Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ward 7’s East River Park Shopping Center has a Safeway, a CVS, and a library. Last weekend, it also had two feuding campaigns.

Vince Gray’s camp showed up to the library’s early voting location first on Saturday, claiming the plum positions for their tent and campaign signs. A significantly smaller contingent across the parking lot backed Yvette Alexander, Gray’s former protege and the current holder of the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat that Gray wants to retake.

“Time for a change!” one Gray supporter yelled.

That Gray, who held elected office in the District for 10 years until his failed mayoral re-election in 2014, counts as a “change” shows just what kind of a topsy turvy race this is. Gray helped elect Alexander to the Ward 7 seat in 2007; now he wants to take her seat for himself.

Gray’s surprise campaign for his old Council seat has ended up being about a lot of things—the ward’s murder rate, Gray’s attempt to move past the now-closed federal investigation into his 2010 campaign, and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s attempt to keep her most implacable rival from setting himself up for another mayoral bid. But the real story of the race is how the relationship between Gray and Alexander went sour.

In 2013, in the thick of the federal investigation, Alexander endorsed Gray’s re-election campaign just hours after he announced it. After Gray lost his re-election bid, though, Alexander moved quickly to distance herself from Gray, redirecting Gray’s funding for a hospital east of the Anacostia River to other projects. Now her campaign sends out a stream of emails reminding voters about prosecutors’ interest in Gray.

In 2007, Gray backed Alexander to take his old seat. This time around, when he launched his campaign with an appearance on WAMU, Gray didn’t say he regretted endorsing her. Instead, he offered that he couldn’t have known then what a disappointment she would be as a councilmember. 

As his campaign van headed out last weekend to another senior center to pick up more voters, Gray talked up his expected lead in the race over his former ally. 

“I’m hopeful that people are excited about this,” Gray said.

The race has doubled as a comeback tour for Gray, who lost the 2014 mayoral primary after prosecutors produced a guilty plea from city contractor Jeff Thompson—Thompson said Gray knew about the illegal campaign to get him elected. The investigation ended last December, but small revelations keep coming out: New documents unearthed in  April, for example, eyed Gray’s son Carlos Gray as the recipient of illicit money from Thompson. 

None of that seems to matter to the Ward 7 electorate, who backed Gray with more than 60 percent of the vote in his disastrous re-election bid. Now, voters mostly don’t bring up the investigation at his campaign events, unless it’s to say how unfairly they think Gray was treated.

Gray’s polls also suggest that the ward’s voters are on board. The latest public Gray campaign poll, published in the middle of May, showed Gray with a lead of more than 30 percent over Alexander. Alexander’s campaign has done its own polling, but refuses to release the numbers.

If it weren’t for Gray, Alexander would probably be cruising to re-election. The other candidates in the race are polling low, and another challenger dropped out, citing health reasons, after Gray had entered the race.

The race has been relatively light on public confrontations between the two candidates, especially considering their shared history and soured friendship. Alexander has stuck with mailed pamphlets touting her record, preferring to use an email campaign to blast Gray over the federal investigation. Gray’s own campaign mailers have stayed positive, except for one mailer that accused Alexander of responding indifferently to the ward’s murder spike.

Alexander refused to speak for this story, citing a City Paper article about her use of Council resources on behalf of a nonprofit on whose board she held an undisclosed position. But she has a lot of other things to be unhappy about, too.

Bowser’s endorsement doesn’t go far in Ward 7. Neither does the Bowser-aligned Washington Post editorial board, which endorsed Alexander but likely won’t carry much weight with the ward’s voters.

Even other candidates on Bowser’s Green Team slate are shying away. Vincent Orange, who’s running city-wide to hold onto his at-large seat, said he supported Alexander but had to be pressed to actually say her name in a May radio interview. Many of the District’s unions, who usually try to stick to likely winners and incumbents, have thrown in with Gray. 

With Gray expected to win handily next week, he’ll be one step closer to a potential mayoral rematch with Bowser in 2018. This time around, though, he probably won’t get Alexander’s endorsement.

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