the things he has done well, but he has this thing lingering out there, and there’s the bigger question: Did we create a culture of corruption in the D.C. government?”
Asked how the mayor is faring in wards 7 and 8, Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said, “Fantastically,” an assessment he based on “the enthusiasm of everyone we meet, our internal metrics and history.”
Thies also said that Gray’s political strength comes from neighborhoods across the city, such as those in Ward 5, where he received nearly 75 percent of the vote in 2010. “The misconception that the mayor is solely an east-of-the-river candidate is exactly that: a misconception,” he said.
But Gray performed far better among African Americans than whites four years ago, and he is sure to lose his mayoralty without his base.
As a result, the mayor is counting on such supporters as Barbara Morgan, a prominent Ward 7 civic leader who said she’s “more enthusiastic” about Gray now than she was in 2010 because of his focus on education and his advocacy for redevelopment projects at Skyland Shopping Center and St. Elizabeths Hospital.
“All these other people are out here trying to get his job, but what have they done?” asked Morgan, former president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations. “At least Vince has a record to run on.”
The mayor’s purported role in the 2010 campaign is not disqualifying for all of his supporters, many of whom question why prosecutors have allowed the investigation to persist for so long.
With the primary looming, they also expressed suspicion about the timing of businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson’s guilty plea on Monday, in which he said the mayor knew of a scheme to illegally finance the 2010 campaign.
“It’s a whole lot of hearsay, and right now I believe in him,” Darryl Sutterwhite, 60, a social worker, said as he got out of his car at a Benning Road shopping center. “If he did something, prosecute him. Otherwise, I’m supporting him.” At the same time, Sutterwhite acknowledged a growing discomfort absorbing the flow of information that contradicts Gray’s claim of innocence.
His wife, he pointed out, is no longer backing the mayor.
In 2010, as Gray began his mayoral campaign, voters in wards 7 and 8 had repudiated Fenty, viewing him as more concerned with creating bicycle lanes and dog parks in white communities than combating the double-digit unemployment rate in their neighborhoods.
Fueled by anger, voters east of the Anacostia drifted to Gray, a longtime Ward 7 resident who represented the ward on the D.C. Council before rising to chairman and running for mayor.
Four years ago, voters in wards 7 and 8 went to the polls in greater numbers than in previous Democratic primaries, and more than 80 percent supported Gray. In total, he received more than a third of his 72,000 votes from those wards. “I was glad to see him win — a whole lot of us were,” said Joy Scott, a pastor and the former president of the Ward 8 Democrats. “ ‘East of the River’ loved him.”
The dynamics of the 2014 race are far different. Instead of challenging an unpopular mayor, Gray himself is the incumbent, fending off Democratic challengers who include council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Vincent B. Orange (At Large), Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6). A fifth council member, David A. Catania (I-At Large), has said he is running in the general election.
For three years, Gray has been at the center of a political scandal, resulting in five of his associates from the 2010 campaign pleading guilty to felonies.
In the latest revelation, Thompson admitted on Monday to illegally funneling more than $2 million to an array of campaigns, including the mayor’s. Gray, Thompson told prosecutors, asked him to fund the illicit campaign. The mayor has called Thompson a liar.
Even before Thompson’s plea, Gray’s diminished popularity in wards 7 and 8 was evident. A Washington Post poll in January suggested that a third of those surveyed in the two wards said they would support him — far more than his opponents but well short of a majority.
The frustration toward Gray spilled into public view at a forum hosted by the Ward 8 Democrats in January, during which hecklers shouted at him. The mayor lost an ensuing straw poll to Bowser by 10 percentage points.
The list of prominent supporters east of the Anacostia who have abandoned Gray includes Paul Savage, a Ward 7 civic leader who has questioned the mayor’s “moral authority” to govern.
Bernadette Tolson, a coordinator of his Ward 8 campaign in 2010, said she gave up on Gray because he did not find jobs in the administration for qualified campaign workers.
“A lot of people don’t trust him anymore,” said Tolson, who is now backing Orange. “If you don’t trust a person, how are you going to support them?”
On Wednesday, two days after Thompson’s plea hearing, the mayor was back in Ward 7, presiding over the groundbreaking for the redevelopment of Skyland, a project that for decades residents have been yearning for.
As the developers and his own deputies praised Gray for his leadership, Phyllis Lee, 68, a retired teacher, walked into the Safeway across the street. A Gray supporter in 2010, she said she has appreciated his focus on education. The Skyland plan is another plus.
But Lee also said that she can’t escape thoughts of the investigation. Even if the mayor is innocent, she said, what about his associates who committed crimes? “As a kid, I was taught that you’re judged by the company you keep,” she said. “Right now, I am unsettled. I am unsure.”
The investigation is only part of what has driven discontent toward Gray within his base. There have been complaints about the pace of economic development in such neighborhoods as Marshall Heights and Fairlawn.
A couple of miles away from Skyland, at the Lincoln Heights public-housing complex, Patricia Malloy, a neighborhood leader, recalled that no one questioned her choice of Gray four years ago.
“Their main concern was, ‘Fenty has to go,’ ” Malloy said. “In 2014, they’re asking, ‘Why are you voting for the mayor?’ ”
She attributed their opposition to Gray to the city’s failure to start a long-promised redevelopment of their community. The mayor is one man, she tells them. Change takes time. “All I know,” she said, “is that when I call him, he calls back.”
Emily Washington, 70, a Ward 7 activist, voted for Gray in 2010 and plans to support him again. “I don’t see anyone out there who has demonstrated they can run the city,” she said.
Yet, she said, in her neighborhood, “a lot of people tell me they’re not voting for him,” ascribing their reasons to a perception that the city is becoming an enclave for the wealthy and that “they don’t think he has done anything for their community.”
From her own encounters, she said, the frustration has little to do with the investigation. In fact, even among people unhappy with Gray, she said, she has detected anger that the investigation seems to go on and on.
“People feel it’s nit-picking,” she said. “It’s only an issue if there’s irrefutable evidence that Mr. Gray orchestrated and carried out the shadow campaign. If they can’t prove it, they need to back off.”
Whatever the case, said Scott, the probe is on voters’ minds.
“You have people saying, ‘You vote him back in, and then something happens and he has to come out’ — they’re weighing that,” she said.
The pastor recounted her advice: “If you feel he has done a good job, do what you think is right. And pray.”