Credit: Photos by Darrow Montgomery

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Some politicians rule by fear, others through persuasion. Vincent C. Gray governs by process.

Impeccably dressed, invariably polite, and indefatigably hard-working, the D.C. Council chairman runs hearings with an iron handbook: Every last colleague, constituent, and stakeholder gets a say, no matter who. When this takes longer than scheduled—like when an elderly retired economics teacher shows up in the morning to testify about tenants’ rights but doesn’t get to speak until late in the afternoon—Gray is the first to apologize.

And then, of course, he politely encourages the inconvenienced party to share all of her thoughts on the matter, whether or not they echo the others from her apartment building who’ve already testified. That’s the process.

This summer, Gray is making process the centerpiece of his campaign to unseat Mayor Adrian Fenty. Months of mud-slinging between the 67-year-old challenger and the 39-year old incumbent have failed to elicit major public-policy differences. Instead, there’s process: After four years of what Gray maligns as an impulsive, opaque, and abrasive executive style, the chairman is betting that voters want something a little more deliberate and respectful.

“He believes the details are important and he believes that if you don’t take into consideration the details it can lead you down the path of a wrong decision,” explains Gray’s daughter, Jonice Gray Tucker.

Which is why May 26 was such a strange day in the legislature Gray has ruled with such soporific effectiveness for the past four years. At the tail end of the budget cycle, news broke that funding for the H Street-Benning Road streetcar line had been cut. City transportation officials had gone to bed almost certain the project was safe. Sometime after midnight, following a grueling budget process that included televised broadcasts of previously closed-door negotiating sessions, Gray’s office whacked the project.

Word quickly spread among the planning geeks for whom streetcars are a cause celébrè. The influential blog Greater Greater Washington advised readers to call Gray’s office, pronto. Initially, a receptionist told callers the news wasn’t true. Then the office stopped taking phone calls. Advocates decried a shady late-night deal—the exact opposite of the consensus politics Gray has elevated into a political philosophy.

By 11:30 a.m., the budget was approved. With H Street ripped up and tracks partially constructed, the streetcar line was mostly dead—just $5 million was left behind for more planning. It was all a simple matter of process, Gray said. “I am firmly committed to a new streetcar system in the District,” he wrote on his campaign blog. “But we owe it to ourselves to have a well thought out planning process. We can’t afford the Mayor’s approach of ‘build now and plan later,’ which only results in poor outcomes and much higher costs.”

In this case, though, the irate online reaction prompted Gray to condense that well-thought-out planning process.

By afternoon, Gray announced that he’d identified $47 million for the project. But trolley jollies and streetcar foes alike felt put off. “Thank you for illuminating your lack of judgment and poor leadership potential while simultaneously moving forward with the streetcars,” sneered one poster on Gray’s website. Critics, meanwhile, accused Gray of caving to a Web-savvy, vocal minority.

Gray quickly moved on, emphasizing his streetcar love by riding a rented trolley two weeks later at the Capital Pride Parade. Today, he calls the incident a staff error, something that went down on one of those rare occasions when he’d gone home before his employees. “When I got wind of it the next morning, it took us all of two hours to fix this,” he says in an interview. “As soon as the meeting was over, I sat down with everyone and said ‘Look, we shouldn’t have done it this way.’”

In other words, with a little more attention to process, there might never have been a kerfuffle in the first place.

The Sept. 14 primary will not likely be decided by streetcar votes. But the set-to still illuminates a contradiction that will likely shape Gray’s political future: Being a stickler for process can be a sign of fairness, a way to avoid cronyism, and a way to make sure everyone gets their say. But it can just as easily be a cop-out.

Did Gray question the streetcar, as he initially said, because it was the sort of ill-planned infrastructure project that taxpayers shouldn’t have to support? Or did he hide behind a bunch of process explanations—poor transit planning, staff boo-boos—to dodge blame once the cut became controversial? Opinions about such questions will go a long way to determining whether Gray will become D.C.’s next mayor.

The D.C. Council chairman does his work at one end of a long conference table in his fifth-floor corner office at the Wilson Building. The walls are decorated with predictably tasteful images of District landmarks, sports memorabilia, and family pictures. There’s also a portrait of Gray and his late wife Loretta, who died of cancer 12 years ago, among other photos of his two children and two grandchildren.

Gray spends a lot of time at that table. A lifelong Catholic, the chairman has a decidedly Protestant work ethic—a supercharged one, at that. He’s often the last councilmember to leave the building at night. His staff generally gets more sleep than he does. “It’s one o’clock in the morning, and here I am having a policy exchange over e-mail,” says Jesse Rauch, a former Gray legislative analyst. “It’s insane.”

Growing up in a one-bedroom apartment at Sixth and L streets NE, Gray skipped two grades in school and graduated from Dunbar Senior High at 16. Even at a school that was then the home of D.C.’s African American elite, Gray stood out for his academic achievements. He managed to be a double-varsity athlete, too. Gray’s baseball skills were so promising he considered a professional career in the sport.

But he opted for college instead. At George Washington University, he was the first African-American student to break the color barrier in the fraternity system.

Gray went on from college to GW’s masters’ program in psychology. A professor there named Eva Johnson took him under her wing, steering his career toward social services. Johnson was involved with the D.C. Association of Retarded Citizens, today known as The Arc of D.C. After getting his degree, Gray went to work there, too. He later became its executive director.

At a time when many in D.C. measure success by the number of new commercial storefronts in previously blighted neighborhoods, Gray says his nonprofit career serves him well in office. “All of that has given me an exposure to what it means to be in human need. As a result I have a very profound understanding of what those needs are and I bring that understanding to these kinds of [budget] decisionmaking,” he says. (He also notes that this helps him know where to look for cost savings in social services as well).

After Sharon Pratt Dixon was elected mayor in 1990, Gray was asked to be director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. After some courting, he took over a chaotic agency that had 11 leaders in 12 years under Marion Barry. Opinions differ as to what happened next: Gray’s side notes that he improved performance on issues like HIV and homelessness. Critics, though, say it remained a mess—and that any reformist urgency got lost in the director’s relentless focus on procedural matters. Pratt’s administration, at any rate, has gone down as one of D.C.’s worst, compiling an even more disastrous track record than Barry’s. Which explains why Gray’s “early ’90s days” are a campaign-trail talking point for Fenty. In the mayor’s telling, DHS was “run over the cliff” under Gray, who would do the same to the city as mayor.

Gray’s defenders argue that anyone in charge of the department would have faced great challenges. “Virtually every entity at DHS improved while I was there,” Gray said during a July 15 radio debate. “I find it interesting at a recent forum, [Fenty] got up and complimented me on having worked to create a Department of Health Care Finance. I reminded him, since he wasn’t around at the time, that the Department of Health Care Finance was part of the reorganization plan I proposed as director of the Department of Human Services.”

The stint as a top D.C. official also means Gray made some decisions that—for voters with long memories—might cause him trouble now. As Gray gave a short stump speech at Glover Park Day in early June, some longtime residents in the Ward 3 neighborhood were quietly chattering about “the man who wanted to turn Guy Mason [Recreation Center] into a homeless shelter.”

During an interview, Gray has an answer for those complaints: process.

“It wasn’t that I proposed that,” he says of the plan he announced in November 1991 to house homeless people at the rec center that borders the Naval Observatory. “There was an order that… preceded the [Pratt] administration. And it talked about overflow shelters. There had been different places that had been identified as overflow shelters… and Guy Mason was one of those places in that order.

“I don’t know where it came from,” Gray adds. “It was handed down to us. The mayor, at the time, said that we should go ahead and try to do that…I carried out the wishes of the mayor.”

He never does get around to saying on the record whether he thought the Pratt-era Guy Mason plan was a good or bad idea.

At the Thomas Sweet ice cream parlor, Gray orders a medium-size container of chocolate peanut butter ice cream. His campaign has set up an interview here, in the affluent heart of Georgetown, perhaps to showcase the candidate’s more informal, non-gavel-wielding side. He’s wearing a white shirt with French cuffs, cufflinks and yellow patterned tie.

The ice cream doesn’t get in the way of the wonkery. As we chat, Gray runs through the process details of Fenty’s record, from using cash reserves to plug fiscal holes to giving the D.C. Council a messy budget with “no undergirding philosophy.” Gray says the council had to clean up the mayor’s proposed budget. “It was clear that once we got this budget—we only had 56 days to deal with it—that we didn’t have enough time to remake this budget in a way that needed to be remade.”

With his command of the details, Gray has a hard time not giving the impression that he is the smartest person in the room. But his nonchalant manner also makes it clear that he’s not grandstanding. It’s a style about as different from the incumbent’s as Gray’s favored extracurricular activity—D.C. hand dancing, a low-key old swing-dance form—is from the mayor’s triathlon competitions.

Denizens of the Wilson Building have joked about “secret abilities” that enable Gray to master the dancing that goes on within the council. But the only super power he seems to posses is an iron rump: No one is able to sit through more detailed meetings than the D.C. Council chairman.

“What people don’t know about him is that he really is that smart,” Tucker says. Like any good pol, he can remember names and faces. But aides and council colleagues say he’s also a steel trap when it comes to random policy details, statistics, or phone numbers. “He is like a sponge and if you tell him once, he will remember,” Tucker says.

On the campaign trail, those abilities have let Gray exploit a weakness in Fenty, who has never been good with nitty-gritty details. During a June gathering of the Gertrude Stein Democrats, Fenty was slammed for his heavy reliance on notes. Gray scarcely glanced at his briefing book. He wound up with the endorsement.

But D.C. has had plenty of smart mayors. Marion Barry, after all, was a chemistry Ph.D student before being pulled into politics. The bigger question is whether Gray can be a successful chief executive using the conflict-avoiding, consensus-building traits that have made him a successful council chairman.

As the boss of a comparatively small office, Gray’s managerial approach hasn’t been perfect. Where he sets strict standards for himself on everything from finances to fashion (note the cufflinks at the ice cream parlor), he’s less demanding of his staff (the mayor once chided Rauch for sporting Converse All-Stars at the Wilson Building). Even fans point to instances of micromanaging, especially when it comes to the press releases that his office has a reputation for being slow to send out and the messaging that has often fallen behind the news cycle. (Gray’s campaign was late in responding to a factchecking request for this article because the chairman himself was editing the responses.)

Rauch describes Gray’s approach as Socratic, one where the boss would rather inspire and motivate via constructive dialogue than crack the whip on screw-ups. They say it means he expects staffers to consider every variable, detail, and opposing arguments in the process of coming to a decision. Tucker says her father handled family decisions the same way. Independent At-Large Councilmember David Catania disagrees, though, saying Gray’s version of process does not always include going the extra mile to consider opposing views. “I don’t see him as Socratic,” Catania says. “I don’t see him going out of his way to solicit a contrarian point of view…He’s not a natural contrarian.”

Washingtonians who fought for Home Rule may not like to admit it, but mayoral elections in D.C. have tended to be a yawn. In 2006, Fenty won every precinct as he ran away with the race. Anthony Williams’ victories were never in doubt—even when a bungled petition drive meant he was booted from the ballot in 2002.

But this summer, with six weeks to go, the race remains close, confusing, and nasty. Fenty has been greeted by boos across the city. A racial polarization has emerged as well: Gray runs better in African-American neighborhoods—where many associate the mayor with dog parks, bike lanes and the sharply altered demographics of areas like Petworth and Shaw. Mayoral partisans acknowledge that they’ll need to run up Fenty’s numbers among white voters.

Once upon a time, that rough racial divide would have doomed the incumbent. But the city’s changing population means white voters will play a larger role this fall than they’ve ever played—and that Gray needs to avoid alienating them. This would seem to be an easy task, since Gray doesn’t really do alienation. “Some in the campaign have adopted a saying ‘It’s not black, it’s not white, it’s Gray,’” says Tucker. His 2006 race for D.C. Council chairman adopted the slogan “One City,” which continues in the mayor’s race.

All the same, it’s not hard to suss out the racial subtext in the few areas where the candidates differ on substantive issues—not to mention the many where they clash on matters of style. (Among the Fenty transgressions cited by some Gray supporters are the mayor’s refusal to meet with civil rights legend Dorothy Height and his shunning of political schmoozefests with heavily African-American Sunday church crowds.)

On policy matters, the divide crops up in the candidates’ respective education plans. Fenty’s focuses on kids up to age 18. Gray’s addresses students through age 24. “Let’s be frank,” says one D.C. councilmember who wants to remain anonymous in order to discuss issues of race. “When Vince says ‘birth to 24,’ he’s talking to black voters…When Adrian says ‘K-12,’ he’s not necessarily targeting the white voters he needs west of Rock Creek Park. But he might as well be.”

But no issue is as polarizing as the future of Michelle Rhee, Fenty’s schools chancellor. Gray has repeatedly avoided saying whether he’d keep her. It’s easy to see why: Embrace Rhee and he angers a politically engaged, largely black teaching population who’ve been put off by her clean-sweep style. Promise to can her, and he irks an equally impassioned, comparatively white pro-Rhee demographic—not to mention the editorial page of The Washington Post.

So Gray has been careful in his direct criticism. Instead, he pokes at the details.

From the dais, the chairman has raised persnickety process questions about things like the racially charged departure of the popular Hardy Middle School principal. At hearings about the principal’s exit, Gray patiently sat through testimony from students as well as from angry parents who said Rhee ignored their concerns.

And last week, after Rhee fired scores of underperforming staffers—a move made possible under the law establishing mayoral control over the public schools, legislation that Gray says he should get more credit for pushing through the council—Gray declined to say whether he supported the decision. Instead, he said only that he wanted “to look further at the basis for the dismissals.”

So, would Gray fire Rhee? Gray, naturally, answers by resorting to process. No school system should be so dependent on a single person, he says—a point that’s hard to dispute, but which manages to avoid the issue all the same. Less of a stickler for process, Rhee has since taken the highly unusual step of injecting herself into the campaign by suggesting she would be less inclined to work for Gray.

The result is a political muddle. Gray won’t—or can’t—articulate a broad education policy that differs much from what Fenty and Rhee have put together. His campaign is careful to stress how fervently Gray, too, supports the voter-pleasing goal of “education reform.” But Gray’s nitpicking critique of the school administration doesn’t really give people much of a message to rally behind. The only votes he’s likely to pick up with his cautious, process-driven education policy are the ones Fenty already ceded to him.

For Gray skeptics, there’s a temptation to see the chairman’s determination to respect colleagues and follow procedure as a sign that he’d tolerate the dysfunction of the D.C. government’s bad old days.

While his council office is dominated by fresh faces of the post-Barry era, Gray’s campaign has a few advisers with ties to Barry and Pratt. Those include Vernon Hawkins, a former DHS director serving as a campaign adviser, and Lorraine Green, the campaign chairwoman who served as D.C. Office of Personnel Management director under Pratt and Barry in the 1990s.

On the other hand, Gray also has plenty of campaign intimates who are former advisers to Fenty.

Gray’s own career has featured little by way of scandal. But the sharp focus of the campaign has also raised some low-level questions. He’s been hounded about the now-infamous fence at his Hillcrest home, built in violation of D.C.’s obscure public space regulations. (Gray started modifying the fence this month to be in compliance.) There’s also his alleged meddling in a lottery contract (after the council yanked the gig from a Fenty-associated contractor, it wound up with the son of a woman who used to work with Gray at DHS). Gray has denied wrongdoing in both cases.

Then there’s Bruce Bereano, Gray’s old GW frat brother and one of the most powerful lobbyists in Annapolis. Bereano was found guilty of mail fraud related to illegal 1990s Maryland campaign contributions, and was subsequently disbarred in both the Old Line State and the District. “I’ve never understood what that was all about,” Gray says. In 2004, when Gray launched his initial D.C. Council bid, Bereano wrote a fundraising letter on the candidate’s behalf, saying that Gray’s cousin, Maryland Del. James Proctor, Jr., “would be very appreciative of any help or support you can give his cousin Vince.” Gray and Bereano were apparently still close enough that Gray’s daughter cited him by name while speaking to the crowd at Gray’s campaign kickoff in April. Gray wouldn’t say whether Bereano would be assisting his mayoral bid, though a look at D.C. campaign finance records through the June 10 reporting period turns up a $2,000 donation from the “Office of Bruce Bereano” to Gray’s mayoral campaign.

Still, those who say Gray would use just-following-process excuses to avoid pole-axing municipal nincompoops need to contend with the most dramatic moment of his tenure as chairman: This winter’s censure of Barry after the former mayor had been found to have abused his earmarking privileges as a councilmember from Ward 8.

The affair was classic Gray. A pol pondering a citywide race has reasons to publicly shun Barry—and some reasons to embrace him, too. But Gray initially didn’t break one way or the other. He farmed the case out to a respected attorney for a full report.

After the damning results were in, Barry appealed to the chairman’s sense of fairness. “I’m sure, Mr. Chairman, you don’t want your legacy to be that you punished Marion Barry on the words of one person,” Barry said during the proceedings. “You don’t want to be known as the person who took Mr. Barry’s due process away from him. You’re too great a person… I know you better than that. I love you. You’re my friend.”

Gray, though, wasn’t having any of it. The censure went through. And he could credibly say it happened because the process demanded it.

Fenty supporters who’ve been spooked by the Gray campaign’s strength like to take solace in history. Four years ago, their candidate was also up against a well-liked, scandal-free grown-up of a candidate supported by much of the local political establishment. And, in the race of process-savvy consensus-builder versus idea-spouting newcomer, Fenty solidly defeated Council Chairman Linda Cropp.

On the other hand, Gray had his own race four years ago. Running for chairman against Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, a darling of D.C.’s good-government crowd, he started out being dismissed as a courtly but doomed Pratt-era retread. By election day, he’d thoroughly outcampaigned Patterson, taking 57 percent of the vote.

But what kind of mayor will be created by the 2010 campaign, with its relentless focus on process and style? Catania, who is steering clear of any mayoral endorsement, worries that Fenty and Gray have avoided the city’s major fiscal and socioeconomic problems. “This ain’t third grade and we aren’t picking a class president,” he laments.

In the worst-case scenario, the political lesson of a Fenty defeat would be that mayors dare not alienate the status quo’s powers-that-be—the councilmembers seeking free baseball tickets, the unionized teachers who fail performance tests, the bureaucrats who demand to be treated like favored children even after years of lousy performance. Better to hide behind process, and be polite to one and all.

If you’re inclined to read the campaign this way, Gray’s endless focus on process leads inevitably to bad government. Sometimes, after all, cities need to be shaken up, and to Gray’s critics, they need leaders who care more about the end product—the outcome—than they do about how you get there. The knock on Fenty is that his administration empowers individual stars like Rhee to evade scrutiny. The danger with Gray’s approach, on the other hand, would be the elevation of process over policy; as long as the right rules and regulations were followed, it wouldn’t matter what the end result was.

But Catania also thinks a Mayor Gray wouldn’t necessarily limit himself to the watchdogging, process role embraced by Chairman Gray. “I see Mayor Fenty as a gas pedal… Our chairman is a brake…. Their personalities fit those roles perfectly,” Catania says. And if their roles change? “I believe Vince can be that accelerator.”