Harness Race: Polls say Gray can win if he inspires disillusioned black voters.
Harness Race: Polls say Gray can win if he inspires disillusioned black voters. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Since Vincent C. Gray declared his intention to run for mayor late last month, LL and others have been wondering: What’s this campaign going to be about?

Gray made it clear at his official kickoff rally Saturday afternoon: incumbent Adrian M. Fenty.

In a 25-minute speech delivered inside the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, the D.C. Council chairman took repeated swipes at Fenty in a speech rife with references to “sweetheart deals” and “cronyism.”

The crowd of hundreds, which included councilmembers Yvette Alexander, Michael Brown, and Phil Mendelson, ate it up.

“There are some who say, ‘Who cares if the mayor ruffles some feathers? He’s getting results,’” Gray said in a challenge to Fenty’s governing style. “You know what happens when you’re always knocking heads? People walk away with a really big headache. And I don’t know about you, but I never work effectively when I have a headache.”

But Fenty’s record has already proved a headache for Gray, who is choosing to attempt an outflanking maneuver on a guy who’s made school reform his lodestar. In the speech and in remarks to reporters afterward, Gray made it clear that he wants to be judged on an issue where Fenty can and will claim serious progress as mayor.

“I remain committed to school reform,” Gray said, but added that “we need a mayor who understands that the best way to achieve real and lasting change is to involve the community, not just impose his will.”

In other words: Same substance, better style.

On education, as well as the other issues he addressed, the Gray formula goes something like this: adopt holistic strategies to addressing key problems, with an emphasis on “connecting the dots,” as in: “We can’t just look at government as a bunch of separate initiatives. We need to connect the dots and look at a comprehensive and robust approach to solving our problems.”

Expect that formula to be applied to any issue Gray touches. “Detailed policy proposals,” he promised, would be issued in the coming weeks.

He did offer some specifics on Saturday: On education, Gray promised to work to improve the District’s special-education programs, in order to reduce the number of D.C. kids sent to private programs—a huge budget drain for both tuition and transportation. He took a page from the Kwame Brown playbook, emphasizing a return to vocational and technical education. He said he’d reduce emphasis on standardized testing. And he pledged to “stop neglecting the University of the District of Columbia” and to make it a “first-class state university.”

Gray was less specific on his jobs strategy, if more biting in his critique of Fenty. “We’ll restore fairness, integrity, cost-efficiency, and transparency to the economic development process by putting an end to ‘pay to play,’” Gray pledged, adding that “a mayor should create jobs for everyone in D.C., not just friends and cronies”—he didn’t mention Omar Karim and Sinclair Skinner by name, but the reference was clear enough.

Same deal on public safety: Gray called nebulously for “effective partnership between law enforcement, the communities they serve, and the mayor’s office.” And then came the nod to the incumbent: “When violence erupts on our streets, people shouldn’t have to ask where their leaders are.” You’ll recall that Fenty was on vacation when four were killed in last month’s drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street. Certainly the folks in the room Saturday did.

The hits kept on coming: “It seems like every day there’s another story about mismanaged public dollars and shady deals,” Gray said. “We read about a school system that can’t even figure out if it needs to fire teachers because it has a deficit, or give them raises because it has a surplus. We were promised transparency and openness but read about sweetheart deals and cronyism.…People want a mayor who works with the [D.C. Council] and with residents to get results. Sadly, what they see is childish bickering over silly things like baseball tickets, and contempt for the will of the people.”

And the coup de grace: “As your mayor, my sincerity doesn’t end when I knock on your door, asking for your vote.”

In a rare personal note early in the speech, Gray described a hardscrabble upbringing in a one-bedroom apartment near Gallaudet University and having to share a rollaway bed with his brother. He described his time at Dunbar High School and his integration of the George Washington University fraternity system (old frat buddy Bruce Bereano got a shoutout from daughter Jonice Gray Tucker during her introduction) before describing his advocacy on behalf of the developmentally disabled.

Even those warm-hearted stories morphed into Fenty slams: As a member of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Dunbar, he said, “I learned you can work hard and achieve a leadership position, but you have to work hard and be a leader in order to keep it. That’s a lesson some of our public leaders could stand to learn.”

Even more subtly: “I was an athlete, where I learned the importance of working together as a team,” he said—no doubt aware that Fenty, too, is an athlete, albeit in individual-oriented sporting endeavors.

Gray read his remarks from a teleprompter, often inserting “my friends” in the text, John McCain–style. Repeatedly he was interrupted by the hundreds-strong crowd with chants of “Go Vince Gray” and one instance of “Send Fenty home.”

He closed his speech with an invocation of his long-running “One City” campaign theme. The PA then blasted the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started”—notably more contemporary than the Marvin Gaye tunes he’d cited at a fundraiser earlier in the week.

After the speech, in brief comments to reporters, Gray addressed the combative tone of his speech: “I think a lot of people who voted for this mayor feel like they voted for somebody who turned out to be different than the person they voted for,” he said. “There’s a lot of anger out there—anger I haven’t seen in the past in the District of Columbia, and I’ve been here my entire life.”

Adrian & Dorothy

Mayor Fenty visited a stricken Dorothy Height last month, weeks before the civil rights pioneer’s death.

Why is it big news that Hizzoner would pay his respects to a living legend in extremis? Because nothing has symbolized Fenty’s deteriorating relationship with black voters quite like his seeming snub of Height last summer.

You’ll recall that Height, who died last week at 98, became enmeshed in a city political squabble when the Fenty administration threatened to evict former first lady Cora Masters Barry and her nonprofit from the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center last August. Threatened with the boot, Barry tapped her impressive Rolodex, and Height, along with poet Maya Angelou, twice scheduled meetings with Fenty to plead for mercy.

Both were canceled by Fenty’s office; the mayor would not explain why.

Height attended a September court hearing challenging the eviction, telling reporters afterward in a faint, matter-of-fact voice that she’d been unable to get a meeting with Hizzoner.

They finally had their rendezvous.

Fenty visited Height at Howard University Hospital last month, shortly after she was admitted on March 25. The meeting was confirmed by a spokesperson for the National Council of Negro Women, the advocacy organization founded and long led by Height. A person who was at the hospital during Fenty’s visit offers some more detail: “She was in a coma,” the person says, so there was no conversation. The mayor was at Height’s bedside “for a very short period of time.”

Perhaps the meeting was meant to defuse tensions—tensions that have already bled onto the hustings. Developer and maybe-candidate R. Donahue Peebles said, in late January remarks to the Federation of Civic Associations, “Who the hell does he think he is?…If it weren’t for Dorothy Height, he wouldn’t be running the city; he’d probably be working at the cleaners.”

Or perhaps the mayor simply wanted to pay his respects to a civil rights legend.

The mayor’s office would not confirm the meeting.

LL Bids Farewell

You’re now reading LL’s 117th weekly column since he inherited the Loose Lips mantle in September 2007.

Let’s rewind a bit: This LL started his columnar tenure with an item detailing how Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry flip-flopped on legislation that would ban payday lending—at the time, the latest of several reversals as councilmember. Despite the silent treatment that Barry had given prior LLs, the mayor-for-life decided to give the new guy a chance; he granted an interview, which included this chestnut: “Ain’t no shame in changing your mind.” Barry’s glasnost policy didn’t last: The day after the column ran, Barry phoned LL to inform him that the ban was back on.

In the years since, Barry has removed and reimposed his LL ban several times—in other words, lifting it when he needed something, replacing it when he didn’t.

Funny, it didn’t keep LL out of Barry’s grill. This column covered his thin legislative record, his debts to campaign vendors, his embrace of a soccer stadium, his tax troubles, his turbulent relationship with Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, and his funneling of taxpayer dollars to nonprofits he created and controlled—the last of which led to his unprecedented D.C. Council censure.

All of that is to say: Like every prior inhabitant of this space, this LL got more than his share of copy out of the Barry, and he picked up a few of his own indelible Barry anecdotes along the way. (Favorite: The late-night press conference called by Barry spokesperson Natalie Williams, which was promptly crashed by Watts-Brighthaupt.)

For that, LL is grateful.

But Barry, for all his foibles, is nothing but a bit player in the saga still unfolding in the upper floors at the John A. Wilson Building. Fenty had been mayor nine months, still enjoying his honeymoon, when LL wrote his first column. Since then, the bald-pated triathlete and his strange combination of detachment and intensity have enthralled this chronicler of his regime.

Whether it’s been his snubbing of fellow elected officials at seemingly every opportunity, his combative handling of personal questions, the wane of his relationship with the press, his unwillingness to distance himself from his troublemaking friends, his enabling of PR-nightmares-made-flesh Michelle Rhee and Peter Nickles, or his relentless focus-bordering-on-tunnel-vision, Fenty’s done his share to fill these pages.

LL’s had the pleasure to cover a few other stories, too: the unearthing of the Harriette Walters–led tax scandal, the election of Barack Obama, the opening of Nationals Park, the gay marriage brouhaha, the donation of a fishy fire truck. He’s had more than a few good feuds to follow—Neil Albert vs. Kwame Brown, David Catania vs. Natwar Gandhi, Vincent Gray vs. Rhee, Nickles vs. everyone.

Meanwhile, Loose Lips has grown from merely a weekly dead-tree column to something else entirely. Starting in October 2008, LL on weekday mornings gathered up every scrap of news even tangentially related to life and politics in D.C. and regurgitated it up as Loose Lips Daily. So LL offers a special thank you to the 2,565 who subscribe to LLD, a special screw you to the 283 who subscribed then unsubscribed, and a special apology to the 581 people who wanted to sign up, but couldn’t figure out how to confirm their subscriptions. We never did figure that out. (And have no fear, LLD will continue without this LL.)

Sure, LL’s had some regrets over the years—that Paul Strauss endorsement, one too many columns on the lottery contract, a Palisades-parade sunburn or three. And LL sure does regret departing just as Fenty begins a no-holds-barred fight for his political life—a fight that could end with Hizzoner emboldened and untouchable or having suffered the most humiliating reversal of fortune since Home Rule. LL will enjoy watching the action from a new perch.

Now, like Ken Cummins, Erik Wemple, Jonetta Rose Barras, Elissa Silverman, and James Jones before him, LL goes back to his congenital initials: MD.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

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