When Mayor Vince Gray’s new chief of staff, Chris Murphy, was hired this summer, one of the first things he did was take over the mayor’s languishing communications shop.
Murphy immediately had one-on-one meetings with reporters, started trading emails and phone calls with hacks, and, most recently, eased out the mayor’s spokeswoman and replaced her with someone of his own choosing. The moves made sense: Part of the reason for Gray’s horrible start included his inability to get past negative news stories involving shady hiring practices and the saga of Sulaimon Brown.
A key component of Murphy’s media strategy overhaul, according to Wilson Building sources, was to de-ice the frosty relationship between Gray and the Washington Post editorial board. Or, more accurately, to achieve a detente with Jo-Ann Armao, the Postie who reports and writes the editorials on District politics.
Unless you follow District politics closely, you probably haven’t heard of Armao. Her byline doesn’t appear in the paper. She’s rarely at public events. But an Armao endorsement is worth plenty of votes, and a few punchy words from her can ruin a pol’s day. Just ask Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., whose shady dealings involving a nonprofit and city funding have been mentioned in no less than 16 editorials. All that attention may not be why authorities are investigating Thomas, but it probably didn’t hurt.
So it would naturally follow that winning over Armao would be at the top of Murphy’s to-do list. But several of the mayor’s friends and staffers think that may be nearly impossible, given Armao’s previous enthusiastic backing of former Mayor Adrian Fenty and public schools boss Michelle Rhee.
“She was working for the Fenty administration,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who has taken plenty of hits from the editorial board herself. “We all knew it.”
Armao’s boss, Fred Hiatt, says the ed board gives everyone a fair shake and that it wants Gray to succeed. But the allegation that Armao, and the Post, have a blind allegiance to Fenty is old hat in District political circles.
“I think the Washington Post’s four years of adoration and devotion did Adrian a disservice,” former Mayor Anthony Williams told the paper after last year’s primary election. “Adrian never had to explain himself.”
Post education writer Bill Turque also once famously called out the editorial board for being Downy soft on Rhee.
Talk of Fenty favoritism isn’t without some evidence, as a batch of old emails recently obtained by LL suggest. One email chain shows Fenty’s spokeswoman asking the mayor whether she should provide “our usual friendly” Post reporter with a scooplet, likely in reference to former beat reporter David Nakamura. (This paper has already devoted two columns to alleged favoritism shown by the Fenty team to Nakamura, who now covers the White House and declined to comment.)
Another email shows Post columnist Colby King wasn’t afraid to kiss mayoral ass. “Brother Fenty,” King wrote to Fenty’s private email address in 2008, praising his handling of the Banita Jacks murder case. “You are just the kind of leader the District needs in a moment like this. I speak not as a fraternity brother or as a journalist, but as a citizen who looks to his mayor for leadership and strength in these difficult times. I know it may be tough on you, but, you are exactly what we need at the helm.”
King, it needs to be noted, was a frequent Fenty critic, particularly in his administration’s handling of juvenile justice matters. “I have never sought anything from the Fenty administration, and I don’t suck up to anybody,” the columnist says.
Armao never nears the warm and fuzzy line in her numerous back and forths with the Fenty administration, and there’s nothing in the emails that suggest any unprofessionalism on her part. But the emails do show the previous mayor viewed Armao not just as an ally, but as a key PR asset as well.
For instance, when the Fenty administration was trying to find D.C. Council allies to support a veto of a bill related to mayoral control of the school system, the Green Team looked to Armao for help lobbying Cheh in early 2009.
“I’ve heard [Cheh] is on the fence,” wrote Fenty aide Bridget Davis. “I believe the only force capable of persuading her to uphold the veto is Armao.”
Davis wrote that it would “seem out of left field” if she called Armao and asked Fenty’s attorney general and consigliere Peter Nickles to make the call.
“If no one objects, I can email/call her,” Nickles wrote. “It’s important that the veto succeed.”
The issue never came up for a vote. Cheh, whose rich, white ward is probably home to the most Post editorial readers, says there’s no way she would base any of her positions on an editorial. (So maybe print is dead, after all?)
Another set of emails shows that the Fenty administration relied on Armao’s opinion in vetting their pick to lead the troubled Child and Family Services Agency. When interim director Roque Gerald set up an interview with Armao, Nickles wrote to Fenty in February 2009: “This is Roque’s chance to prove himself.”
A few days later, Nickles asked Fenty and then-City Administrator Dan Tangherlini if they were ready to move forward with Gerald’s appointment. “Armao interviewed him and said she ‘liked him,’” Nickles wrote.
The Fenty administration also saw Armao as a weapon against Gray when he became a rival for the mayor’s job. In one instance, Nickles directed staff to provide Armao with quotes from a speech Gray gave at a labor rally protesting teacher layoffs.
“A is starting to hone in—want to give her ammo,” Nickles wrote in October 2009. Armao’s editorial a week later said Gray showed “poor judgment” for speaking at the rally.
Such politicking certainly makes Nickles, who was supposed to be the city government’s top lawyer, not oppo researcher, look bad. And Fenty’s narrow focus on Armao is just another example of how he lost touch with much of the non-editorial-writing residents of the city, helping Gray trounce him in last year’s election. But none of that necessarily means Armao strayed from her lane. She is, after all, paid to write opinions and she hasn’t kept those opinions secret.
Still, it’s not hard to see why such apparent closeness would lead several of the mayor’s supporters and staffers to suggest that Murphy is on a fool’s errand as he tries to bring the Post around on Gray. One Wilson Building source joked that Armao is Murphy’s white whale.
Mo Elleithee, who handled Gray’s communications during last year’s elections, says some of Gray’s “die-hard partisans” wanted to just stay away from Armao and the Post ed page during the campaign. But Gray, who Elleithee says is serious about his message of a united city, was always open to keeping the ol’ “open dialogue” going with Armao.
“Chris rightly understands…it’s an important dialogue to continue,” Elleithee says.
But there’s already been some rough chit-chat since Murphy’s come on board. The anti-Armao contingent of Gray aides, saying his largely African-American base doesn’t pay much attention to Post endorsements, would probably argue the back-and-forth proves their point. Starting in October, Armao wrote a series of editorials accusing the Gray administration of playing politics in awarding city grass-cutting contracts at the taxpayers’ expense. It’s a suggestion Gray staffers say simply isn’t true.
“We’re really in the land of the absurd now,” Murphy wrote Armao after her second editorial ran. He tells LL the episode made him question whether Armao harbors personal animosity toward Gray. Again, Hiatt says that’s not true, and adds that he’s “very proud” of those editorials.
Murphy says he’s not ready to concede the point that things can’t be better with the Post editorial board. He stresses that he’s not obsessing over winning Armao’s approval, as some of the mayor’s supporters suggest, but has no plans to keep her at arm’s length.
“My ultimate goal would be a fair shake,” he says.
His success, a smart ass might suggest, will probably depend on what his definition of fair is.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield
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