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At a forum when he was mayor-elect in 2010, Vince Gray gave a student advice on how to handle bullies: “Step to ’em,” Gray said.

But when faced with some serious bullying at the hands of Virginia Republicans recently, Gray and the D.C. Council have been forced to take a different approach—more like “grin and bear it.”

This week the council approved emergency legislation supported by Gray that gave Virginia a sliver more control of the beleaguered board that oversees Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, and the $6 billion Silver Line Metro expansion to Dulles. It’s a win for Virginians, especially Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell and GOP Rep. Frank Wolf, who pushed for the changes. It’s also a stark reminder that the federal government, not city officials, has the last word in District affairs—and that the scandal-weary mayor is in no position to make a stink about it.

The expansion plan, first pushed through Congress by Wolf last year, would marginally increase Virginia’s representation on the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board from five seats out of 13 to seven seats out of 17. The District and Maryland will get an extra seat each, bringing their collective total from five to seven as well. (D.C. has three now and will get a fourth, and Maryland has two and will get a third. There are also three federally appointed members on the board.) Both Congress and Virginia have already approved the additions and have been waiting several months for the District to ratify the changes in the compact between the two jurisdictions.

So what does the District get out of a bigger board? Its voting power doesn’t change, some of its current MWAA members don’t like the idea, and D.C. elected officials are at a loss to explain why the legislation is needed.

“What do we get? I’ll answer the question myself: nothing,” says Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry.

But the mayor’s office says an expanded board helps the District avoid getting hosed. Wolf, upset that D.C. wasn’t acting quickly enough to ratify his plan, proposed an alternate bill in August that would have reduced the board to nine members, with Virginia controlling six of them. But the worst part: Wolf’s bill would use “Congress’ plenary authority” to automatically approve the changes on the District’s behalf. In other words, Congress would alter a compact between Virginia and the District without any input from the city’s locally elected officials.

“I have been a strong supporter of Home Rule for the District throughout my career in Congress, so I take no pleasure in having to introduce a bill that takes these steps,” Wolf blustered in a news release. “But I believe D.C. has no intention of coming into full compliance with federal law. One only has to look to D.C.’s reluctance to act on the changes signed into law last year aimed at fixing MWAA.”

If Gray was displeased with a full-on attack on Home Rule, though, he’s kept it mostly to himself. His administration stayed mum on Wolf’s proposal, except to say that it’s a bad alternative to the mostly benign expansion Wolf had already pushed.

“This compromise is the best we could do,” says Pedro Ribeiro, the mayor’s spokesman, noting that Wolf originally wanted all four new seats to belong to Virginia. Ribeiro says Gray is trying to move past the rash of scandals that’s enveloped the board and create a fully functioning entity.

But that rationale has little going for it in the making sense department. For one, Wolf’s latest bill likely would have had a difficult time passing a Democratic-controlled Senate. And it’s unclear how adding more members to an already dysfunctional board will improve things. Robert Clarke Brown, a federally appointed member (and brother of Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown) says there was a noticeable difference several years ago when the board went from 11 members to 13 members.

“The board became both more cumbersome and more factionalized,” he says. Adding even more members “will have major adverse effects” on the board’s operations.

The board’s operations don’t seem to need any more adverse effects. And in fact, perhaps a more compelling reason for Gray’s go-along-to-get-along approach with Virginia’s wishes is that he knows a political loser when he sees one. The image of MWAA’s board is in the toilet, thanks to an extended P.R. nightmare resulting from a report by the inspector general of the Department of Transportation and news coverage of expensive travel and sweetheart deals for board members.

Some of those reports show that membership in the MWAA board has been good for the District’s politically connected. For instance: Leonard Manning, a former local partner in the District’s lottery operations, won a $42,000 no-bid contract to import Ethiopian flowers to Dulles, according to the Examiner.

Manning’s predecessor on the board was Jeff Thompson, the Medicaid contractor and accountant at the center of the federal investigation into an alleged “shadow campaign” that helped Gray get elected. Several years after he left the board, MWAA awarded Thompson’s accounting firm nearly $1 million, the Examiner also reported.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has made getting the Dulles rail line built a personal quest, appointed an “accountability officer” to keep tabs on the board. (He also called D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to push the council to approve the extra seats.)

Add it all up, and it’s hard to argue that Gray, who is dealing with his own political troubles, should go to bat trying to defend the organization as it is.

“Look, obviously the mayor has a lot of problems anyway, and he wasn’t looking for another problem with the secretary of transportation,” says board member Dennis Martire, a Virginia union official who has come under fire for expensive travel costs and who McDonnell has tried to remove from the board.

But Gray appears to be going the extra mile to make Virginia Republicans happy. Their dislike of the current MWAA board goes beyond sweetheart deals and expensive travel tastes and can be traced to two recent decision, both of which have now been reversed. The first: to put the new Metro station at Dulles underground, which could have cost an extra $330 million. The second: to mandate that the second phase of the Silver Line include a union-friendly project labor agreement.

The District is far friendlier to labor than Virginia, but that didn’t stop Gray from picking the president of a group traditionally at odds with unions to be the newest MWAA board member. D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang says she wants to be a partner with labor on the board, but it’s likely her selection will be well received across the Potomac.

“The reality is she’s a great appointment,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia who is a MWAA board member.

The question is: a great appointment for whom?

Photo by Darrow Montgomery