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When Vince Gray beat Adrian Fenty in last year’s primary, the moral of the story seemed obvious: Politics requires politicking.
In four years, Fenty’s administration had won praise from national policy experts—and resounding boos from residents. In Fenty’s world, locals were expected to go along with innovative experiments in governing, even when no one bothered talking to them about why the Wilson Building was doing what it was doing. Fenty may have worn three different BlackBerries, but his inability to communicate his vision for the District doomed him: On Election Day, voters threw him out even as they told pollsters they thought the city was doing pretty well. In the privacy of the voting booth, it turned out, a bunch of bike lanes doesn’t get you very far.
A year after Gray won the general election, though, he doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of his race against Fenty. Just like the guy he beat, Gray keeps hurting his own cause by messing up the most basic job requirement of any mayor: remembering public relations. Sure, the two went wrong in different ways. Fenty alienated Gray’s base by appearing to pander to wealthier, whiter, younger newcomers. Thus far, Gray’s missteps have elicited told-you-so’s from former Fentyites, not to mention a few big defections from his own long-time supporters. But Gray, who only ran against Fenty because he saw how vulnerable he was, remains in real danger of turning into a bizarro version of his vanquished opponent.
After all, the hiring scandals that have eaten up so much of Gray’s time didn’t have to be so damaging. But like Fenty, Gray seemed to go out of his way to make public relations problems worse each time he spoke about the story. He apparently couldn’t decide what he thought about all the children of senior campaign aides who wound up on the city payroll—much less about Sulaimon Brown. “We believe he has the requisite skills to do the job,” Gray told reporters asking how the erratic former fringe candidate managed to get a position in the Department of Health Care Finance. The next day, that wasn’t the mayor’s line anymore. “Whatever happened has happened within the Department of Health Care Finance, I really don’t know the details…There’s over 33,000 people who work in the government,” he said.
Last month, when a House committee report found no direct evidence that Gray knew whether his campaign staffers paid Brown to keep running against Fenty last year, the mayor bungled the messaging once again. “It makes us feel vindicated,” he told Fox 5. Which might not be the phrase a seasoned image-maker would choose to describe a report that detailed how Gray’s administration hired—as a $100,000-a-year accountant—a guy who didn’t know how to use Microsoft Excel, and that portrayed Gray as having to ask underlings, “What the fuck happened?” after Brown was given the boot. Even Gray’s attempts to fix his political image have gone wrong. His new communications guru, Andi Pringle, had to resign in September because she’d voted in the District while living in Maryland.
Fenty, likewise, had a litany of self-inflicted wounds. Whether he was picking pointless fights with the D.C. Council over free baseball tickets, taking a secret family trip to Dubai (paid for with $25,000 from the United Arab Emirates government), or giving away firetrucks to the Dominican Republic, the guy Gray beat kept making decisions that no politician with any instinct toward self-preservation would make. Constantly blowing off neighborhood activists, party officials, and other players who make up municipal politics, the former mayor seemed oblivious to the notion that voters would judge him on anything other than the statistics and data he made city government collect and measure itself against.
Which is why it’s such a mystery that Gray can’t seem to get himself out of the same trap. When it comes to policy, there aren’t many clues there was even an election last year. Gray let Michelle Rhee go, but he kept her deputy, Kaya Henderson, in charge of schools. Bike lanes and streetcar tracks are still being laid out all over the city. The guy who rebuilt school facilities for Fenty, Allen Lew, is now Gray’s city administrator. If last year’s polls are to be believed, this continuity is more or less what the public wants.
Gray was supposed to change the optics. The District’s government would stop giving off the sense that the people in charge didn’t care what voters thought. A year after the general election that put him in office, though, Gray isn’t doing much better at managing his image than Fenty did. Maybe it’s time for him to remember how he got to be mayor in the first place.
Illustration by Brooke Hatfield/photos by Darrow Montgomery