Coattail Chasers: Gray, left, and Fenty are fighting over the race for Gray?s Ward 7 successor. Credit: (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Last fall, D.C. voters elected Adrian Fenty and Vincent Gray to the top two posts in the city government. By all appearances, the new mayor and chairman of the D.C. Council make an odd couple. Fenty, 36, is young and energetic. He fashions himself a break with the old D.C. political guard. Gray, 64, is a mature, gentlemanly fellow with strong links to the D.C. political establishment.

Both took power with the resounding endorsement of voters in every ward in the city and immediately proclaimed the D.C. government a joint venture. Right out of the gate, Fenty and Gray hopped a train together to New York City for a firsthand look at school reform efforts in that city.

The Gray-Fenty partnership started with a non-interference treaty. In vaulting to council chair and mayor, the two politicos vacated their ward councilmember positions in Ward 7 and Ward 4, respectively. They agreed to stay out of each other’s home wards in the run-up to the May 1 special elections for those seats.

Gray has had no trouble keeping the pact. Though he was elected citywide, he has no particular ties to Ward 4. And he’s shown little interest in messing with Muriel Bowser, Fenty’s endorsee in the Ward 4 special election.

Respecting spheres of influence has been a bit trickier for Fenty, the wunderkind who romped his nearest rival in last September’s Democratic primary by 26 points. Up-and-comers across the city are claiming fealty to and support from the freshly inaugurated chief exec.

And therein lie the roots of the first FentynGray dust-up.
As LL reported weeks ago (1/19), Ward 7 candidate made his links to Fenty the main thrust of his campaign. Vandell worked for Fenty in last year’s mayoral quest. In this year’s special election, Vandell has simply extended a winning formula, distributing green-and-white campaign lit, planting green-and-white signs, and otherwise channeling Fenty mojo at every turn.

For his part, Fenty says nice things about Vandell but has refrained from offering a formal endorsement. “I tell everyone the same thing,” says Fenty. “He was my Ward 7 coordinator. I think the world of him, and he did a great job for me.”

From the perspective of some in the Gray camp, however, Vandell has the Fenty stamp of approval. Just consult Vandell’s campaign finance records.

For a guy with very shallow roots in the Ward 7 community and no political experience, Vandell has assembled a hefty campaign war chest. The cash didn’t come from his neighbors or from former colleagues at the D.C. Department of Health; only two Vandell donors live in Ward 7. Of the nearly $20,000 he collected between Dec. 10 and Jan. 31, roughly 80 percent came from people who were major contributors to Fenty’s mayoral campaign.

The big contributors, too, appeared to be coordinating their activities. Their money came bundled in a two-day clump at the end of the reporting period: About $17,000 flooded in on Jan. 30 and Jan. 31.

A few of the contributors, like Fenty campaign treasurer Ben Soto, know Vandell as a guy who worked hard for the mayor during his 2006 race. “Victor is a great guy,” says Soto, who wrote a check for $500, “out of loyalty to a friend.”

But that doesn’t explain the contributions of CPA Jeffrey Robinson of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates. The financial management firm does a ton of business auditing the books of various city agencies and knows how to protect its interests. Last year, Robinson, his family, and his firm placed their political bets on Fenty’s chief rival, Linda Cropp, in the mayoral primary.

The firm then followed a time-honored D.C. political tradition when Robinson and Co. dumped a load of cash on Fenty after his primary win. And what better way to continue making good with Fenty than to spend a little on the mayor’s guy in Ward 7? Robinson did not return calls seeking comment.

Other contributors to Vandell also have only one connection to the candidate and Ward 7—a desire to please Fenty. Why would the Atlanta-based company Jackmont Hospitality Inc. and its CEO, Daniel Harlpern, give the $500 maximum contribution to Vandell? The firm was also on the Fenty giving list. Harlpern did not return calls.

In the aftermath of Vandell’s windfall, Gray made an announcement. He told the Washington Post on Feb. 10 that he is endorsing Yvette Alexander to fill his now-vacant seat in Ward 7. Sources loyal to Gray say that while the chairman is maintaining a “may the best candidate win” attitude in public, he now wants to make certain Fenty’s guy is the loser.

Before the chairman endorsed Alexander, he told supporters that he simply could not allow Vandell to cruise to victory by planting a forest of green- and- white yard signs all over the ward, according to a Gray confidant. “Vincent didn’t mince his words,” says the source. “He said, ‘We can’t let this guy win. Now [Vandell’s] going to try to ride Adrian Fenty’s coattails to the finish line.’ ”

Indeed, the whole affair is taking on the feel of a genuine smackdown. A few weeks back, Gray had a few questions for the mayor about Vandell’s campaign-trail portrayal as the Fenty candidate for the ward. He reminded Fenty of his pledge to steer clear of Gray’s territory. Denise Reed, Gray’s spokesperson, confirms that the chair has spoken with the mayor about their agreement. But that’s about as much as the Ward 7ers are going to say. “The chairman is not interested in commenting about his conversation with the mayor,” says Reed.

Gray’s maneuvering follows cold political calculations. He runs the D.C. Council, not Fenty. The chairman has to assume that Fenty’s anointed Ward 4 candidate, Bowser, has a good chance of winning and taking the lead role as the mayor’s council lackey. He doesn’t need another RoboFenty on the dais.

Now that Gray has endorsed a Ward 7 candidate, Fenty sounds like a guy keeping his options open. “We haven’t endorsed anybody in Ward 7. And I don’t know if I will,” he says. So the matter of an endorsement in the ward boils down to making a courtesy call. “I would not go forward with endorsing anyone in Ward 7 without having a conversation with Vincent Gray,” he says. “I think that is the proper protocol.”

FENTY NOMINEE RILES LABOR

Last week, Fenty announced he was nominating Ted Trabue to one of the mayorally appointed slots on the D.C. Board of Education.

At first glance, the choice looked like a political bridge-building gesture. Trabue once served as the top aide to Cropp. He left the council to work in the government relations shop at Verizon. He’s well-liked around town. Most people involved in government and lobbying have only nice things to say about Trabue.

But in the eyes of local labor leaders, Trabue is near the top of the list of anti-union bad guys. Trabue heads up a nonprofit called the D.C. Economic Empowerment Coalition, a group that focuses on job training, entrepreneurship, and mentoring.

That organizational profile doesn’t conjure up images of an enemy of labor. But the outfit receives substantial support from powerhouse electrical contractor M.C. Dean and concrete giant Miller & Long. Both of those companies are nonunion shops and poured boatloads of cash into campaigns opposing a union-friendly labor agreement for the baseball stadium.

Trabue’s nonprofit work, though, is just the trimmings of labor’s beef with his activities. He also chairs the Empower D.C. Political Action Committee, which has backed candidates sympathetic to the open-shop philosophy. Political organizations funded by M.C. Dean and Miller & Long also gave a ton of cash to D.C. candidates who pledged to end what they call “union preferences” in government contracts.

The Trabue nomination stunned Washington Labor Council president Jocelyn Williams, who found out about it like the rest of the hoi polloi: He read it in the paper.

“If we had been consulted we would have made our views clearly known to the mayor,” says Williams. “We are distressed about the lack of consultation on the mayor’s part with respect to the labor community.”

Williams says this will be no one-day protest. He plans to testify at Trabue’s confirmation hearing. He’ll also make certain that “friends of labor” on the dais organize a grilling of Trabue. “If the mayor does not reconsider this nomination,” says Williams, Trabue will face “plenty of questions about his political activities and how that might affect his conduct as a board member.”

“We will start with [D.C. Council Chairman] Vincent Gray,” says Williams. “We expect him to be very sympathetic. He ran as a friend of labor, and, by the way, so did the mayor.”

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

If the District decided it needed someone to govern behavior in cars, Marion S. Barry Jr. would certainly be the legislator to turn to.

He has unrivaled experience with automobiles, misbehaving, and the police, which makes the Ward 8 councilmember the perfect guy to introduce a bill that would make it a crime to smoke in a car with kids onboard. His legislation would allow police officers to stop a vehicle and fine a driver $100 if observed smoking while children were in the car.

It’s hard to argue that smoking with the little ones in a small, enclosed space isn’t conduct worthy of a serious ass-stomping. But before we rush to support Barry’s bill, a review of his history with the automobile is in order:

• Barry’s most famous car incident dates to March 2002, when Park Police said they found a trace of marijuana and $5 worth of crack cocaine in his Jaguar after they approached then private-citizen Barry at Buzzard Point. One officer observed a powdery substance on Barry’s face. Barry later asserted in an interview that the Park Police planted the pot on him.

• In May 2006, Barry was involved in a minor traffic accident near the site of the new baseball stadium. He was taken to police headquarters and administered a Breathalyzer test that gave a reading of .01 (.08 is the legal intoxication level in the District).

• On Sept. 10, 2006, Barry was stopped by uniformed Secret Service officers after running a red light. He blew a .02 on the Breathalyzer but refused a urine test, which opened the door for the authorities to charge him with DUI. He denies he was impaired at the time. The case is still pending.

• On Dec. 16 of that year, Barry was pulled over in Southeast by the Park Police for driving too slowly. He was cited for operating a vehicle without proper registration.

In all but one of the incidents, Barry was alone when the police arrived. That might explain the statement on his bill he offered as a preemptive strike on complaints from civil libertarians. “This legislation is not meant to be prohibitive,” Barry said. “It’s very sensitive to people’s rights to smoke—but not around other people.”

Got a tip for Loose Lips? Call (202) 332-2100, x 302, 24 hours a day.