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Vince Gray won’t talk about the past. He won’t talk about why one of his friends is in lock-up for destroying documents from his 2010 campaign, or why another one of his friends pleaded guilty to working for a shadow campaign on his behalf three years ago. He says he didn’t do anything wrong, and that’s all he saying for now. He’s staying focused on the future.
Amazingly, that’s not just Gray’s line before picking up petitions to run for re-election Monday. Sure, it’s what local wags have gotten used to over the past months, but Gray remained as stubbornly post-2010 as ever at a press conference Tuesday. Like LeBron James, Gray had a decision (or in James’ case, The Decision) to make. Now he’s done it, and the results—like James’ first season with the Miami Heat—aren’t always going to be pretty. (James and the Heat, of course, wound up doing pretty well.)
Can you blame him? Up until now, Gray’s had a sweet deal: handing out turkeys to people who beg him to run, luring reporters to every playground ribbon-cutting. Meanwhile, his rivals swatted at each other while they waited for him to make up his mind.
Alas, the Jan. 2 deadline for nominating petitions waits for no pol, not even Hizzoner. When Gray picked up the forms to collect signatures Monday, there was much rejoicing in the mayor’s suite—one administration official not authorized to speak on the record described staffers as “very happy” (though apparently not happy enough to say so without anonymity). Gray’s announcement came at a fortuitous time, just days after administration staffers were briefed on laws regarding city employees campaigning.
Even if Gray isn’t your meal ticket, though, his re-election bid should settle some lingering questions about his last run. But until Gray starts talking—or debate broadsides from his rivals force him to be more forthcoming in public than the busy doings of the U.S. Attorney’s Office has so far—there are some other questions Gray’s entry creates for the race.
It’s always a bad bet to make predictions in District politics: Just in the time between when LL started writing this column and when he filed it to his editor, At-Large Councilmember David Catania announced his own plans to launch a mayoral exploratory committee, a sign that Gray’s seen as damaged enough for Catania to at least consider giving up his Council seat to run as an independent. Still, here’s what LL will be watching for.
What does Jack Evans do?
Gray’s entry into the race seemed to invigorate some of the candidates. Ex–State Department official Reta Lewis, coming off a WAMU appearance where her uncanny ability to not take a concrete stance on anything nearly gave guest host Tom Sherwood an aneurysm, finally seemed to find in the incumbent mayor something that she can take a strong negative position on. Tommy Wells can lob his anti-corruption message at the person they’re meant for instead of his Council colleagues, and Muriel Bowser at last has a foil against whom to gather the scattered Adrian Fenty faithful.
Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, meanwhile, has stayed quiet. While other campaigns rushed out press releases about Gray hours after he picked up petitions, Evans wouldn’t comment on his supposed friend’s second-term ambitions the next day at a previously scheduled D.C. Council breakfast. Since Evans is staying mum, let LL do him the favor of making a statement for him: Oh crap.
Evans, who’s been on the Council since 1992, has laid to claim to the same economic boom that Gray has. That strategy so far has leaned heavily on not criticizing the mayor, under the theory that if things are going right, there’s nothing to complain about. “I have been a major player in that right direction, as has Vince,” Evans told LL before Gray announced. “So I think you’re going to have two people who can legitimately say, ‘Because of my actions, the city is better off.’”
Evans wasn’t the only erstwhile Gray ally who pulled the political equivalent of eying a half-eaten sandwich and asking “Are you going to finish that?” He is, however, the only one who opted to stay cheery about the mayor after entering the race. Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal, who once supported Gray so much that he said wouldn’t run if Gray did, now tours the city criticizing the mayor’s construction-boom rhetoric. (Gray, unmoved, joked last month that Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Victor Hoskins was his official crane counter.)
Evans can’t do the same. While Shallal only has to defend Busboys & Poets’ menu, Evans, as the Council’s longest-serving member, is to blame just like the mayor if there’s something wrong with the District. (On the other hand, the mayor’s other weakness, the ongoing federal investigation, has nothing to do with Evans.) That plan to position himself as Gray’s successor made a lot more sense when he wasn’t running against the guy.
“For me to be critical of the job he’s doing would be critical of the job I’m doing,” Evans previously told LL. Good luck with that on the campaign trail.
As it turns out, though, Gray doesn’t want to share the credit for the District’s economic boom with anybody. When one of LL’s Washington City Paper colleagues asked Gray how much recent economic development was owed to previous mayors, Gray exploded, asking instead why local reporters aren’t more supportive of D.C.
In a more personal jab at Evans, anonymous Gray officials complained to the Washington Post last week that Evans is holding up a hearing on undergrounding power lines until his friend, lawyer William Hall, is returned to the Events D.C. Board—exactly the sort of campaign-season sniping Evans has been reluctant to do.
Wind us up, Chuck?
Gray says he won’t formally launch his campaign until January, ostensibly because people want to be with their families in December. (LL’s thrilled by this new, month-long Christmas.) But somebody’s got to collect those petitions, and Gray’s picked a doozy of a campaign manager to do it: political consultant-turned radio host-turned NBC 4 columnist Chuck Thies.
To understand Gray’s pick, imagine him surveying the indictment-scorched landscape of Grayland and wondering who’s left. After the mayor’s usual crowd was culled by guilty pleas, national operatives hoping for a close-to-home stint in District politics for a cycle were spooked. Gray’s ward coordinators from the last campaign are scattered, too—Ward 6 coordinator Chuck Burger is with Wells now, while Ward 8 coordinator Bernadette Tolson spent last year complaining to the Washington Times about how well-paid shadow campaign workers were. With a field as thin as that, Thies, who nearly got the job managing Gray’s last campaign, looks like an obvious choice.
No offense to the children’s crusade working out of Evans’ 14th Street NW office, but Thies is the most colorful operator to be pulled into the race so far. Thies has been best known lately for his energetic Twitter feuding—Thies once provoked a volley of tweets directed at him from the account of disgraced ex-Council chairman Kwame Brown, who was then under house arrest and later claimed his phone had been stolen.
Thies is also idiosyncratic politically. He got into D.C. elections managing a rival to Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham. He went on to work for Graham and remains one of his staunchest supporters. He worked on Evans’ brief exploratory flirtation with a mayoral run in 2006 and was a consultant to attorney A. Scott Bolden’s disastrous loss to Phil Mendelson in the 2006 at-large race. More recently, Thies took to Twitter with a devotion to Pat Mara in last April’s special election, until it became clear that the Great Republican Hope would lose yet again.*
With Gray supposedly sitting on the sidelines until January, Thies says he’s aiming to build up campaign infrastructure this month. On the phone with LL as he left the Board of Elections, Thies asked BOE staffers how many pages of petitions he could take with him in his first visit. Just 200?
Where’s Ron Machen?
Gray’s got a brawler in Thies, but he’s not above throwing some punches of his own. His first attack of the election season came in the act of picking up petitions, aimed at the person who most stands between him and a second term: U.S. Attorney Ron Machen.
For Machen—who’s managed to tug at the thinnest string laid down by fringe 2010 candidate Sulaimon Brown and create a thread that’s reached into multiple local campaigns and even into Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, Gray’s declaration for office is a challenge. If the mayor is able to run and win the primary, it will look to many observers that Machen’s investigation, at least as it relates to Gray, is done.
Machen has some legitimate excuses for why his investigation is taking so long, and, in an interview last month with Sherwood at Capitol Hill’s Hill Center, he laid them out. Machen points to a series of attempts to obstruct the investigation, among them Gray pal Thomas Gore’s destruction of notebooks documenting payments to Brown and unsuccessful attempts by an unnamed person resembling alleged shadow campaign financier Jeff Thompson to send Thompson associate and shadow campaign operative Jeanne Clarke Harris to Brazil, as evidence that his investigation is being deliberately slowed.
He’s facing more obstacles, too, with Thompson’s lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan, trying to take a fight over Thompson’s seized records to the Supreme Court.
While Machen’s been as circumspect about the 2010 campaign as Gray, he proves willing to talk about hypothetical politicians he might be investigating. And here, finally, is some clarity about Gray’s future: A politician’s decision to run for re-election, Machen says, doesn’t affect whether he’ll charge him.
Correction: This post originally had two reporting errors. It misstated the role Chuck Thies had on A. Scott Bolden’s 2006 Council campaign. He was a consultant, not the campaign manager. Also, the post said Thies worked for a challenger to Jim Graham; in fact, Graham was not yet an incumbent when Thies worked for a rival campaign.
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery