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Mayor Vince Gray isn’t just running for re-election. He’s Muhammad Ali, pulling the rope-a-dope on his rivals like it’s the Rumble in the Jungle.
If you bring up how many of Gray’s friends are headed to prison, he’ll come back like Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, stronger than he was before. He’s Rocky Balboa facing Apollo Creed, and he’s about to switch from his right hand to his left.
Yes, LL’s on the phone with Gray campaign manager and hype man Chuck Thies.
But wait, Thies already has another metaphor, this time for the hopefuls who want to throw his boss out of the mayoral suite. They’re Smurfs, each more comical than the last. He wonders out loud which candidate is Dopey Smurf. “I might have to do a Tumblr on this,” Thies says.
With less than one month to go before the Democratic primary, the mayor’s re-election hopes rest in the hands of a guy who could just as easily be parodying the race on the Internet. An occasional campaign manager and longtime gadfly who favors pontificating on Twitter about campaign best practices, the New Jersey native has presented himself for years as one of the top operatives in District politics. Now, in charge of a mayoral campaign for the first time, he has a chance to prove it.
Thies is holding court again, this time in January among a group of reporters outside Ward 8’s THEARC community center. But this isn’t a friendly scrum. Reporters want to know why Gray, after saying it’s time to turn the page on his blighted 2010 campaign minutes earlier at his campaign kick-off, won’t talk to reporters. Thies reflects the outrage back, accusing NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood of a host of misdeeds, from pursuing Gray like he’s crack-smoking Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to exposing his cameraman to bodily harm.
One journalist asks him whether attacking reporters’ objectivity could derail his campaign strategy. “Are you kidding?” Thies says. “You guys are the strategy.”
Thies is 49, and the Gray re-election effort is his first District campaign in nearly four years. He’s passed the time since getting in online spats with disgraced former Council Chairman Kwame Brown and tweeting out campaign advice to whomever would listen—a move that struck LL as a not particularly subtle attempt to drum up clients. To earn a living, Thies, a North Michigan Park resident, advised wealthy advocates on how to spend their money.
Thies has been working on Gray’s re-election since December, when Gray approached him about running the campaign. And while the target of Thies’ freelance media criticism shifts—lately, he’s focused on the Washington Post’s local staff, whom he derides like they’re infected with a Gray-hating brain prion—the plan to paint reporters as 2010-focused monomaniacs doesn’t. When your candidate’s last campaign remains under federal investigation, Thies seems to figure, the best defense is an acerbic offense.
Thies’ selection came as a surprise to some in Gray’s inner circle, though it shouldn’t have—there weren’t many viable options left. Former Gray campaign staffers Vernon Hawkins, Thomas Gore, and Howard Brooks had all pleaded guilty to charges from the 2010 campaign. The FBI investigation into Gray spooked national consultants hoping to make money locally in a presidential off-election. But Thies had been in the running to manage Gray’s 2010 campaign, he says, until Gray advisor Hawkins told him he didn’t get the job.
“The name of Chuck Thies had been floated around before [the 2014 campaign started], but a lot of people sort of dismissed it,” says one Gray administration official who talked to LL on condition of anonymity.
Since the announcement of Gray’s re-election effort in December, Thies has made up for his candidate’s late entry—months after his closest opponents—by raising $627,061.57 in December and January. (That’s still short of the $1 million goal the Post reported the campaign was hoping for, a story Thies denies.) And even that war chest might not be enough—Thies says he’s regularly turning down Gray supporters who want money to fund their voter turnout efforts.
“I’m going to make that answer so easy for you that you cannot fuck up,” Thies recalls telling the campaign’s staff. “Measure what you do by a single yard stick: Is this in the best interests of Vince Gray and his re-election?”
One thing that wasn’t in Gray’s best interests was his campaign’s botched turnout at January’s Ward 8 Democrats straw poll, which, following the kickoff and a poll that showed Gray leading, could have been the latest win in what looked like an easy re-election. Instead of winning the vote in a friendly ward, Gray got stomped by Ward 4 councilmember and mayoral rival Muriel Bowser.
After the loss, Thies poo-pooed the poll’s importance, saying he’d been focused on the real election. Then he rushed out three email blasts accepting the blame for the loss. For an allegedly insignificant straw poll, Thies took it hard. A deputy campaign manager left the effort shortly after the defeat.
It’s not just Thies’ employees who are taking heat. Thies has become the most prolific trash talker in District politics, save perhaps for Gray administration spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, who never misses an opportunity to call Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells an idiot. While Evans or Bowser staffers email terse statements in response to rivals’ attacks, Thies will turn what’s meant to be a short phone call into an hours-long diatribe about the incompetence of Gray’s challengers and the righteousness of Gray.
While that outspokenness (or, in his critics’ telling: being an asshole) can keep the heat off his candidate, Thies concedes that it’s not always helpful. After he called Gray’s challengers “Smurfs,” Bowser’s campaign rushed out a fundraising email saying its candidate didn’t think voters’ concerns were as annoying as the little blue guys.
“Maybe strategically it’s slightly to our disadvantage because people will say, ‘Oh that’s an attack, that’s petty, that’s not the type of politics that Chuck and Vince say they want in this campaign,’” Thies says.
Not that the rough-and-tumble style has been a hindrance before. Thies deployed similar invective in 2010 on behalf of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham’s re-election campaign. Following the indictment of his former chief of staff, Graham was facing two challengers but managed to win 57 percent of the primary vote with Thies’ help.
“We crushed them,” Thies says.
Thies has backed good-government types like perennial Republican D.C. Council hopeful Pat Mara and politicians, like Graham, who are less popular with so-called reformers.
That distinction isn’t lost on John Capozzi, a former District shadow representative and good-government activist. In 1998, Capozzi convinced Thies to work on a Ward 1 campaign on behalf of a Graham rival after he’d spent time running campaigns in New York and organizing events like the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s visit to D.C. (“Boom, I hit paydirt,” Thies says of the project). Later, he worked with him on Phil Mendelson’s 2002 at-large bid.
But when Mendelson ran again in 2006, Thies worked for rival A. Scott Bolden instead after Mendelson couldn’t match Bolden’s offer.
“He switched sides,” Capozzi says. “Then I realized that he was more interested in making money.”
Thies hasn’t always worked for saints, but he sure makes Gray sound like one. He likes to tell anecdotes about his patron that are flattering to Gray but not necessarily to Thies himself.
Thies says he’s had a difficult time convincing Gray to throw out any vague, election-friendly policy proposals. Thies’ plan, according to his telling: Set up a blue ribbon commission to study a popular issue, win some votes, then ditch the commission when the primary’s over. Gray, according to Thies, wouldn’t have it, much to his campaign manager’s chagrin.
“I don’t believe in making promises I can’t keep,” Thies says. “But I also believe it’s the responsibility of the voter to pay very careful attention.”
Due to an editing error, the story incorrectly stated Thies started working for Gray’s re-election campaign in November. Due to a reporting error, it incorrectly said he began working on a Ward 1 campaign in 1999. And due to another reporting error, it also originally misspelled Muhammad Ali’s name as Mohammed Ali.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery