Wait Problem: If Gray jumps in mayoral race, will it already be too late?
Wait Problem: If Gray jumps in mayoral race, will it already be too late? Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The way D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray tells it, he’s paid a big price for his political courage. In recent months, the 68-year-old Gray has slammed Mayor Adrian M. Fenty for failing to cooperate with the council, for failing to follow the law, for failing to act in good faith. He’s also considering a 2010 electoral challenge against Fenty.

Comeuppance for all this outspokenness, in Gray’s view, has surfaced in recent newspaper headlines. On the same day last month, the Washington Post revealed that Gray had solicited a least one donation for the Democratic National Convention on his council stationery, and the Washington Times revealed that he’d engaged a politically connected developer to plan a renovation for his Hillcrest home—a developer, the paper later revealed, whose projects he’d voted, along with the rest of the council, to approve.

Though Gray sees the Green Machine behind the scandal reports—he called their motivations “clearly political” on a recent talk-show appearance—the Office of Campaign Finance (OCF) sees enough dirt to do some scrubbing. That office has launched inquiries of the alleged dealings, and city building authorities have asked Gray to get permits for work done on his house.

If only a sheath of DCRA paperwork were the only thing Gray had to worry about. Alas, there’s another looming matter that could shake the chairman’s standing in the public eye. It’s an independent investigation into the ethical standards and practices of the legislative body that Gray leads, spearheaded by lawyer Robert S. Bennett of Hogan & Hartson.

The Bennett probe took flight in September after an ugly summer of headlines stemming from the womanizing-cum-contracting-cum-earmarking foibles of Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. The research is now wrapping up, with interviews set to conclude by the holidays and a report to be published within weeks after that.

The report stands to touch many corners of Gray’s political universe.

Bennett, a former prosecutor and personal attorney to President Bill Clinton who’s well inside Washington’s elite circle of “superlawyers,” is about as high-profile and unassailable a name as the council could have hoped to procure, and he’s been given a free hand by Gray. However, Bennett’s taken on the investigation as a pro bono favor to the chairman, whom Bennett knows through Gray’s daughter, once an associate at Bennett’s ex-firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

So on the one hand, a report of meager findings will be susceptible to whitewash charges. On the other hand, a report that comes to robust and critical conclusions has pitfalls of its own.

Gray tells LL that he’s personally unconcerned about the report’s findings, noting that his colleagues have “a high level of independence” and that what’s being investigated are “essentially allegations against one member.”

But the institutional repurcussions could be sharp. Bennett is nosing into the longtime D.C. Council practice of earmarking public funds for city nonprofits, at the behest of individual councilmembers. That’s the kitty that Barry used so liberally. Gray attempted to place some rails on the longstanding process, but if Bennett exposes earmarking as the fraud that it is, it stands to reinforce the impression that he presides over a rogues’ gallery.

Then, there’s the fact that Barry is one of his key political supporters. The Ward 8 councilmember is the central player in the ethical mess, and he has resisted sitting down with Bennett’s team for a formal deposition. The date for his chat with the lawyers has been postponed at least twice, sources say. (Bennett declined to comment on his investigation. Says Gray, “I hope we have a thorough investigation and a thorough report.”)

Barry is first among a group that includes other councilmembers, unions, and business leaders urging Gray to man up and enter the mayoral race, a campaign that has gained a new sense of urgency.

For one thing, megadeveloper R. Donahue Peebles has gone increasingly public with his desire to pursue the mayoralty. Last week, Peebles appeared on Mark Plotkin’s WTOP radio where he tried out some Fenty slams and finely crafted campaign rhetoric on the region’s top-rated station. The uptick in publicity coincides with the realization among political hands that Peebles is strong where Gray is weak: He’s young (49), vigorous (he’s been visiting elected officials and community leaders), and filthy rich, committing on air to spending as much as $5 million out of his own pocket to finance his run.

Gray, meanwhile, is keeping things close as always. “He can’t be rushed,” says one confidant. “It’s probably frustrated a lot of folks, but that’s how he’s always been.”

Peebles has done some reflection of his own; key supporters were expecting a campaign kickoff before Thanksgiving. Others LL consulted expected an announcement last weekend. On WTOP, he set an informal deadline of Dec. 14 or thereabouts to make a decision.

Not that he’s concerned about the potential competition: “Vincent Gray’s decision to run or not is not a determining factor in any way shape or form,” says Kendall Pryles, a spokesperson for Peebles. As for Gray, he says, “I have to make the best decision that works for me.”

At-Large Councilmember Michael A. Brown says Gray and Peebles “talk quite regularly” and notes that a “lot of respect” is being paid to the chairman and his need to hammer out a decision. “It’s not just the mayor’s race, whatever decision he makes,” Brown says. “It’s who runs for chair; it may trickle down to ward races. He’s smart enough to know the political reality.”

“Our hope,” says Brown, “is that we’ll have something out of the chairman after the holidays.”

But would that already be too late for Gray, or anyone else?

The machinations of the anti-Fenty cabal this time around mirror those of the anti-Fenty cabal four years ago in a way that should scare anyone eyeing a challenge. After dithering for months and sending mixed signals on a third term, incumbent Anthony A. Williams decided to sit the 2006 campaign out. Favored successor Robert Bobb took a bow due to a spate of ethical questions, settling for the school board president’s race, and eventual candidate Linda Cropp just wasn’t up to the task in spite of a hefty fundraising advantage.

This time, Fenty will certainly have the hefty fundraising advantage over Gray, and he’s also got the advantage in having a year-plus head-start in getting his organization in gear. Cropp, for all the behind-the-scenes dithering, had declared by September—a year ahead of the primary election.

Which might account for all of Gray’s dithering: Perhaps he realizes he’s being led like a lamb to a Green Machine slaughter.

Fenty’s 39th: An External Perspective

LL was all excited about wishing Fenty a happy 39th birthday on Saturday evening—or at least mingling with all the folks gathered at a posh Foxhall residence to do so.

Alas, LL was informed at the door of the stately model home hosting the fundraiser that press would not be allowed inside—in contrast to his open-door birthday events of the previous two years.

Thus LL was left in the cold and snow to report on the happenings outside: a passel of protesters about two dozen strong who occupied the sidewalk in front of the manse.

The activists, led by union organizer Rick Powell, Empower D.C.’s Ruth Castel-Branco, and others, spouted such chants as: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Adrian Fenty’s got to go”; “Fenty, we see what you’re about; we put you in, we’ll take you out”; and the most popular refrain of the night: “one term mayor.”

When schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and beau Kevin Johnson showed up, the chants lapsed into hearty boos.

Inside, both the climate and the reception for Hizzoner were much warmer.

LL was able to hear some of the night’s speechifying from the sidewalk. A large tent erected outside the house didn’t contain the rousing introduction from Ward 4 Councilmember and stalwart Fenty ally Muriel Bowser, who offered a ward-by-ward rundown of Fenty accomplishments. “We cannot take the progress we’ve made these last three years for granted,” she intoned, saying the 2010 elections “will determine whether our city will be moving forward or whether it will be moving backward.”

Fenty followed with a 20-minute stemwinder. With wife Michelle at his side, he proceeded to reiterate Bowser’s ward-by-ward rundown, mixing some projects that were in the works well before his mayoral tenure with some that are by all rights his own. He talked up the responsiveness of the city bureaucracy. He talked about improvements to the city’s social services. And he certainly talked about his reform efforts in the public schools—citing drastic improvements in national math testing scores as proof positive of his success.

Summing up, Fenty said that under his three-year tenure, “The District of Columbia is a place where people want to live. The District of Columbia is a place where we’re headed in the right direction. The District of Columbia…is a place where we’re not afraid to take on our toughest issues, where we’re not afraid to do what’s right even if it may not be the immediately politically popular thing to do.”

That earned him cheers and chants of “four more years.”

One contingent that didn’t show up in force: members of the D.C. Council. Besides Bowser, only At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania showed. At last year’s affair, Ward 1’s Jim Graham, Ward 2’s Jack Evans, and Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander also made appearances. A couple of former CMs—Bill Lightfoot, Fenty’s campaign co-chair, and Betty Ann Kane, whom he appointed to chair the Public Service Commission—were in attendance.

But not all those stuffed inside the big tent were Fenty fans. It turned out that LL didn’t try hard enough to sneak in: A pair of protesters made it inside the perimeter and into the tent. Soon after Fenty began his remarks—right after boasting of his implementation of taxi meters—the pair launched into a “one term mayor” chant.

They were quickly removed from the premises.

Happy Campaign Season from Mayor Fenty

Last Thursday at the D.C. Armory, thousands of city residents lined up for big holiday care packages—a large-scale act of civic goodwill that comes thanks to Feed the Children, the NBA Players Association, and the city government.

For Fenty, in this nascent campaign season, such an act of generosity could go a long way toward building voter goodwill—and he certainly took advantage of that.

Each of the gift packages consisted of multiple boxes. Inside were USDA Grade A turkeys, other food, coats, toys, etc. And they all sported at least one “Happy Holidays From Mayor Fenty” sticker, done in Hizzoner’s trademark campaign color of kelly green.

That goes for more than the boxes, actually: Just about everyone in attendance had one of the stickers. A staffer was planted at the front of the line handing them out to all who had come to collect the care packages—an estimated 10,000 of them.

In color and shape, the holiday stickers bear a terrific resemblance to Fenty’s campaign stickers. LL’s concern: Is the giveaway blurring the line between a helping hand from the government and a Fenty campaign event?

Mayoral spokesperson Mafara Hobson says the stickers themselves were paid for through constituent services funds raised from private donors and were affixed by event sponsors—including mayoral staff.

Also, numerous city officials staffed the event. Other event-related materials—including press credentials—carried Fenty’s official government logo. The event, including a press conference, was promoted to the press through the taxpayer-funded mayoral communications staff.

Hobson points out that Hizzoner has printed similar stickers in his previous years in office. She called them a “staple” of holiday giveaway events.

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