Mo Elleithee and Steve McMahon are Democratic political strategists. Both served as senior advisers in Vincent C. Gray’s mayoral campaign in 2010.
For more than a year, we’ve watched — first with disbelief, then sadness and anger, and now, disgust — as revelations about an illegal shadow campaign in the District’s 2010 mayoral race have dominated headlines and contributed to a widening trust gap between city leaders and residents.
This was not at all what we signed up for.
In 2010, we agreed to help D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) in his campaign for mayor. Like a growing number of people at the time, we believed that Gray’s collaborative leadership style and reputation as a man of ethics and integrity were the perfect answer at a time when most D.C. residents were feeling disenfranchised by their city government.
Gray’s message and our campaign were about making city government more responsive to residents. We were the campaign fighting to end cronyism. We were the ones who wanted to restore people’s faith in local government.
Apparently, not everyone got the memo.
As has become abundantly clear over the past year, there were two parallel campaigns going on — a legitimate campaign focused on delivering Gray’s hopeful message of change, and an illegitimate campaign that violated not only campaign laws but also the trust of everyone in the District.
Make no mistake: This shadow campaign was unethical and illegal and was conducted without the knowledge of most of the campaign’s senior leadership. Those inside and outside the campaign who were involved should be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They compromised countless campaign staff members and volunteers by involving them unwittingly in their illegal activities. They deserve the strongest condemnation by all city leaders — regardless of previous relationships — and we applaud the U.S. attorney for making an example of them and their corruption.
It was also stupid politics. Setting aside the fact that it was completely antithetical to everything our campaign was about, the shadow campaign was simply unnecessary. Polls at the time showed Gray with a consistent lead over then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Gray had a powerful message that was tapping into the frustration of a growing number of D.C. residents. Anyone who thought we needed to pay Sulaimon Brown to continue his ridiculous rants displayed a colossal lack of judgment and a stunning disregard for our candidate and the people of the District.
But beyond being illegal and bad politics, the shadow campaign was at its core a betrayal. It was a betrayal of everything our campaign stood for. It was a betrayal of the candidate by some people he trusted. And it was a betrayal of the voters who put their trust in our promise to change the way local government conducted business.
And that may be the biggest crime of all.
To be clear, we never saw any evidence that our candidate knew anything about an illegal shadow campaign. As far as we know — and hope — he was just as unaware of it as the rest of us on the legitimate campaign were.
But the damage has been done. The indictments and convictions that have resulted have completely overshadowed the good work of the Gray administration. Despite continued progress on school reform, getting the District’s fiscal house back in order and an increase in private-sector jobs in the city, a few individuals ensured that this administration would be tarnished before the mayor was even sworn in. And they have had an indelible impact on how he will be remembered, regardless of what he is able to accomplish.
The mayor’s public silence on the matter until Wednesday, when he spoke with a group of reporters, only made the situation worse. Instead of being a voice for the District’s anger and outrage over a common sense of betrayal, his reticence raised more questions and further eroded the public’s trust in his administration.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A lot of good, honest people worked on the Gray campaign. The senior leadership team, staff and volunteers we worked with were involved out of a dedication to creating a better District.
But more importantly, tens of thousands of District residents put their hopes and faith in the promise of One City — a city where government is responsive to everyone, where we could put the days of cronyism behind us and where residents could once again trust their leaders.
We can only hope that shining the brightest of lights on a shadow campaign and holding those involved accountable gets us one step closer to that promise.