Mayor Vincent C. Gray wasn’t sure that any of the members of Congress he invited to his suite at Verizon Center for a hockey game would show up.
He had reached out to members who he thought needed to know more about the city as well as Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over the District.
To Gray’s surprise, Issa walked in.
Pleasantries were exchanged, and as guests nibbled on peanuts and fajitas, Gray and Issa segregated themselves to a corner for half of the Washington Capitals-Pittsburgh Penguins’ December matchup.
Laughter and back-slapping about the state of the city and their mutual affection for baseball dominated their conversation, astonishing their staffs.
“We mostly didn’t see the game,” Issa recalled in an interview. “We just talked.”
The moment underscores the developing bond between Gray and Issa. Despite their vast political differences, the relationship is helping to bolster the city’s agenda before Congress — an unexpected turn of events for District leaders who for decades have feared the heavy hand of Capitol Hill Republicans.
Gray and Issa have adopted a nonconfrontational posture that also extends to the mayor’s budding friendship with Issa lieutenant Trey Gowdy, a House Republican from South Carolina. The kinship has led to talks about relaxing federal restrictions on building heights in the District and ways to ease congressional control over the city’s budget. On one divisive issue, Issa is trying to renegotiate GOP plans to tie funding for abortions to budget autonomy for the District.
“I think you look for common ground, and, frankly, that is what I got back from Chairman Issa,” Gray said. “I think he gets it, but the ultimate proof is whether we get anything done.”
On paper, Issa and Gray could not be more different.
Issa is a tea party favorite who has repeatedly displayed his combative style during partisan brawls on Capitol Hill, going as far as calling the Obama administration “one of the most corrupt” in history.
Gray, by contrast, is viewed as a mild-mannered bureaucrat raised to believe that the GOP didn’t care about him or his city. After spending much of his adult life heading nonprofit groups that worked with the poor and disabled, the liberal Democrat makes $200,000 a year as mayor.
When Gray and Issa rose to their respective positions in January 2011, city leaders feared the effect of a new GOP majority elected on a platform of fiscal control and preserving conservative values.
Signs of trouble surfaced almost immediately.
After President Obama agreed last April to reinstate a Republican-backed budget measure banning the city from using its own money to pay for abortions, Gray made national headlines when he and several D.C. Council members were arrested in a protest on Capitol Hill.
But Gray has quickly learned that those who build friendships inside the Capitol often hold the real power.
In May, Gray and the council’s chairman, Kwame R. Brown (D), had prepared for a smack-down over liberal legislation adopted by the District — including legalizing same-sex marriage and lenient policies toward illegal immigration — when Issa and Gowdy summoned them for an oversight hearing.
Instead, Issa floated changes to the Home Rule charter so the mayor and council could enact an annual city budget without congressional approval.
“After the hearing, I called him and said, ‘Mr. Chairman, I want to thank you for the manner in which the hearing was conducted. . . . I really appreciated that you stayed the whole time,’ ” Gray recalled. “Then we had a good dialogue, and he said, ‘Look, I want to find solutions to make your job easier.’ . . . And I have seen nothing but that spirit in the months since.”
When the mayor needed political cover to boot Occupy D.C. protesters from two city parks this winter, Issa stepped in and held a hearing that helped persuade the National Park Service to enforce a ban on camping in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza.
“We must clearly remedy this, because the District of Columbia is being burdened,” Issa told Park Service leaders.
Issa also has signaled he is giving Gray the benefit of the doubt on allegations that the mayor’s campaign improperly paid a fellow candidate in the 2010 mayor’s race. Issa’s committee largely cleared Gray of having personal knowledge of payments to Sulaimon Brown but confirmed that Brown received money-order contributions from people with ties to the Gray campaign.
Gray has also found a partner in Gowdy. As chairman of the oversight committees’s subcommittee on health care, District of Columbia, census and the National Archives, the former federal prosecutor has the most direct oversight over the city.
After his inauguration, Gray personally called Gowdy to arrange an introductory meeting. Gowdy got a ride to Gray’s office to meet the mayor on his own turf that afternoon.
“I was stunned,” Gray recalled of the meeting that sparked their friendship. “He’s just a decent human being.”
In February, Gray invited Gowdy to his State of the District speech, seating him next to Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier. During his remarks, Gray acknowledged Gowdy, telling a citywide audience that he was “delighted” to have him as chairman of the subcommittee.
When he got home that night, Gowdy penned a thank-you note to Gray, saying he was touched to have been invited.
“It’s probably not an easy thing for him to say something nice about a conservative from South Carolina in his . . . address,” said Gowdy, adding that he’s a major Lanier fan. “I thanked him and told him I want to, to the extent I can, help you reach the goals you laid out.”
In separate interviews, Gowdy and Issa said their relationship with Gray highlights their drive to move beyond deep-rooted suspicions that congressional Republicans have it out for the District.
Although clashes between city officials and congressional Republicans over abortion funding and gun-control measures often dominate the headlines, Issa and Gowdy said they want to find ways to loosen congressional oversight over the District.
“This notion I harbor any desire to inject my views on the District of Columbia, it was never going to happen,” Gowdy said. “I didn’t run for Congress so I could be mayor of the District of Columbia.”
Issa strongly disagrees with Gray that the District can constitutionally become a state. Instead, Issa sees his role as committee chairman as being akin to the oversight a governor performs over a big city.
“States don’t run cities, but there is some role,” said Issa, adding that his mentor, former representative Tom Davis (R-Va.), considered a District ally, helped shape his view.
Issa said his most immediate challenge is working with Gray to try to detach a permanent abortion rider — which restricts how the city uses about $200,000 in local funds for Planned Parenthood and other family-planning organizations — from budget autonomy legislation on Capitol Hill.
In December, during the Caps game, Issa asked Gray whether the District could find a few wealthy donors to offset the funding loss to Planned Parenthood. After consulting with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Gray rejected Issa’s suggestion “out of principle.”
But Issa said he is determined to approve a budget autonomy bill. He said he is now trying to persuade GOP lawmakers to pass legislation separate from the thorny abortion issue and handle the funding as a separate bill.
“I vote pro-life, no question about it, but I still feel what the city does with the city’s funds should be primarily city decisions,” Issa said.
Gray said he suspected that Issa was not responsible for the abortion measure being attached to the budget bill.
“You know how you can look at someone’s face and tell,” Gray said. “I’ve looked at his face.”
Yet, relationships in the District can at times be good only until the next election. If Democrats retake the House in November, Issa and Gowdy will lose their chairmanships.
At least for now, Gray’s not willing to ponder such change.
“This adage — the Democrats are your friends and the Republicans are not — I don’t think that has a place anymore,” Gray said.