Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray’s colleagues barely said a word as they voted to reject his attempt at regaining control of a key committee chairmanship. And they didn’t have to.

Their silence spoke volumes Tuesday as Gray’s push to be reinstalled as health committee chair died on an 11-2 vote. Gray instead will chair a pared-down committee focused on hospitals and health equity. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson is set to take over the Committee on Health in Gray’s stead and will share oversight duties of the few agencies in Gray’s health equity panel. But despite his efforts over the past two weeks to force a debate over his demotion, the whole process took just a few minutes to wrap up, with barely a word spoken on the matter.

That distinct lack of drama probably tells you everything you need to know about how the rest of the Council views the 80-year-old former mayor. Rather than engaging with Gray’s accusations that the committee change amounts to a mix of ableism and ageism, their silence gave off the distinct sense that councilmembers viewed his move as a desperate play that simply wasn’t worth a response. Even Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the main recipient of Gray’s broadsides after unveiling the new proposed committee structure on Dec. 21 amid concern about Gray’s recent health challenges, would only say that the decision “reflects my sense of the consensus of the Council, and I stand by that.”

The lone lawmaker to vote with Gray, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, didn’t offer an explanation of his vote. Gray himself (appearing virtually) barely said a word on his behalf—quite the contrast from the verbose statements emanating from his office in recent days that accuse Mendelson of using “disturbing logic” that “could be used to justify a decision to place a transgender councilmember in an inferior office, simply because the Council chair doesn’t like transgendered individuals.”

“Concern for my health is appreciated; discrimination based on health is unconscionable,” Gray wrote in a statement after the vote. “My staff and I will now consider all options.”

It all made for a highly awkward scene at the Wilson Building Tuesday. Gray has argued that this should be a debate about his “ability,” not his health, claiming he’s been fully cleared by his doctors to resume all of his duties. But the best way he could’ve advanced that particular argument might have been to make a vigorous defense of his accomplishments and outline his agenda for the new Council term. He certainly did not do either on Tuesday.

Instead, Gray pitched an alternative committee structure that would have reinstalled himself as health committee chair and simultaneously reconstituted the education committee with Henderson as its chair. Loose Lips was anticipating that Gray’s proposal would prompt an intense debate considering that many of the councilmembers on the dais were on record supporting a stand-alone education committee (with Henderson broadly viewed as an appealing option to chair such a committee). But Gray did not press the issue, and gave only a brief summary of his proposal ahead of the vote.

Gray hasn’t exactly tried to make much of a case in court of public opinion either, beyond some strongly worded tweets. Gray declined the Post’s recent invitation to defend his record, and LL is still waiting on a response from his spokesperson to a similar offer. Perhaps his most vocal defense came from longtime staffer (and newly elected State Board of Education representative) Eric Goulet, who argued in a lengthy statement that Gray has attended every oversight hearing and “moved every piece of legislation out of the committee that he felt was sound policy” since suffering a stroke in December 2021.

Since Gray was voted out of the mayor’s suite in 2014 and returned to the Council in 2017, he has undoubtedly enjoyed the broad respect of his colleagues for his policy chops, even among those with more liberal leanings. Yet not a single one rose to his defense Tuesday, or when surveyed by the Post this weekend. Outgoing Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh argued that the move was “unfair” to both Gray and his constituents, but even she would allow that some of her colleagues were “alarmed” about his performance during committee meetings.

Some of that alarm has certainly made its way to LL, with Council sources making note of several occasions where, more than just stumbling over his words, Gray struggled to move meetings along. In one particularly notable instance in late November, Gray frequently repeated himself as his fellow committee members prodded him, uncomfortably, to simply adjourn the meeting. Gray’s decision in December to skip a particularly crucial vote on the D.C. Housing Authority on the advice of his doctors also did not go unnoticed, as it likely forced Mendelson to bump deliberations on that high-stakes matter to the final meeting of the year.

In that context, Mendelson’s decision makes sense. The chairman has repeatedly framed it as a move that will give Gray time to recover, and he certainly may. (Bear in mind, Gray has pledged to run for another term in 2024, meaning he could serve through age 86 if he wins another primary).

But some have accused Mendelson of disenfranchising the voters of Ward 7 with this committee reorganization, and the historic inequities challenging east of the river communities means that all of these discussions will be politically fraught (though, if LL is being technical about it, Henderson also represents the ward as an at-large member).

All of this leads to an even broader question: If Gray isn’t fit to chair this committee, in the Council’s eyes, what can he keep doing? Under Mendelson’s proposal, Gray would chair the Committee on Hospital and Health Equity but would share oversight of just six agencies with the Committee on Health.

If this decision really is meant to help Gray recover, then is it not an admission that his new committee, meant to focus largely on “health equity” and Gray’s passion project of opening a new Ward 8 hospital, is merely a fig leaf? Goulet claimed the setup is a “cynical fiction because it removes the oversight of agencies that are required to actually achieve health equity,” and there’s certainly some truth to that observation.

It strikes LL that lawmakers are in an impossible position here. On the one hand, no one is entitled to chair a committee, and if they felt that Gray’s stewardship of the panel would lead to important bills not advancing or a lack of robust oversight, perhaps they have a responsibility to their constituents to act. On the other, they have to confront the uncomfortable reality that they’re sidelining a respected colleague who represents more than 84,000 people in Ward 7 because they believe his health is failing.

LL doesn’t have much time for arguments in favor of term limits for legislatures (they tend to advantage lobbyists, who can exercise additional sway over inexperienced lawmakers as wiser hands are forced out) but this whole situation does make age limits look a bit more attractive. That’s a conversation for the future, however, leaving the matter of Gray’s competence lingering awkwardly for the final two years of his term (at least).

Gray’s made noises about pursuing a complaint under the D.C. Human Rights Act to try and have his chairmanship restored, but doing so would force a much uglier fight than Tuesday’s quiet affair. The rest of the Council would surely prefer that he leave this matter alone—until any contenders start lining up in the 2024 primary, of course.