Just past his administration’s 60-day mark, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray is plagued by toxic headlines suggesting a quid pro quo agreement with a former mayoral candidate and a city official overspending on a luxurious SUV.
But in a Friday interview at his downtown office, Gray remained defiant, saying that despite what critics call a rough start, the capital city can run its own affairs.
The controversies, he said, should give no ammunition to Congressional opponents of his stated goal: D.C. statehood.
“As an argument to say that we should not be permitted to manage ourselves, that is really bogus,” Gray said. “I think I would suggest that somebody look at 13 balanced budgets as corroborated by an auditor. I would suggest that someone look at our bond ratings, which have continued to escalate.”
The comments came before the Washington Post reported this weekend claims by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that Gray offered him a job and cash payments in exchange for prolonging his candidacy and attacks on then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, whom Gray defeated in the Democratic primary last year.
That scandal followed outrage over two fully loaded SUVs leased by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown that cost city taxpayers nearly $4,000 a month. Brown has since told city officials to take back both Lincoln Navigators and cancel the leases.
But even in calling for an independent investigation into Sulaimon Brown’s allegations, the city’s special relationship with the federal government is inescapable: D.C. Attorney General-designate Irvin Nathan was House general counsel under then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) until he stepped down in December.
So it remains that Gray, like every D.C. mayor, must set about trying to work within the confines of that relationship.
“At the end of the day, it isn’t a level playing field,” Gray said of Congress’ authority to steer federal dollars to the District or withhold them altogether. “I perfectly understand that, and at the end of the day, they have the authority to make those decisions and we don’t.”
Nonetheless, in his first two months in office, the 68-year-old, known for his ability to build consensus, has started forging relationships with members of the new House Republican majority while at the same time vehemently calling for autonomy around the city.
The latter task, he said, is his main objective.
“One of the things that I’ve done is everywhere that I go, I talk about this. I’ve talked about it twice today,” he said Friday. “I think I’ve got to get everybody on the same page and get people in the city willing to stand up for what I think is right. I’m going to be a vocal spokesperson for that.”
Gray has done an apt job sharpening the rhetoric. Within a 30-minute interview, he invoked the Revolutionary War, women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement, and the U.S.-supported toppling of autocratic regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan as inspiration for the District’s own battle for sovereignty.
Unlike Congressional Republicans, who are quick to correct themselves when the word “state” escapes their mouths in reference to the District, Gray is free with his diction.
“We ought to be treated as every other jurisdiction, like every other state is,” he said. “It just seems hypocritical to me, the people who say states and cities ought to have the autonomy. Then give us the opportunity to have the autonomy.”
Gray has the full support of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) in his endeavor. “There is no better stump speaker for working up a crowd than Vince Gray,” she said Friday. “Vince Gray is a master. He can speak extemporaneously and militarily about the District of Columbia.” (Gray’s senior communications manager, Doxie McCoy, was once Norton’s spokeswoman.)
On Monday, Gray reprised these themes at a briefing organized by the activist group DC Vote, and he added a lamentation that more D.C. residents aren’t enraged by their disenfranchisement.
Whipping up excitement for the cause may be more arduous a task than it was over the past few years, when a Democratic majority in Congress got closer than ever to securing the District voting representation. The hopes fizzled when an amendment was attached to the voting rights bill that would have stripped D.C. of the right to regulate gun ownership, deflating the entire effort.
With Republicans in charge of the House, the District’s position is even less tenable. They have already removed Norton’s vote in the Committee of the Whole and attempted to restrict the use of the District’s funds toward abortion and needle-exchange programs by reinstituting social riders on appropriations bills.
“Even if it’s a rider that I support, I think it’s inappropriate because those are decisions that should be made by the people of this city,” Gray said. “It’s obviously going to be difficult because people who have to render those decisions don’t necessarily agree with us.”
But Gray has reached out to his opponents: Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the heads of the Appropriations and Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees with jurisdiction over the District.
Gray said he hopes to work with Boehner on their shared pet project of charter schools.
But already a tiff arose when Gray, scheduled to speak on the issue before Rep. Trey Gowdy’s Oversight subcommittee, was not accommodated when he asked to speak early. Gray had to skip the hearing entirely.
Gowdy insisted it was an unintentional slight and said he was impressed with the mayor during their one prior meeting.
“Our political philosophies are different. I’m not naive enough to think there’s going to be a lot of political agreement between the mayor and I,” the pro-gun, anti-abortion-rights South Carolina Republican said. “I’m hoping to find middle ground on the appropriateness of Congressional oversight.”
Gray said he appreciated Gowdy’s initiative in coming to meet with him on his turf.
“It’s rare that Congressional Representatives on either side of the aisle come over here,” he said. “I appreciated that.”
Gray met with President Barack Obama in December and several Members of his Cabinet since, soliciting federal help on the H Street Northeast streetcar project, for instance, from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The project, which the mayor described as a “neighborhood-friendly contribution to Capitol Hill and the surrounding area,” should be done by June.
“It’s a clean way of moving people around the city,” he said. “It certainly reduces the carbon footprint, and I think it will have a major impact on encouraging people to shop in their own neighborhoods.”
Back at the Capitol, Senate-side meetings for Gray are being organized this week, Norton said Friday.
But it remains to be seen whether Senate Democrats or the president will go to the mat over D.C. issues — especially when they could just as soon use social riders as a bargaining chip to avert some deep budget cuts Republicans are seeking.
“I think with every president, you love them to get up and say, ‘We support statehood.’ One of the things the president said to me is that he’s a full supporter of the charter of the District of Columbia,” Gray said.
Gray said he hopes Democrats will support him because it’s the right thing to do.
The District, meanwhile, is in a state of limbo, unsure whether it will be shut down with the rest of the federal government when the latest continuing resolution expires in two weeks and just how deep the budget cuts will go.
It is perhaps on this point that Gray best summarizes the psyche of a city whose agenda was so recently on the rise but that has now been relegated to a defensive posture:
“All we can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”