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Future Mayor Aims for Congress’ Gray Areas

Tom Williams/Roll Call
Mayor-to-be Vince Gray is said to have a close relationship with D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and possibly a stronger basis for linking Congress to D.C. issues.

Washington’s mayor-to-be, Vince Gray, and his predecessor, Mayor Adrian Fenty, are a contrast of styles. In the broad strokes of political caricature, Fenty comes across as the go-it-alone chief executive, while Gray is the consensus-seeking team leader. And that’s a posture some say will ease the incoming mayor’s dealings with Congress.

“Adrian Fenty is a hard-charging executive, and it’s difficult to take that kind of attitude and apply it to a deliberative body like Congress,” said Mike Panetta, the political consultant who serves as Washington’s shadow representative, a position created by the D.C. government. “Vincent Gray is a much more collaborative leader ... and I think Congress plays well to his governing style.”

Of course, if Democrats lose their majority in either or both chambers in November, Congress will be far more hostile territory for Gray. Washington’s laws allowing same-sex marriage and controlling guns — not to mention its overwhelming Democratic majority — have long irked Republicans.

But no matter which party controls Congress, Gray’s softer leadership touch and existing relationships on Capitol Hill are expected to serve him well.

Any mayor’s first point of contact with Congress is Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s nonvoting representative. Norton’s relationship with Fenty was never close — one source called it “strained” — but she and Gray are considered close allies.

Gray and Norton have known one another for decades; Norton graduated from Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington a few years ahead of Gray. The two have met regularly since Gray became chairman of the D.C. Council, often for friendly lunches.

Norton declined to endorse either man during the sometimes-bitter mayoral race — she noted that she would have to work with one of them after the votes were cast — but Norton and Gray clearly share a level of trust.

Norton said she expects Gray’s more ingratiating persona will go over better in Congress.

“He’s going to have an excellent relationship with Congress, because first of all, he’s very sophisticated, and he’s wonderfully flexible,” she said.

Fenty should have cultivated closer partnerships on Capitol Hill that might have paid off at crucial moments, Norton said. “He had cordial relationships, but he wasn’t up here as much as he could have been.”

For example, when an amendment gutting D.C’s gun laws effectively sank legislation giving D.C. long-sought voting rights last April, Fenty took a hands-off approach. “He wasn’t here,” she said.

Those who have worked with Gray during his tenure on the council said he has always been Congress-savvy, adept at keeping tabs on what was going on in the Capitol. Claudia McKoin, one of his top aides and the point person for federal affairs, is rarely without a spreadsheet tracking bills in progress, they said.

Gray takes a pragmatic view toward the tricky relationship between Congress and D.C. His first order of business on Capitol Hill is to play defense, he said.

All city laws first go to Congress, where they sit for 30 days before being enacted, and Congress must approve the city’s budget. “Our biggest job is making sure we don’t get riders on our budget reflecting someone else’s social agenda,” he said.

The District’s same-sex marriage law and its expiring school-voucher program are prime targets, particularly if Republicans are in the majority, he noted.

Gray also has a trickier goal: wresting more autonomy from Congress. To that end, Gray said the city must convince Congress of its own competency. “We have to show that we can manage ourselves,” he said.

Gray has other allies on the Hill in addition to Norton, including Members such as Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that approves the city’s budget. The council honored Serrano last month for sponsoring legislation ending Congress’ budget authority over the city. “He came to our meeting and told us that he’s the only Member of Congress who’s looking to give up power,” Gray said.

Gray has also forged a rapport with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform panel.

Norton notes that Gray’s best opportunity to build goodwill among Members might just be the most provincial. Many Members of Congress live in Washington, and when they’re having trouble with trash pickup, for example, they might make a call to the mayor’s office — giving Gray a chance to do a little lobbying alongside his constituent service.

“They know we can take their complaints to the top,” Norton said.

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