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Two weeks into the federal shutdown,things are getting strange. Mayor Vince Gray held a press conference on the Senate lawn, then marched across the street and tried to take over Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s own press event—after one of the mayor’s staffers feverishly circulated a background quote that Councilmember David Grosso should put down his bong already. Dissident House Republicans (who are somehow on the District’s side now) have started holding meetings in the basement of a Tex-Mex restaurant.
As LL writes this, some deal looks close to being struck to reopen the government, raise the debt ceiling, and finally appropriate a new budget for the District. Unless the debt ceiling wasn’t raised and you’re reading this in ruins of Old D.C., burning this week’s edition of Washington City Paper to stay warm now that currency is worthless, let’s break down who won and who lost in the District’s struggle to stay open.
Winner: David Grosso.
Before the shutdown, the freshman At-Large councilmember was best known for his pot legalization bill and his Prince Valiant haircut, both of which recalled his 1993 arrest for marijuana possession. As the first councilmember to propose just keeping the District open, though, Grosso is starting to look like someone to watch.
Grosso pitched his idea in a press release sent out before the Council’s Sept. 24 breakfast meeting. Grosso’s original idea to break federal law and keep operating would eventually be discarded, but its broader thrust (the “staying open” part) would be adopted by Gray’s administration.
“When other people start to speak the words that you’ve been speaking from the beginning—at that point you should declare victory,” says Grosso.
Of course, Grosso didn’t just enjoy his win. The day of Gray’s press conference in front of the Senate, Grosso tried to work his press release magic again with an email blast criticizing Gray for “capitulation” to Congress. This time, Grosso didn’t get much more than the bong joke mentioned above.
Still, not bad for a freshman.
Loser: Unelected Attorneys General.
The strategy Grosso pushed—just breaking the law and spending the District’s money—hinged on approval from Natwar Gandhi, the District’s independent Chief Financial Officer. Gandhi’s office demurred, saying he would rely on a decision from Attorney General Irv Nathan. That left Nathan in the unappealing position of saying no to a money-hungry Council and mayor.
Nathan doesn’t particularly mind. He’s already said he won’t run to keep his job in an election now rescheduled for 2018. But his refusal—and previous opposition to the 2012 budget autonomy referendum—makes LL wonder how an attorney general who’s responsive to voters would have acted in his place.
Loser: Contingency Fund Spendthrifts.
Without Gandhi’s approval on spending, the District relied instead on $144 million in a contingency fund to meet operating expenses and bi-weekly payroll. That money might not have been there, though, if some budget wonk types had gotten their way.
Walter Smith, whose D.C. Appleseed thinktank came up with the idea to tap the fund during the shutdown, says it was only on his mind because of how often groups like his have eyed it for their own purposes. The lefty D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute has pushed for more than a decade to make it easier to spend the money on less emergency items, including covering annual budget shortfalls. With the contingency fund coming in for the District in the clutch, expect District politicos to be even less likely to draw on it in the future.
Loser: The D.C. Council.
Grosso floated the idea of staying open, but the Council didn’t have much say in the shutdown beyond that. Finance committee chairman and would-be Mayor Jack Evans is steamed that he was left out of shutdown finance meetings, according to a report from NBC 4’s Tom Sherwood.
By the time the Council voted unanimously on a bill approving drawing on the contingency fund, the mayor’s office had already put the plan in motion. Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro offered that the mayor appreciated the gesture.
When Gray confronted Reid on the Senate steps to ask him to appropriate money for the District, Reid’s response was cryptic: “I’m on your side. Don’t screw it up, okay?” In a make-nice call with the mayor the next day, Reid refused to say what he meant, according to Gray.
This isn’t much of a mystery, though: Reid meant Gray was playing into the Republicans’ goal of funding only the most visible parts of the government, including the District’s local government, in order to blunt the pain of the shutdown the GOP forced. That Democratic frustration with Gray could rebound if (and this is a congressional sized “if”) the District’s statehood push ever starts going again.
Winner: Vince Gray.
Last week, Gray took the podium in a school gym to slam Congress and the president for holding up the District’s own money in the shutdown fight. Between the mayor’s chant demanding that Congress “Free D.C.” and the photos with school children, it looked a lot like something the mayor’s been avoiding lately: a campaign rally.
The shutdown has battered the popularity of both parties in Congress and President Barack Obama. Gray, though, had the best shutdown ever. It worked a couple ways for Gray. He had the rare chance to needle congressional Democrats, who like to talk about helping D.C. without providing much help at all. It provided an appropriate second round to the D.C. autonomy push he revved up during August’s March on Washington rally.
The shutdown has been most useful, though, as yet another distraction from the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign and whether Gray will run again. The fight over Gray’s veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act (the Walmart bill) chewed up the summer news cycle, but that’s over. Without the shutdown, Gray starts to look increasingly like a one-term mayor.
Still, not even the shutdown can save Gray from the Board of Elections calendar. Petitions to get on the ballot are available Nov. 8 and due less than two months later on Jan. 2. Between the weather and the holidays, that’s a tough schedule for any campaign to meet, much less one where the top lieutenants from the last election are facing prison terms. If the mayor doesn’t announce his campaign by next week, his staffers should start sending out their resumes.
Looking down a potential year as a lame-duck mayor, then, it’s easy to understand why Gray has been energized by the shutdown fight. When asked whether his vigor meant he would run for re-election, Gray insisted the shutdown hadn’t changed his plans (or lack thereof). “It’s nothing new I have to tell you,” Gray said.
Then the mayor worked his way back to—what else?—the shutdown. “There’s not uncertainty with this,” he said. CP
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery