On the campaign trail, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has declared that he brought Costco to Fort Lincoln in Ward 5. He has suggested he is responsible for redevelopment of Skyland Shopping Center, the modernization of H.D. Woodson High School and a historic rise in public school test scores. Are these pronouncements the lost stanzas from Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping”?
Giovanni’s poem was written in praise of a people. Gray’s pronouncements are appropriations of the hard work of others. Dub him “The Great Appropriator.”
Hoping to dislodge himself from allegations of cronyism and nepotism and to ensure his political survival, Gray began appropriating others’ achievements early in his mayoral career. It seems to have worked: In recent polls, residents have said they believe he has done a good job managing the city. But a continuing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign prompted the majority of those individuals to conclude that Gray is not trustworthy.
Perhaps to capitalize on the first half of that equation, Gray has sought even more aggressively during this reelection campaign to staple himself to all things good, claiming credit for development projects, academic achievement, health-care improvements and the concept of a technology corridor.
Audaciously, Gray has accused his opponents of attempting to steal his laurels. He offered, at a Ward 7 candidates forum, to contribute to a fund to hire fact-checkers. There may be some stretching of the truth at those heated political marketing sessions, but Gray, who seems to bill himself as Supreme Visionary and Master Municipal Architect, is the biggest violator. Many of his achievements are the function of economic conditions or owe much to former mayors Anthony A. Williams and Adrian M. Fenty.
Consider that a spokesman for Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins told me in 2011 that when Gray took over there were as many as 60 development projects ready or nearly ready left over from the previous administrations, including Skyland. The Great Recession, which began the year after Fenty took office, prompted extreme caution in bankers. That meant that some development projects initiated by Williams and carried over to his successor had difficulty securing financing. Activity slowed or stopped.
Gray acknowledged that dynamic in his recent State of the District address and, almost as a throwaway, mentioned he was “pleased to acknowledge the contributions of my predecessors.” But he never named them or cited their works. Instead, he behaved as if he — and he alone — were responsible for such projects as Skyland.
City hall workers have complained privately to me that Gray didn’t mention Williams at the recent groundbreaking for the Ward 7 center. While the mayor can be praised for persuading Wal-Mart to locate at the development, the heavy lifting to reshape the economic future for residents east of the Anacostia River began under Williams. He and his team picked a fight with subpar retailers. He invoked eminent domain, kicking off a series of legal battles as he sought to assemble land necessary to modernize Skyland. Interestingly, one of the developers at last week’s announcement was associated with the project even before Gray arrived in the mayoral suite.
At the Ward 7 forum, Gray held up Woodson, seeming to claim responsibility for its modernization and that of other public schools. In fact, Fenty was behind the school renovation plan, proposing while still on the D.C. Council the use of proceeds from lottery sales as a funding source. But Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who was chair of the finance committee and is one of seven individuals seeking the Democratic nomination, believed that revenue stream too uncertain. So Evans persuaded legislators to use a portion of sales taxes to guarantee realization of the dream. Further, the Education Reform Act of 2007, championed by Fenty, included schools to be renovated, and Woodson was among them.
Gray has presented himself as a financial wizard, trashing Fenty for using money from the city’s savings account to meet demands during the recession. As council chairman, Gray persuaded his colleagues to approve a process that would begin rebuilding those reserves. He has argued that but for him the District would not be touting a $1.75 billion reserve and budget surpluses. But the latter is partially a feature of tax increases: a hike in sales taxes in fiscal 2010 and a a new rate for higher-wage earners passed in 2011.
None of this is to suggest Gray has not done anything. His greatest achievement may be the expansion of early childhood education. Mostly, however, he has followed the Williams and Fenty templates, facilitating the completion of projects they began. Some people might argue that is the nature of politics — one administration feeds off the last.
But the District has entered a new phase. A dramatic demographic shift coupled with seemingly intractable socioeconomic issues demand bold risk-taking and innovation. Gray, who has a fondness for task forces and studies, has not demonstrated such talents. If the city is to move to the next level, a different kind of chief executive will be needed.
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