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There was a moment early Wednesday morning, at about 1:49 a.m., when Loose Lips thought he could read Vincent Gray’s mind. Gray was standing up on stage in a basement ballroom of a swanky downtown hotel, staring out at a sea of adoring fans who had waited hours, then more hours, for the District’s election board to confirm, finally, what everyone pretty much already knew: Gray was going to be mayor.
“Holy crap, I actually won this thing,” is what LL imagines was a rough approximation of Gray’s inner monologue, as he stood smiling before the crowd, looking almost in disbelief, as they roared, waved, and cheered him on before he’d even said a word.
Here was the moment Gray must have imagined many times in the last months, maybe even longer. Here was the payoff for the grueling, seemingly non-stop schedule: going to event after event after event, until they all seemed like one long blur of the same faces saying the same thing and asking the same questions. (Dear Lord, how many times can one city ask a man whether he’ll fire D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee?)
Here was the prize for spending so many hours shaking hand after hand, fielding the demands of the poor, the jobless, the homeless. (“I need a job, I just graduated high school” were the first words out of an 18-year-old mother’s mouth to Gray on Monday afternoon, as he shook hands outside of a Safeway in Southwest. A second later, a man in some evident distress started asking Gray over and over again why he’d been kicked out of his group home.)
Here was the counterbalance to all the disgust he must have felt from the white voters whose body language and demeanors suggested they viewed Gray as little more than a Marion Barry-lite. (“Mr. Gray, you’re blocking up our alley,” were the first words out of one sneering middle-aged woman’s mouth as she rushed passed Gray with her two kids Tuesday afternoon in Ward 3’s Forest Hills neighborhood, when Gray’s rented Lincoln Navigator parked temporarily nearby, its back bumper barely stretching into the empty alley.)
Here it was, the reward, and it was hard not to share the disbelief. Vanished was the man LL had spent almost the whole day with, crisscrossing the city talking to supporters at more than a dozen precincts in all four quadrants of the District. When LL saw Gray again after the 12-hour GOTV sprint, after he’d emerged from seclusion in a fresh suit to address his supporters, he was different. Gone was the candidate, the challenger, the anti-Fenty. This was something new; this was the presumptive mayor-elect, the boss, the man who has to run the city, not ride a wave of seething discontent over the way someone else is doing the job.
Whereas just a few hours before he was standing in front of precincts, occasionally watching people walk past his outstretched hand, he was now in such demand that a phalanx of volunteer bodyguards had to help him inch through the hotel’s crowd, as people were pushing and shoving to get a chance to huge the new mayor-elect. Whereas hours before he’d been just another politician standing on the sidewalk asking for a vote, he was now the object of so much relief, release and joy.
“It was definitely overwhelming,” said Gray’s daughter, Jonice Gray Tucker, who spent Tuesday on the campaign trail with her father. Tucker says the outpouring of emotions she saw was a reflection of how deep the need was for many in the District to feel like their voices were being heard.
That’s a common refrain among the Gray camp, but one LL has a hard time swallowing. This race boiled down to one thing: a referendum on Adrian Fenty. Gray’s job, now that he’s the man, is to move the city past that.
There are probably a thousand different reasons why Gray won this election, but LL can say without fear of contradiction that it’s not because of his voting day efforts, which were geared more toward giving the appearance that Gray hadn’t gotten cocky rather than actually trying to win any last-minute undecideds.
The day began shortly after 7 a.m. in Gray’s home precinct in Ward 7, the Senior Wellness Center off Alabama Avenue SE. Gray, wearing slacks and dress shoes instead of his normal campaign uniform of mom jeans and sneakers, was greeted by a small army of reporters and cameramen who were so close to him while he voted that he joked about the lack of privacy, waiving his ballot in the air.
But when it went to scan his paper ballot into the machine, it didn’t work, and Gray had to leave it in a bin to be counted later. His good mood quickly evaporated when his campaign visited five other polls around Southeast and received reports that similar early morning problems were widespread. Gray grew increasingly exasperated with what he saw as “abject incompetence” on the part of the Board of Elections and Ethics. He had one particularly painful exchange with an elderly precinct captain, who couldn’t answer basic questions like who was in charge and what time a particular polling location had actually opened.
“How many voters have we lost as a result of this incompetence?” Gray said. Gray framed his response as a principled anger against perceived injustices, but LL also sensed a little nervousness that was probably fueled by overblown reports of problems and light voter turnout. (One Gray supporter pulled up in a van and told Gray: “We got scandalous shit going on.”) The Gray camp would later unsuccessfully try and get an emergency court order to hold the polls open an extra two hours. No one—in either campaign—quite knew what to make of turnout numbers from the polling places Tuesday, not after more than 20,000 ballots had been cast in the District’s first experiment with early voting.
A packed schedule awaited, though, and Gray didn’t have time to dwell on problems. He was off in a convoy of rented vans to hit the rest of the city. At Backus Middle School in Ward 5, he was given a hero’s welcome by Harry Thomas Jr. and his supporters. (Thomas cruised to an easy re-election, and later made a triumphant entrance at Gray’s victory party, moving through the hotel with an entourage.) Gray also gave an interview to CNN, one of the various national media outlets that noticed recently that the young, bald dude who hired Rhee might not be presiding over their Washington bureau’s surroundings anymore and sought time with the challenger.
At most precincts, Gray would chat with enthusiastic supporters who were working the polls, and then maybe schmooze with a few voters.
He would pose for pictures, he’d shake hands with children (telling them to look people in the eye when they said hello), he would even gossip like the characters of his favorite show: Sex in the City. He told a group of Ward 3 supporters that he’d seen Michelle Fenty at a precinct in Ward 4 leave in— can you believe it?— a limousine. (LL’s pretty sure it was just a standard-issue Town Car.)
But if the frantic GOTV tour turned into something of a victory lap, the first moments of Gray’s time in the spotlight showed he was already serious about what comes next. By the time he greeted his cheering supporters early Wednesday morning, Gray had ceased trying to play to the “anybody but Fenty” crowd, and had started trying to chip away at the suspicion much of the incumbent’s base may have of him. Despite being in a ballroom filled with people who were half-drunk on booze and totally wasted on Fenty hate (supporters waved posters of the mayor with a one word caption—“BYE!”—and gleefully sang “Hit the Road Jack” right before Gray spoke), Gray was gracious toward his rival, and talked earnestly of trying to heal the city’s racial divide.
“Frankly, in my heart, I believe in one city,” Gray said, referencing his campaign theme.
Bridging the city’s racial divide will probably be a tall order for Gray. Polls and precincts show that Gray clearly has the support of black D.C., but little love in the white parts of the city. The weekend before the election, his supporters were casting his him as the worthy successor of black civil rights heroes. “I’m going to vote for Martin Luther King, Jr. because I know that if he were alive and able to vote on Tuesday, he’d vote for Vincent Gray,” the Rev. Walter Fauntroy told supporters at a Saturday pep rally. His support at black churches on Sunday was in a similar vein.
On Tuesday night, it was clear that the election didn’t just vanquish four years of Fenty; many of Gray’s most passionate supporters were also shut out of the mayor’s office during eight years of Anthony Williams.
A mayor hasn’t arrived at the Wilson Building with a base east of the river for a long time. (Actually, forget the river; it didn’t take that long for Fenty to lose his own base east of Rock Creek Park.) LL doesn’t share the whispered fretting of some Ward 3 types that Gray will roll the clock back to the 1990s. But watching Marion Barry hold court from a sofa in the hotel lobby, perched next to Cora Masters Barry, besieged by well-wishers, the chasm Gray now faces between the hopes of his supporters and the fears of his opponents seemed enormous.
After all, Fenty racked up margins in white neighborhoods that rivaled the ones Gray put up in Ward 7 and Ward 8. (That’s still not a path to victory in D.C., the incumbent learned a little too late.) Some white voters who visited with Gray on the campaign trail told LL afterwards that Gray came off as kind of a phony, a typical insincere “politician.”
Whether he can overcome that label will probably go a long way in determining how successful he is as mayor.
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