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Harry Jaffe: Mayor Vincent Gray embraces the Old Guard in replacing Natwar Gandhi

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe,Marion Barry,Vincent Gray

Vince Gray, it turns out, is still a creature of the Old Guard.

When he first took office, Mayor Gray reached into the cobwebbed world of the 1990s to staff the mayoral suite, which led to his first ethical lapse. Now, in setting up the process for finding a new chief financial officer, he's harkening back to the control board days, when Congress took the financial reins from a broke nation's capital.

But this time around, Gray might be making a smart move in seeking guidance from tried and true friends.

Gray chose Alice Rivlin and Anthony Williams to head the committee that will search for Natwar Gandhi's replacement. The outgoing chief financial officer will leave June 1. In Rivlin and Williams, Gray has tapped a deep vein back to the control board. He also genuflects to the Federal City Council, the lair of Washington's most well-heeled, elite and civic-minded. Call it the monied Old Guard.

Rivlin chaired the control board from 1998 to 2001. The diminutive but powerful Ms. Rivlin -- who ran the Office of Management and Budget for Bill Clinton -- has gone on to the Brookings Institution, where she continues to examine and issue reports on D.C. finances. She has proved herself one of the most selfless and dedicated unelected leaders in local D.C. matters.

Rivlin linked arms with Tony Williams when she was running the city through the control board.

Williams was the city's very first chief financial officer. The same legislation that created the control board established the independent CFO. The mayor could appoint the CFO but could not fire that official -- and still cannot without cause.

Then-Mayor Marion Barry appointed Williams. As CFO he helped right the city's finances and used his success to run for mayor. Shortly after his election, Rivlin moved to disband the control board and turned the city's finances back to the mayor, Tony Williams.

Mayor Williams, you might recall, appointed Natwar Gandhi to run the tax department and then elevated him to chief financial officer, a post Gandhi has held since 2000.

So in asking Rivlin and Williams to replace Gandhi, Mayor Gray is cementing himself to the status quo and the lineage that brought Nat Gandhi to the fore.

"We were looking to establish credibility with Wall Street," one mayoral aide told me. "We want to assuage their fears and not tamper with our bond ratings."

Adds up, because under Gandhi the city's bond rating has become gold-plated, saving the city millions in the debt market. For my money, it's a capital idea to summon Rivlin and Williams to bring in the next CFO. The status quo is working. The independent CFO's operation under Gandhi has stabilized the city's finances and delivered balanced budgets year after year.

Vince Gray's reach back to Rivlin and Williams also signals his blessing the CFO's independence, a status he seemed to question last week. Calling on the Old Guard, this time around, could be the best way to guard the city's finances.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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