Bill Gray, First Black in the Congressional Leadership, Dead at 71

A portrait of Gray, right, hangs in the cloakroom behind the Budget Committee meeting room. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A portrait of Gray, right, hangs in the cloakroom behind the Budget Committee meeting room. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted July 2, 2013 at 12:02pm

William H. Gray III, who as House majority whip from 1989 to 1991 was the first African-American ever in the top tier of congressional leadership, died on Monday.

He was 71 and was in London with one of his children to attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

A third-generation Baptist minister, Gray unseated a veteran incumbent and fellow Democrat in 1978 to become central Philadelphia’s congressman. He held the seat with ease while advancing in power and prestige until his surprise resignation in the summer of 1991, when he left to take over the United Negro College Fund. During his 13 years in that job, after which he started his own lobbying shop, the fund raised $2.3 billion in scholarship money.

Gray had been elected whip just two years before he left Congress, advancing in a wholesale shakeup of the Democratic House leadership that followed the resignations of Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and Whip Tony Coelho of California in the face of allegations of financial impropriety. A month before Gray quit the Capitol, it was disclosed that the Justice Department was investigating allegations of payroll padding on his staff, but Gray was never implicated.

Before becoming whip, the No. 3 job in the majority hierarchy, Gray had been chairman of the Democratic Caucus for only six months. Before that, he spent four years as chairman of the Budget Committee, where he was an instrumental player in the development of the sweeping deficit reduction deal in which President George Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge and agreed to tax increases.

Gray’s signature legislative achievement was enactment of the economic sanctions against South Africa toward the end of the apartheid era. As a member of Appropriations, he was also credited with boosting federal spending on public housing in Philadelphia and with the revitalization of Amtrak’s 30th Street Station.

But Gray’s operating style in the House was to steer away, as often than not, from the sorts of urban and poverty-fighting issues that were the traditional priorities of Congressional Black Caucus members. In fact, when he chaired Budget he came under considerable criticism that he’d spurned those sorts of issues. Instead of concentrating his work inside the CBC network, he became a power player by forming alliances with members of the caucus of centrist Southerners that was then big enough to hold the balance of power in the House.