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Last week Mayor Vince Gray introduced the city to his new chief of staff, Chris Murphy, an accomplished go-getter the mayor says will help reinvigorate his administration and move past the various missteps of its first few months.
Murphy, along with new deputy chief of staff Andi Pringle, immediately started a charm offensive with the media and the mayor’s own staff.
“Andi and I just wanted to let you know how excited we are to be working with you and how much we appreciate all the good work you are doing for Mayor Gray and for the District,” Murphy wrote to the mayor’s staff in an email just before midnight last Tuesday, his first full day on the job. “There is so much knowledge and know how on this team, only by tapping it all can we truly succeed.”
Several mayoral staffers LL spoke with say they were impressed with Murphy’s friendly approach and are excited about his new gig. But the prospect of Murphy’s top-down review of the Office of the Mayor, its 85 or so employees, and its $12 million budget is making for some anxiety in the Wilson Building.
“Yes, there are some people who are very nervous,” says one high-level mayoral staffer.
Murphy and Pringle also held off-the-record sessions with local reporters, dubbed “chew and chats,” to try and ingratiate themselves with the various hacks who populate the District’s media landscape.
Their first attempt did not go well. According to multiple people present, early in the first session with reporters, Murphy said the media had blown Gray’s various missteps out of proportion and had not given the mayor a fair shake—a position the assembled reporters did not take kindly to. Add an awkward spat with D.C. Watch’s Dorothy Brizill over various perceived slights, and “it never kind of recovered from that,” says one reporter. (LL had a different chat with Murphy and Pringle, and things went fine, though it was also off the record.)
Things got worse for Pringle pretty fast. Later in the week, Brizill reported that she had voted in last year’s mayoral primary while living in Maryland. Brizill also filed a complaint with the Board of Elections and Ethics alleging the same thing. By Wednesday, Pringle had resigned.
It wasn’t the best start at winning over the grumps who report on the city’s news, but they are only one of many constituencies Murphy will have to learn to navigate successfully—and quickly.
Mayoral chiefs of staff in this town have a tendency to disappear faster than Spinal Tap drummers, with some crashing and burning at neck-snapping speeds.
Consider this pattern: The first chiefs of staff to Gray, former Mayor Anthony Williams, and former Mayor Sharon Pratt all flamed out within the first three months of taking the job.
Pratt’s first chief of staff, Joe Caldwell, was brought on with some fanfare as one part of a Ronald Reagan-type “triumvirate” leadership team. A Washington Post article in 1991 had anonymous administration sources sniping about Caldwell less than three months in, saying that he lacked “the necessary political experience and has had trouble directing the flow of call, paperwork and personnel to and from the [mayor’s] office.
Williams’ first chief of staff, Reba Pittman Evans, also left within the first few months “amid questions of her leadership skills,” Washington Business Journal reported. “It wasn’t a good fit,” Evans, who left office with a tidy $50,000 in separation pay, told WBJ.
Gray’s first chief of staff, Gerri Mason Hall, was forced out in March after questions arose over her involvement in the murky business of how her son and former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown both landed city jobs. Hall’s not-so-original spin on her dismissal: “It was not a good fit.” (Could be worse, though: LL checked, and so far, Hall has not been given any separation pay, much less 50 grand.)
The bad news for Murphy: The successors to those early failures didn’t fare so well themselves, either.
Pratt replaced Caldwell with Patricia Worthy, a friend from law school. Worthy only lasted a few months. While Worthy was out on medical leave, Pratt told the Post her chief of staff “should feel free to look for something else more to her liking.” Ouch.
William’s second chief of staff was Abdusalam Omer, a longtime friend. Omer was eased out after about two years, in part for his role in a fundraising scandal that used nonprofits to funnel contributions from businesses linked with the city. Williams went through chiefs of staff at pretty quick clip. Omer’s successor, Kelvin Robinson, quit just before a probe by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel into whether Robinson violated the Hatch Act by asking city employees to contribute to Williams’ re-election campaign. Robinson, who ran unsuccessfully against Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells last year, settled with the feds by agreeing not to work for the District government for two years, according to the Washington Times.
Former Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry had plenty of chief of staff problems of his own. His de facto first, Ivanhoe Donaldson, pleaded guilty several years after leaving the job to stealing $190,000 worth of city funds. Donaldson’s short-lived replacement, Clifton Smith, would go on to manage the campaign of the Rev. Walter Fauntroy—when he ran against Barry in 1990. For a lengthy period during his first term, Barry simply went without a chief of staff.
All this to say: Being chief of staff to a District mayor is a difficult job that has left some very accomplished people looking awfully bad.
“There’s no training for it,” says Karen Tramontano, who was Pratt’s third chief of staff and managed to last the remainder of the term.
Tramontano says a good chief of staff has to walk a “really fine line” between being an effective traffic cop and becoming a “barrier to the mayor.”
“The other thing is, you’re always the bad guy,” says Tramontano. “I can count the amount of times in three years and eight months I said ‘yes’…very few.”
Murphy says he’s not spent much time pondering the fate of those who have gone before him. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what job comes next for me, I’m pretty focused on the one I have,” he says. “I’m really committed to helping this mayor succeed and hopefully that will speak for itself.”
Murphy’s right: His work will one day speak for itself. The question people in the District may be asking is what the final message will be.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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