11.02.10

A Talk with D.C.'s New Mayor

Vince Gray, who won Tuesday's election in a landslide after beating incumbent Adrian Fenty in the Democratic primary, talks to Sandra McElwaine about his plans for office, schools chancellor Michelle Rhee's exit, and being "fed up” with Fenty.

Since defeating the brash incumbent Adrian Fenty in the Democratic mayoral primary last month, Vincent "Vince” Gray has become a Washington superstar. Suddenly the tall, unassuming City Council chairman is being courted not only by supporters but also by former foes. Simply everybody inside the Beltway wants to meet the low-key politician who just became the new mayor-elect.

Nattily turned out in a crisp white custom-tailored shirt with "Vince” embroidered on the left cuff and a pale lavender tie, Gray places his two smart phones on the table of his favorite Chinese restaurant and settles in for a candid and wide-ranging discussion. Lunching on wonton soup and egg rolls, the soft-spoken 67-year-old D.C. native talks about his past and his plans for "change” in the fractious city of 600,000.

Election Reactions from Beast writersAt the top of his to-do list is a balanced budget. To combat a $175 million shortfall and avoid an impending crisis, he has called for a hiring and promotion freeze, but he also will have to make a number of tough decisions about increasing taxes and making cuts in public safety, education, and human services. Although he talks about expanding universal childhood education and putting more police on the streets, he will be constrained by fiscal demands. And though crime is down, he has not yet decided whether he will retain the district's popular police chief, Cathy Lanier, though she is not a favorite of the police union and he is. "I never made any promises to the union about dismissing or keeping people,” he says. "I know Chief Lanier and have had a good working relationship with her. We'll sit down and discuss it.”

Statehood, he says, would solve most problems. "It would generate revenue,” he notes. "It would give us the power to have a commuter tax—we're the only jurisdiction in America that doesn't. We have to decide, does the federal presence own the place where it resides, or does it recognize it is somebody else's place and has to pay its way to be there? The latter clearly does not prevail.” In four years, he would "love to see the city have the vote,” he says.

He is also a proponent of bicycles and street cars to reduce the district's monumental traffic jams.

To accomplish some of these goals and establish a creative and imaginative capital, Gray needs to increase his visibility and become an up-front mayor like Michael Bloomberg in New York or Richard Daley in Chicago. "He cannot be a shrinking violet, and he must get out more and create his own persona in order to form relationships in the White House and in Congress,” says Mark Plotkin, a political analyst for the D.C. news radio station WTOP. "This is not Vince's nature; he tends to stay in and get buried in details.”

Others, especially the upscale wards, where Gray was clobbered by Fenty, fear he will not have the guts to stand up to the unions, that he will bring in a bunch of retreads, undo gentrification and progress and return to the city to the old status quo. Gray dismisses the notion. "Isn't it amazing that people would come up with such nonsense?” he asks. "There will be some new people who will come in and some who will stay because I think they will make the best possible team we could have to move the city forward.”

The upscale wards fear Gray will undo gentrification. He dismisses the notion. "Isn't it amazing that people would come up with such nonsense?" he asks.

Much of the sturm und drang surrounding Gray's victory was generated by the tenure and departure of the chancellor of schools, Michelle Rhee.

During her tumultuous 3 1/2 year reign, Rhee, a passionate advocate of education reform, became a polarizing figure who turned the capital upside down, antagonizing many in the black community and the City Council by summarily closing schools, firing teachers, and establishing a tough rating system for all educators. She became flashpoint when she campaigned with Fenty and declared Gray's election "devastating” for the future of reform.

Contrary to popular belief, Gray, the ultimate conciliator, states unequivocally that Rhee was not dismissed and that her resignation was amicable and a joint decision. "We had a long conversation,” he says. "I'm appreciative of the work she did. It was time for her to move on, and we both agreed we had made progress.”

When Kaya Henderson, Rhee's acolyte and deputy, was appointed interim chancellor and Rhee and Fenty published a joint essay in The Washington Post endorsing Gray's leadership, the brouhaha subsided. But Gray still believes the Fenty camp set out to portray him as supportive of the teachers union and an impediment to change. This despite the years he spent first as a member of the City Council and then as chairman implementing a variety of educational reforms, including the 2008 Pre-K Enhancement and Expansion Act, and initiating new facilities for infants and toddlers all over town. "Educational reform is at the top of my agenda,” he says. "It did not begin in 2007.”

His dislike for his opponent, 26 years his junior, whom he beat by a 7-point margin, is visceral and palpable. Gray ran against him, he says, because he was "fed up,” weary of what he sees as Fenty's arrogance, disdain, and total lack of interaction and cooperation. "It was very, very unpleasant,” recalls Gray. "I wasn't just me. The whole council was disaffected and disenchanted. The public was very angry too. I didn't think the city could thrive and prosper, and I didn't want to go through four more years of that environment, so I took all my chips and slid them into the middle of the table.”

When Gray decided to go for the mayoralty last March, Fenty was flush with cash and did not expect a challenge. Gray was the complete underdog with zero in his campaign war chest. He ran solely on "determination and desire,” he says. (Eventually he wrote his first check to his campaign. It was for $25,000.)

These qualities were instilled in him by his father, James, who worked as an orderly at Freedmen's Hospital and drove a cab in the evenings so that Gray's mother, Elizabeth, could be a stay-at-home mom. Education was paramount for his parents. In high school he excelled at both basketball and baseball, and playing first base and batting .500, he was offered a number of athletic scholarships and scouted by the Dodgers and White Sox. But his parents had their hearts set on him going to George Washington University, where no scholarship was available. "My father told the coach he didn't need anyone to pay for his son's education,” says Gray.

As one of only a handful of African-American students on campus, his years at GW were painful. Racism was rampant—most fraternities bolted their doors to blacks and only the Jewish fraternities hung out a welcome sign. Gray broke the color barrier when he pledged Tau Epsilon Phi. Within a year he was elected president.

"Gray was dignified, poised, and a classy guy,” recalls fellow GW student Mark Plotkin. "He had a lot of self-confidence. Don't underestimate him or his powers of seduction.”

With a degree in psychology, Gray began his career at the Association for Retarded Citizens. He went on head the D.C. Department of Human Services from 1991 to '94, and then became the founding executive director of Covenant House, a nonprofit for homeless teens. In 2004 the desire "to see people better served” catapulted him into politics. On his first try, he defeated his own council member. Two years later he won the chairmanship of the council, trouncing another popular colleague.

Then as now his mantra was "One city.” His aim is to build a consensus in order to bridge the divide and bring together all the disparate social, ethnic, and racial groups. (He frequently passes out District of Colombia lapel pins to passers-by.)

A widower—his wife died 12 years ago—Gray has two grown children, still plays softball on a regular basis, and does date, although his social life has not been chronicled. He also enjoys hand dancing, an offbeat kind of hands-together swing dance.

He defines himself as "very open, transparent, determined, and serious about my work,” and is known as a deliberator who loves to natter on about policy issues. "Vince is really a dedicated public servant,” observes the prominent Washington attorney Robert Bennett, who gave a fundraiser for Gray this fall. "He is very honorable, a total straight shooter, very smart and experienced. He knows how to get things done.”

When it's time to leave, Gray is presented with a fortune cookie. He rustles with the cellophane, opens it up, and reads, "You are broad minded and socially active.” He thinks about it for a moment, gets up, heads to the door, turns and smiles and says, "That's just about right.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington Correspondent for The Daily Beast. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She has also written for The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.