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That Mayor Vince Gray’s One City Summit on Saturday was well attended was not an accident. Commercials aired on basic cable. Flyers were distributed at Metro stations. Every Advisor Neighborhood Commissioner got an email or phone call, or at least was supposed to. Callers to the city’s 311 line were automatically told of the summit. Community email lists reminded readers of Saturday’s event.
One Ward 2 resident who signed up says she got a voicemail from an event organizer asking if she could round up others to attend, “especially young white professionals who might be new to the city.”
The event-promoting overkill by the mayor’s staff isn’t hard to understand: If Gray throws a $600,000 get-together to talk about the city’s problems and its future, it would be pretty embarrassing if nobody showed up. So the fact that about 1,800 people spent much of their Saturday kvetching with fellow residents at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center was a victory for Team Gray in and of itself.
But Hizzoner had loftier goals than showing he has the power to put a large number of asses in the seats. The summit, he said in a January news release announcing the event, was a way for the District residents to give the Gray administration advice on how to implement the mayor’s vision of “One City.”
LL has long wondered what Gray’s mayoral slogan meant. It turns out the mayor’s been wondering, too. “We need your help to provide us with that guidance,” Gray said.
So the summit was, at its core, an all-day exhibit designed to demonstrate that the mayor is listening.
Not listening in District politics can be an unforgivable sin. Former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s spectacular nose dive is due in part to the perception that he did neither listened to nor cared about what others had to say. One piece of evidence for this belief: Fenty didn’t hold so much as a single citizen summit during his four years. It was his predecessor, Anthony Williams, who inaugurated the tech-assisted public gabfest format. And why’d he do it? To combat the perception that he wasn’t listening.
Still, LL can’t help but think Mayor Gray just spent $600,000 and wasted a perfectly good Saturday trying to solve a problem he doesn’t have.
A mayor’s job, Williams told LL, is “listening and doing.” Gray certainly seems to have the listening part down. A year into his term, it’s the doing part that’s giving him trouble. As such, the fact that he went all-in on a gimmicky summit doesn’t demonstrate that his administration has identified its troubles. Rather, it suggests Gray’s government is still sort of adrift.
Gray’s drift, in turn, at least partly explains the rise of a phenomenon that would have been inconceivable just five years ago: Williams nostalgia.
Last fall Williams and some friends were enjoying cigars on the patio at Morton’s Steakhouse downtown when Speaker of the House John Boehner popped out for a cigarette.
“This is the best mayor the city’s ever had,” Boehner said (at least according to one of Williams’ pals, who was there).
The well-tanned House speaker could likely find plenty of District residents who agree with that statement, and wouldn’t mind seeing Williams resume his old role. A poll taken just before Christmas showed Williams with a 15 point advantage in a head-to-head matchup with current Mayor Vince Gray. Washington Post columnist Colby King beckoned last year for Williams to “start warming up” for a return.
How strong is Tonymania’s current grip? The famously awkward mayor, who in office had trouble making eye contact, has lately been praised for personal political skills.
For the record, Williams tells LL he has no plans of running for mayor again. “That’s just chatter,” he says, adding that his image has benefited from several years out of the actual duties of governing. “When you’re in thick of it, it’s just much more rough and tumble.”
Indeed, Williams saw all kinds of troubles during his time as mayor. His first chief of staff was out the door after only three months (just like Gray’s!). Later, he was forced to run a write-in re-election campaign after his paid petition circulators submitted faulty signatures. And Williams faced scrutiny for his frequent trips abroad during his second term.
But those were just the actual mistakes. The current rosy view notwithstanding, Williams’ tenure was marked by a near-constant thrum of conflict as the wonky ex-CFO set about reforming the dysfunctional government he’d inherited from predecessor Marion Barry. Taking over a bloated bureaucracy that had problems delivering basic services, Williams was unlike any politician the District had seen—a “newfangled, post civil rights technocrat,” in the words of his former aide Max Brown.
And to a lot of people, that wasn’t a good thing. Williams’ willingness to fire city employees, most of whom were black, raised questions about whether he was “black enough” to serve as mayor or whether he was some sort of stalking horse for the city’s affluent whites. Against the backdrop of that recurring criticism, citizen summits were a useful thing, if not an exercise that was likely to change Williams’ agenda.
“Tony had a very clear idea of what he thought should happen,” says Tom Lindenfeld, Williams’ former political consultant.
Fenty, who also faced criticism about being aloof, had the misfortune to face a competent competitor in Gray during the 2010 mayoral race, and he got whupped. But the problem with winning big by promising to be kinder, as Gray did, is that conflict-avoidance is not a governing agenda.
Gray doesn’t deserve any criticism about being aloof or uncaring. He’s got an easy charm when talking to people one on one. Though he’s sometimes unfairly caricatured as some type of Barry throwback eager to lard the government up with old school hacks (not to say that hasn’t happened), his real problem lies in finding a tangible agenda that defines his tenure.
For 12 years, the model of successful governance was a mayor willing to go hammer and tongs on the bureaucracy. Gray needs to invent a new model. And even he has to admit you don’t find one by polling 1,800 eager citizens on a Saturday.
FULLY CHAOTIC? The ink on disgraced former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. is barely dry and already Wilson Building chatter has shifted to the fate of Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown.
On Monday, LL reported that Federal prosecutors have empaneled a grand jury to hear testimony about Brown’s murky 2008 re-election campaign, according to one source who had already testified before the panel.
Brown says he’s unaware of the grand jury, and his lawyer says the council chairman has “absolutely not” been called to testify.
In July, the Board of Elections and Ethics referred Brown’s case to federal prosecutors after an audit by the Office of Campaign Finance found all sorts of accounting irregularities, including $240,000 in payments to Brown’s brother, Che. After referring the case to the feds, then-BOEE Chairman Togo West told reporters that the board believed there had been “criminal” activity in the campaign. Kwame Brown has denied any wrongdoing.
The fact that a grand jury has been empaneled doesn’t say much in and of itself about what the feds’ plans are regarding the chairman. The big questions sill unanswered are whether any criminal charges will be brought, and if there are, whether Brown will be personally implicated in any alleged criminal activity.
If Kwame Brown does face charges, it could mean yet more chaos for a body that, under former Chairman Vince Gray, rarely made news for institutional shenanigans. Already, the council appears at times to be teetering on the edge, and some of Brown’s colleagues complain that he’s too distracted by his own problems to be the strong hand the council currently needs. This week saw Councilmembers Marion Barry and David Catania almost come to blows during a dust up at the council’s yearly retreat. The near fight was in large part the result of years of hostility between the two, but it’s also an example of how just how raw things are among a divided body that’s still reeling from seeing one of their own plead guilty to stealing more than $350,000 in public money.
“There is an element of frustration,” says Catania. “Let me just be honest.”
Will that frustration grow? That question is partly up to the grand jury. CP
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