On April 1, 2014, I will cast my ballot for Vincent C. Gray for mayor. It was an easy decision for me but may not be for many other voters. The open investigation surrounding his 2010 campaign is entering into many people’s decision. I am convinced that the majority will come to the same conclusion and believe the mayor when he says he has done nothing illegal. I choose to accept his apology. One look at his life, not just the politician, and you must conclude it is not in his DNA to lie or cheat. Gray’s life has been spent working for those who couldn’t fight for themselves and he dedicated himself to the non-profit field eschewing the money track. Many in government, including current Council members, have made millions being paid for their influence in office. Gray’s time in politics and government, only 13 years out of a long career, was full time and didn’t include looking for sources of outside income.
By every measurable indicator his administration has been successful. So for those who will consider voting against the mayor based on supposition and innuendo, which is all there is regarding his personal role in his 2010 campaign, it would be my hope they take a second look before casting their ballot. They might just reconsider voting for him in the primary and ensuing election based on the health of the city. The District is moving in the right direction in every area including public safety; education reform; and fiscal stability. Moreover his administration is doing everything possible to improve the lives of the residents of every ward.
The continued success of a city means giving credit to those who came before. Mayor Gray, along with starting new initiatives in the areas of employment and economic development; upping the level of service delivery; education reform and strengthening the safety net; has built on the positive initiatives begun under former Mayor Anthony Williams. That progress continued under former Mayor Adrian Fenty, elected overwhelmingly in 2006. He continued the reforms that Williams began and added his signature accomplishment, wresting control of the education system and placing it in the mayor’s office. He did that with the help of then Council Chair Vincent Gray. His chosen chancellor, Michelle Rhee, made great strides in reforming the system but after three years was under fire for how she worked, or didn’t work, with the community and her desire for personal publicity. While the Fenty administration made continued improvements in delivering city services it also spent down the city’s reserve fund by $600 million leaving the District at serious risk for lower bond ratings.
Gray became mayor at the time the nation was coming out of a recession and had the opportunity to make great strides in a fairly short time. He used all those opportunities. He continued education reform with Kaya Henderson as chancellor, and in 2013, based on national tests, the children of the District improved more than children in any other urban district. Gray authored and introduced the bill for universal pre-K education when he was Council Chair and that has resulted in some of the great strides our children are making.
Gray inherited an underfunded reserve and worked to rebuild the District’s fiscal solvency. He has been wildly successful while at the same time improving the delivery of city services. Because Gray rebuilt that reserve to $1.6 billion he was able to keep the D.C. government open during the federal shutdown. Then working with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, he ensured that the District is now exempt from federal shutdowns through 2015. Gray is the first mayor to not only stand up to the federal government but along with some members of the Council and brave citizens sit down for their beliefs. He led an act of civil disobedience and again showed what he is made of as a person. Another indication of the man is that Gray has been the most supportive elected official the LGBT community has ever had. He has lost friends because of his principled stands but never hesitated to speak openly about his support for the community.
The Gray administration has been very successful in attracting new business to the District. During the first three years of the Gray administration the District has earned high marks from those who rate cities and their achievements. In 2013, Forbes magazine rated the District the #1 New Tech Hot Spot; Politicom rated us the #1 strongest economy in the United States; and the American College of Sports Medicine rated us the #2 fittest city in the nation. The mayor created the Mayor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Nutrition and pushed fitness in the schools and continues to build new bike lanes. In 2012, we were rated #1 for LEED-certified Projects by the U.S. Green Building Council and the mayor initiated the strongest plan for turning a city green in the nation.
The mayor revamped the city’s Department of Employment Services to ensure that city residents would be able to receive training for the jobs that would become available and his One City-One Hire program, which has now accounted for more than 9,000 new jobs for city residents, won a Harvard University Bright Idea Award in 2012. In all, since the Gray administration began the city has scored as one of the top 10 cities in the nation, often #1, on 17 best of lists from best educated, best for college grads, venture capital investment, retail investment and hippest city.
Because of the efforts of the Gray administration, the District continues to thrive and attracts more than 1,000 new residents a month, many of them young or empty nesters who contribute to the tax base. In addition all you have to do is walk through some of the city’s rebuilt neighborhoods where once there were few children to see the baby carriages and the parks being used and a new vibrancy that comes from more families making the city their home.
But D.C. is still a tale of two cities. There are great economic disparities and Mayor Gray has worked to ensure that while we rebuild our neighborhoods with a focus on housing, nightlife and restaurants, we don’t forget those who have not yet benefitted from the improving economy. Some are disingenuous and talk about the mayor only going with the flow and continuing already started projects. But a fair assessment shows how wrong this is. In 2006, Mayor Fenty held a groundbreaking for the O Street Market, which Council Chair Gray attended. It was only later that he found out there was no financing for the project. Upon taking office as mayor, he worked with Roadside, the developer, to get the financing for that project. His administration worked to get the financing on track for CityCenter as well. It was the Gray administration that finalized the financing and signed the agreement that brought $900 million from Qatar into the District of Columbia. It was the Gray administration that after 20 years of nothing happening got the Skyland project in Ward 7 on track and they are ready to start construction.
Mayor Gray fought to bring Walmart into the District over the concerns of some who felt it would harm local small business. The fact is that in areas of the District where Walmart is going there were few small businesses to harm. These were neighborhoods that had no groceries at all and where people had to go by car or public transportation if they wanted to shop for their families. At the same time the Gray administration is addressing the issue of food deserts, which we have in the District. Addressing one of the most pressing issues in the District, Mayor Gray has allocated $187 million to jump-start the building of 10,000 affordable housing units, which no previous administration has done. It is the Gray administration that has worked to get the commitment from Microsoft for a research center in Ward 8.
There are other projects and concerns that have languished under other administrations for years with only talk and which Mayor Gray has addressed successfully. For years the city has been under court order to address the issue of transportation for the District’s children with disabilities. Today that court order has been lifted because of the work of the Gray administration. He worked successfully to lift the Dixon decree, which was the mental health case that had been in place for 35 years. Mayor Gray committed in his first State of the District speech that he would stop sending our special-needs children to private schools and develop appropriate programs for them in our public schools. The year before he came into office the District spent $168 million sending special-needs children to private schools. By building the capacity in the District’s schools to give those children a good education here the cost of private placements has now been reduced to less than $80 million.
Mayor Gray’s 2010 platform of ONE CITY was recognition that every community has basic interests that are the same including safe streets, a quality education, decent housing, a place to shop and a place to recreate. But the ONE CITY vision also recognized that we are a great place to live because of our cultural diversity and that respect for everyone no matter where they come from, what their sexual orientation or gender identity, is paramount. Each person should be entitled to celebrate their heritage, culture and life, and share it with others. His vision included being the most openly supportive elected official the LGBT community has ever had. He never hesitates to speak out forcefully for the civil and human rights of all people. From his time on the Council where his efforts enabled marriage-equality legislation to pass and he worked to fight hate crimes, to his current employment and training programs for the transgender community, he has been there and accounted for every step of the way.
As mentioned earlier, Gray has spent only 13 of his working years in government and politics. It is a great misconception that he is a lifelong politician. Gray spent a career in the non-profit field eschewing many opportunities to earn the big bucks that so many are after. His disciplined approach to public service was born from humble beginnings. He grew up in a one-bedroom apartment at 6th and L streets, N.E. Although his parents never attended high school, they instilled in their son a solid work ethic and deeply rooted values. Mayor Gray attended Logan Elementary and Langley Junior High Schools, and graduated at the age of 16 from Dunbar High School, where he excelled in academics and sports. He then went on to George Washington University. While at George Washington, he became the first African American admitted to the GW fraternity system, and in his junior and senior years, became the first person to serve consecutive terms as chancellor of Tau Epsilon Phi. Upon graduation he was scouted by Major League Baseball teams but instead chose to dedicate his life to his community. His dedication to children and their families has been the hallmark of his service in both city government and the non-profit sector.
Gray began his professional career with The Arc of D.C. (then known as the Association of Retarded Citizens) where he successfully advocated for innovative policy initiatives on behalf of people with developmental disabilities, and spearheaded the closure of the District-run Forest Haven mental institution after it was exposed for poor conditions and abuse of patients.
Gray’s foray into local government was in 1991 when Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly appointed him to the post of director of the Department of Human Services where he oversaw the functions of a 7,000-person department and directed activities related to Public Health, Social Services, Mental Health Services and Health Care Finance. In this role, he spearheaded the implementation of several initiatives to address the developmental needs of children and oversaw the first citywide HIV/AIDS project. While knowing that success in that position was always going to be questioned Gray believed that ensuring the safety net for those in need was a priority and had to become a priority for the District government.
He left government in 1994 and instead of looking to cash in on his time in government as so many others have he took the position as the first executive director of Covenant House Washington, an international, faith-based organization dedicated to serving homeless and at-risk youth. During his decade at the helm of Covenant House, Gray helped make the organization one of the most effective of its kind in the District, and led successful campaigns to purchase and renovate a crisis center for homeless youth and a multi-purpose center and built a new community service center in the far southeast community of D.C.
Then in 2004, he was convinced by his neighbors to run and he won election as the Council member from Ward 7. During his first two years on the Council he chaired a special committee on the prevention of youth violence, and continued his fight against the AIDS crisis by creating the Effi Barry HIV/AIDS initiative. After only two years he was convinced to run and won his citywide election for chair of the Council. Running on the theme of “One City,” he continued his lifelong focus on uniting the disparate racial and economic groups in his hometown.
As chairman, Gray was a leader in efforts to improve the Council’s operations, transparency and oversight capacity, and was a true champion for school reform. He spearheaded the Pre-K Expansion and Enhancement Act, which established a voluntary, high-quality pre-school program to provide 2,000 new classroom slots for three-and four-year-olds over six years. The mayor’s diligence resulted in that goal being met in September of 2010, well before the 2014 target. During his time as chair, the Council was rated one of the most respected legislatures in the nation.
What people should remember in judging Vincent Gray is that he didn’t ever anticipate being mayor. When he was sworn in as Council Chair on Jan. 1, 2007, Fenty was being sworn in as mayor and had just had an overwhelming victory winning every precinct in the District. It was clear to many as it was to Gray that Fenty could be mayor for life if he chose that route. It was only after Fenty squandered that good will and the polls showed him losing to Gray that Gray even got into the mayor’s race. Fenty had a bankroll of $5 million at the time Gray began his campaign. Even counting the ‘shadow campaign’ Fenty had $1.5 million more than Gray to spend on his campaign and the power of the incumbency to go along with that.
Gray has rightfully apologized for his 2010 campaign, and he agreed that as the candidate he had to apologize even if he personally didn’t do anything wrong. After living in the District all his life and having lifetime friends who worked on his campaign he found that some of them did illegal things in a very misguided effort to help him. They were wrong but legally and otherwise we should not be held personally accountable for the mistakes of our friends. We should apologize and he has done that. We should abide by the legal system that everyone must abide by and he has done that. In the three years of the investigation no one has accused him of a crime.
We are three years into the Gray administration and there is no question, even from many of those who keep challenging him with regard to the 2010 campaign, that the city continues to move forward and he has had many successes. There are challengers who suggest that the city is under a cloud because of the mayor and that has held us back. But not one of them can point to an area where we have been held back. Most of the challengers sit on the City Council and can’t point to one piece of legislation that they wanted to introduce that they couldn’t because of the investigation into the 2010 campaign. In fact the mayor and his appointed attorney general introduced a very strict campaign finance reform bill and the Council has thus far refused to pass it.
None of the mayor’s challengers has the administrative background to indicate they could administer the city government. At most they have run small office staffs and in one case run a small chain of restaurants, which is very different from administering a city with a budget of more than $10 billion. The question voters must ask themselves is if they believe the city is headed in the right direction, then why would they take a chance on changing administrations?
Slogans are easy to campaign on but the work of running a city is very different.