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There’s an old maxim in politics: When the going gets rough, it’s time to get tough on immigrant convenience store clerks. Especially those who speak limited English and sell rolling papers and individually wrapped cigars to pot smokers in a poor part of the city.

That was today’s agenda for Mayor Vince Gray, whose political career could be teetering on the edge as the federal investigation into his 2010 mayoral campaign enters its end game: Gray decided to dole out a little justice of his own, regulatory style.

Hizzoner and a small army of city officials and community activists surprised convenience, liquor, and Chinese carry-out stores along Martin Luther King Avenue SE with impromptu inspections of their wares and business licenses. In a scene that repeated itself about a dozen times, Gray and the officials, including Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Director Nicholas Majett, would walk into a store, head straight behind the counter (often without asking permission), and give the East African or Chinese cashier on duty a stern talking to about the products they were were selling that a marijuana user might find useful.

“You can’t do that,” Gray told the employees of the China Inn Deli, after he spotted an open box of cigars next to the cash register. “You opened that up and sell them as singles.” (Gray brought along Julie Koo, his director of the Office on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, to help translate.)

The store’s owner, who did not appear to speak much English, didn’t disagree. “Okay, okay,” he said, putting the cigars in a plastic bag and shoving the bag under the counter. He then tried to get Gray to take a free soda.

City law prohibits selling rolling papers (except in limited circumstances) and individually wrapped cigars. Most of the stores Gray went into didn’t look to be following city law to a T. “This is a warning,” Gray told one clerk. “Next time,  it’s a $2,000 fine.”

If Gray felt a little weird about playing the role of a tough-talking law-and-order mayor in the same week that details emerged of a vast, illegal shadow campaign that helped him get elected in 2010, he sure didn’t show it.

At one liquor store Gray huffed at the owners even though they weren’t selling anything illegal: “We’ll be back to make sure you’re not selling rolling papers.”

When LL asked Gray if he thought his recent troubles limited his effectiveness on jaunts like the one today (which his spokesman says was planned several weeks ago), Gray looked at LL like the mayor was Bryce Harper and LL was asking about his favorite Canadian beer.

“Not based on what I’ve seen,” Gray said, with a finger pointed in the air.

Gray was warmly received by most non-store owners and clerks. Several people asked him for a job, and one woman urged him to stay strong in the face of the federal probe. “Don’t let them try to get you,” the woman said, before adding that she needed a job. Another woman at a different convenience store, however, looked annoyed that Gray was delaying her purchases. “Can you ring me up?” she said. “I gotta go to work.”

Besides the talkin’ to, businesses owners were also given a letter signed by Gray and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who has had his fair share of drug-use issues in his past and caused a flap several months ago by denigrating the type of stores Gray visited today as “dirty shops” owned by Asians.

“The negative impact on illegal drugs in our community is devastating,” the letter said. “We respectfully request that all businesses in this community stop selling rolling paper, blunts, miniature plastic bags (not containing jewelry), miniature scales, and loose cigarettes.”

It did not seem like many of the foreign-born clerks would be able to read the letters without some assistance, as they often appeared to have no idea what the mayor was saying. Majett said it’s a common ploy for immigrant clerks to claim poor English skills whenever dealing with the DCRA. “We always get that,” he said. And Gray said they were still getting the message. “They don’t speak English well, but they understand this is an enforcement visit,” he said.

At one of the last stores Gray visited, a clerk tried to leave the enclosed space behind the counter after Gray and his entourage burst in. A mayoral staffer stopped her, and she got the anti-drug paraphernalia lecture, too.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery