D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, his handlers and dwindling cadre of supporters have sought to telegraph the message that he may run for reelection — and would win if he does. That’s all pretense — a political version of the poker face. No politician wants to be perceived as a lame duck.
Consequently, Gray and his crew have engaged in a coy media strategy and conducted targeted community outreach, all designed to portray the mayor as a politician in his prime. They also have subtly sought to demonize U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., arguing that his failure to close his corruption investigation is hurting the District; they really mean Gray.
But most residents, including Ward 7’s Paul Savage and Ward 1’s Terry Lynch, believe Machen has helped. “A lot of people have fallen on the wrong side of the law,” Savage, a respected civic leader, told me. “No one, over the years, has held anyone to account for any indiscretion that has gone on.”
“It’s hard to see how he’s been taking his time,” said Lynch, the director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “The results speak for themselves. There has already been a political tsunami.”
Three erstwhile members of the D.C. Council have pleaded guilty to federal felonies. Today, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is expected to sentence Thomas Gore, the former assistant treasurer of Gray’s 2010 campaign for his role in illegally funneling money between that campaign and another. Gore also destroyed records of those payments and lied about it.
Two other individuals, Howard L. Brooks and Jeanne Clarke Harris, also have pleaded guilty to felony charges for their roles. Brooks actually made the illegal payments to the other campaign. Harris admitted to helping with the development and operation of an off-the-books, $653,000 “shadow campaign,” allegedly financed by millionaire businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson.
Last week, Thompson agreed to allow the feds to extend the statute of limitations in their probe of possible illegal, third-party contributions he allegedly made to national and local campaigns. That extension could mean bad news for Gray.
In demurring about his future, Gray has taken a page straight from Marion Barry’s playbook. Between 1995 and 1998 — Barry’s fourth and final mayoral term — the congressionally created financial control board bruised him significantly, stripping him of authority over large sections of the city government, diluting his influence and leaving him politically impotent. Still, Barry pranced, postured and pretended to be unaffected, even as several council members announced their intention to run for his job. He became the epitome of the clothes-less emperor but refused to acknowledge that reality. There also were major hurdles to retrieving the powers and prerogatives of the office in any bid for a fifth term. Barry eventually chose not to run for reelection.
Gray lacks the base Barry had then, said one of several political consultants I spoke with, who has been involved for years in local affairs and requested anonymity. “Plus the geographic and demographic dynamics have changed,” he added. “They’ve even changed since 2010.”
Residents and business leaders glad-hand and give Gray the respect due his office. But many have seethed with anger for his failure to apologize for the illegal activities of those who worked for him. His 2010 win was sculpted, in part, from their actions.
The federal probe isn’t the only obstacle to a 2014 Gray victory, however. He has demonstrated little vision. His administration has lacked any signature program, as education reform was for his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty; these days, many parents are riled over the declining state of the traditional public schools. Truth be told, Gray mostly has been a good steward of former mayor Anthony Williams’s economic development plan and legacy.
“The fiasco of Gray’s  campaign operation demonstrates he can’t build anything from scratch,” said another political consultant.
Furthermore, some residents are not pleased with his fiscal agenda. The city has had major surpluses, but these residents have felt over-taxed. Gray has not done enough to rein in spending. He also has alienated a sizable portion of his base east of the Anacostia, including individuals who helped raise money for him and others who volunteered for his campaign.
“The disenfranchisement of the base is most threatening to his reelection,” said Lynch, noting that Fenty was defeated because he “lost touch with his base. Vince has done the same thing.” Lynch backed Fenty in 2010 and, along with many others, was on the host committee for a May fundraiser for Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser’s mayoral campaign.
The proposed D.C. United soccer stadium at Buzzard Point won’t help Gray where he hurts. His base objected to the Nationals’ stadium. Those residents and voters remain strongly against government funds being used to assist in the construction of sports facilities. The land swap with Pepco, a corporation everyone loves to hate, will be salt in their wounds.
None of those issues has escaped Gray. Behind that cool, sunglassed visage is a politician trying hard not to quack.