Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s decision to seek reelection is even more audacious than his decision to remain in office despite indisputable proof that aspects of his 2010 campaign were corrupt. I admit to being shocked; I was certain that Gray’s concern for the District’s reputation would restrain him from dragging the city through a political race in which sordid details of that episode surely would be rehashed. I misjudged. His personal ambitions apparently are far more important.
He has said he “did nothing wrong.” Does that mean he knew nothing about what happened?
It’s hard to believe Gray (D) didn’t know that his campaign was paying cash to Sulaimon Brown, an opponent in the 2010 race, to trash incumbent mayor Adrian M. Fenty. And to fathom Gray didn’t know there was an off-the-books campaign operation, run by longtime friends and political allies acting on behalf of his candidacy. And to imagine that he didn’t know that the corrupt group was in a space adjoining the office where his formal campaign organization was located.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. uncovered those facts during his sweeping, ongoing investigation into public corruption in the District, including Gray’s 2010 campaign. Four people associated with that operation have pleaded guilty to criminal offenses. Jeanne Clarke Harris, a Gray ally, revealed the existence of the “shadow campaign” and alleged that it was funded, in part, by businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.
Neither Thompson nor Gray has been charged with any crime. But make no mistake: Democracy was thwarted in 2010. Machen said the mayoral race was “compromised by backroom deals, secret payments and a flood of unreported cash.”
Mayoral contender and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said Gray “was elected under false pretenses and doesn’t deserve a second chance because he ran a corrupt campaign.”
Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), who also is hoping to snag the Democratic nomination for mayor, offered that Gray’s entry into the race doesn’t matter, but she said he now will “have to end his silence and answer the many legal questions about his 2010 campaign.”
Gray’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies, told me that the 2014 campaign will be “highly professional” and “transparent.” He argued that “so much was happening” in 2010, not even journalists covering the campaign knew of the illegalities that occurred, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Gray also wouldn’t know. “People make mistakes, and mistakes shouldn’t necessarily count you out,” Thies said.
It’s Gray’s self-muzzling that has generated a palpable anger among residents. During the past two years, they have demanded that the council pass strong ethics and campaign finance reform legislation. Some residents confided to me that they were looking forward to Gray’s departure. Others have indicated that they would not donate to this campaign; will their contributions be scrutinized as part of the feds’ ongoing investigation?
Confession: I didn’t endorse Gray in 2010. After his victory, I was prepared to cover his administration objectively. But things fell apart even before he was sworn in. His integrity and that of members of his administration were called into question.
“If integrity has an opposite, perhaps it is corruption — the getting away with things we know to be wrong,” author Stephen L. Carter said in his book “Integrity.”
Wrong certainly was done. Is Gray culpable?
He would have residents ignore the past and concentrate on the future. He has become an acolyte of Council member Marion Barry’s flawed political philosophy. Like Barry (D-Ward 8), Gray attempts to defuse by misdirecting. He has hoisted his so-called record of achievement: reduced unemployment, expanded economic development in every ward and improved education, for example. In reality, many of his accomplishments were made possible by individuals who were first- or second-tier holdovers from the Fenty administration, including City Administrator Allen Lew and Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.
More important, a mayor of a city is more than a technician. He is expected to be a leader, to set the civic standard, to act as role model and moral compass for his community. Gray has failed that assignment miserably. He has been unwilling, thus far, to stand forthrightly before residents to explain what he knew or even to apologize for wreaking havoc on the democratic process.
In some cultures, a person who breaches communal codes of conduct is banished or shunned. Those D.C. residents who want good and honest government need not wait until Machen has concluded his investigation. They can send a solid message about the kind of elected leadership they want by declining to sign Gray’s qualifying petition.
Carter has said it best: “In order to live with integrity, it is sometimes necessary to take that difficult step — to get involved — to fight openly for what one believes to be true and right and good, even when there is a risk to oneself.”
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