D.C. Mayor Gray shows tin ear for political fallout

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Photo - D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray
Local,DC,Alan Blinder

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray never enjoyed a political honeymoon when he took over the city's top job, his tenure quickly marred by hiring missteps and early corruption allegations.

And nearly 18 months into Gray's mayoralty, many of his political wounds continue to be self-inflicted. In recent weeks, amid the backdrop of a criminal investigation, a high-profile hire who had an affair with a subordinate became a distraction and the mayor took criticism for his administration's efforts to limit open-records laws. As rumors persisted to the point that Gray had to deny that he plans to resign, the mayor left for a trip to China.

"I wake up in the morning and see what kind of jousting we're going to do today," Gray told reporters with a laugh last week.

Not all of the problems that have befallen the city government are Gray's fault. He did not, for instance, conspire with former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown to commit fraud, but he's still become the face of a government under siege.

 A case nearing closure?
The probe into D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's campaign has been ongoing for more than 16 months, but its future is unknown. Two campaign officials have pleaded guilty to their roles in a coverup, and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen has said the investigation is continuing. The public could get some hints about the investigation's future, though, at a Monday hearing for Howard Brooks, one of the staff members who acknowledged guilt.

"Although Kwame and Harry Thomas Jr. have done him favors by attracting attention to their own crimes, they're done now," said Chuck Thies, a political consultant who has informally advised Gray in the past. "The attention returns to Vince Gray."

Last week was particularly bruising for Gray. As rumors swirled around the John A. Wilson Building about his future, his most recent political appointment, of Michael Kelly to run the city's Housing Authority, proved embarrassing after it was revealed Kelly had been forced to leave his last job in Philadelphia after an affair with a subordinate. So far, Gray has stuck by the pick, but it has increased the perception of him as a politician with a tin ear.

Some have begun to openly doubt his political viability.

"I think he fails, perhaps, to appreciate the nervousness within the family -- and by that, I mean the entire city -- about the future of the city and about his tenure," at-large D.C. Councilman David Catania said. "There's much less concern with whether or not you're opening a new park or cutting a ribbon."

Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, though, said Gray's attention to day-to-day governance is refreshing.

"I think he has been able to stay focused," Wells said. "He seems perfectly comfortable."

Gray's aides point to the District's vital signs as proof that he is an effective mayor: The unemployment rate has fallen since he took office, homicides are down and the city's savings account crossed the $1 billion milestone.

"He's concentrating on doing the business of the city," Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said. "He probably has more stuff on his calendar now than he did eight months ago."

Thies said the public outreach might be feeding Gray's relaxed response.

"When the mayor goes anywhere, people treat you with respect and reverence and generally tell you what you want to hear and that you're going to be OK," Thies said. "It's easy to believe that the criticism is confined."

As Gray leads an economic development mission to China, speculation about his fate will likely continue.

"I think the cards that he has to play are all bad. What he has to decide is whether or not he folds based on the cards," Catania said. "He's been dealt a couple of felonies, a huge investigation and an era of bad feelings. ... People have seen too many of the cards to know that bluffing doesn't make sense."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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