Vince Gray
Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Outside the school, campaign workers for Mayor Muriel Bowser gathered signatures for her re-election bid.

Inside, her predecessor took to the auditorium stage and touted his efforts on the District’s legislature. He lodged thinly veiled criticisms of Bowser’s performance on two occasions, but did not rebuke her record.

For more than an hour on Wednesday night, Ward 7 Councilmember and ex-Mayor Vince Gray spoke about the challenges facing his ward and what he’s done to combat them since rejoining the D.C. Council in 2017.

But he did not say whether he would challenge Bowser in what would likely be an intense rematch. With the filing deadline less than one week away, Gray would have to declare his candidacy within the next few days to compete in the Democratic primary scheduled for June 19. Thus far, he has not foreclosed the possibility.

Dozens of people turned out to attend Gray’s speech on the state of Ward 7 despite the cold weather. They applauded when Gray came onto the stage after a step team danced and the chair of the Marshall Heights Civic Association, Keith Towery, introduced him. “I still affectionately call him the mayor,” Towery said.

The crowd also applauded when Gray, speaking at the public Kelly Miller Middle School in Lincoln Heights, addressed education. He said he wants D.C. to “have the best education system in America—schools that produce students who have the skills to navigate and succeed in the 21st century.” Even with this lofty goal in the air, Gray egged on the room to show more enthusiasm. “Are the rest of y’all alive out there?” he asked.

Then he got serious. “The series of recent education scandals should alarm all of us,” Gray stated, going on to describe abuses of the school lottery by “senior government officials” and “compromised” graduation and attendance data at D.C. Public Schools. Those have caused an FBI investigation and other agency reviews.

“These scandals are self-inflicted wounds,” the former mayor said. “Entirely avoidable. … But my sleeves are rolled up and my focus is on what we need to do to continue to improve our education system. The future of our children is absolutely at stake.” With wonky flair, Gray noted his support for various school investments.

Some attendees brought children in strollers. Most of the audience listened solemnly to the councilmember. The timing amused political observers: On Thursday, Bowser will give her 2018 State of the District Address.

During his speech, Gray took a potshot at Bowser’s rhetoric about public safety, though he never mentioned her by name. “I ask that you not be fooled when you hear someone say ‘crime is down,'” he said. Citywide, total crime has decreased in each of the past two years—a statistic promoted by the Bowser administration.

Gray said there have been “100 more murders” during “the current mayoral term” than at the same point in his mayoral term. Like other major U.S. cities, D.C. experienced a significant increase in homicides in 2015.

“Don’t let anyone get away with selling you a story that crime is down when it went up on their watch in the first place,” the councilmember said, digging at Bowser. “I might have been born at night, but not last night.”

As for economic development in Ward 7, Gray touted an advisory council he created early last year as well as tax breaks for commercial properties and grocery stores in the ward that he proposed and the legislature approved. He expressed anger at Walmart, which at the start of 2016 pulled out of a deal to open two stores in Ward 7. “We got shafted by Walmart,” he chafed, calling the company’s act “an unprincipled withdrawal.”

Gray touched on poor operations at United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River and D.C.’s only public hospital. As chair of the Council’s health committee, he has oversight of UMC, and earlier on Wednesday he won approval to subpoena the hospital’s former consultants. Their firm is connected with a major donor to Bowser’s 2014 mayoral campaign. The Council voted not to renew its contract late in 2017.

“UMC has seen avoidable deaths, turned away and turned its back on expectant mothers and infants, and all the while enriched a politically connected company operating on a no-bid, multi-million-dollar contract,” Gray explained. “It is truly disgusting and sometimes discouraging. But being disgusted is not an answer.”

Around this point in the Ward 7 councilmember’s address, a man in the audience shouted: “Lock ’em up!”

Coincidentally, Gray had mentioned Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in recalling his state of the ward speech that he delivered last year. On Wednesday, he said there was “no need to revisit the slow-moving Donald Trump train-wreck.” But he did tell the crowd “You are the resistance,” and then clapped for them.

Gray’s speech drew two D.C. lawmakers: Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds. And two of their opponents, respectively, sat in the audience: Ed Lazere and Aaron Holmes.

“Our city is vibrant and growing, but too many residents are still living without jobs, the security of a stable home, the certainty of a warm meal, or access to basic healthcare services,” Gray told the Ward 7 audience.

You can read the prepared text of his speech below: