D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray is known as a friendly, thoughtful man. He’s a politician who is willing to listen to many people and many sides of an issue before making up his mind.
In other words, he’s the opposite of the leader Mayor Adrian Fenty is often criticized of being.
In fact, Gray is so deliberative that your Notebook, among others, has observed that he is too inclined toward thinking rather than acting. Of course, Gray and his mayoral campaign would disagree, but “ponder” is a word that comes easily to mind when reviewing his leadership style.
So what happened with the streetcar debacle?
Last week, as the D.C. Council was lurching toward a budget vote, Gray surprised many by derailing nearly $50 million in spending for the city’s new streetcar system. It was a decision apparently reached in the middle of the night. There were no public discussions, no hearings, no telephone calls to test the waters.
But there was blistering outrage when others found out about it.
Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells went ballistic. That’s saying a lot for the usually genial, earnest council member. Ballistic. Wells. He fumed at Gray, saying the city could lose tens of millions in federal transportation funds.
But Wells was back to calm after a storm of e-mails, tweets and texts rained upon the chairman and the council and they restored the funds.
“I’m very grateful for the leadership of my colleagues to restore these funds,” Wells said in a formal statement. “This is an investment that connects east and west of the Anacostia River with the next generation of public transportation.”
The real question is whether Gray’s derailing of the trolley system will come back to haunt him in his race against Mayor Fenty. The Gray decision wasn’t deliberative, inclusive or careful.
David Alpert of the blog Greater Greater Washington had helped spread the word that the Gray gambit was sinking the streetcars.
“Our report was very quickly picked up and reconfirmed by many other blogs,” Alpert reported. He wrote that blogs including "DCist, We Love DC, Prince of Petworth, Frozen Tropics, The Hill Is Home, H Street Great Street, Life in Mount Vernon Square, the Sierra Club's Streetcars4DC, and many more asked people to call Gray's office.”
Chairman Gray was left defending his decision. He said he favors streetcars but thought the Fenty administration lacked a clear understanding of how to proceed with conflicting information about track work and design. Gray said he thought a one-year delay would allow the city to get its plans in order.
The Fenty campaign already is pointing to the flash funding flap, saying it's an example of how Gray can get mired in bureaucracy and not see the big picture.
“So much for transparency and working well with others,” scoffed one senior member of the Fenty campaign.
The campaign trail.
Expect to see the streetcar issue being used against Gray in the H Street NE corridor. People have put up with a lot to get that street rebuilt and tracks laid for the streetcar. Gray should hope that the residents and businesses over there don’t decide to ride him out of town (or at least contention) in the upcoming primary.
WTOP reporter Mark Segraves was emcee at a Ward 6 Democrats awards event last week. He didn’t miss a beat with the streetcar flap.
Chairman Gray arrived late to the festive and well-attended event.
“Vince Gray just got here,” Segraves quipped. “He was late because he was waiting for the streetcar to pick him up in Ward 7.”
The tables of Fenty supporters in the room howled and applauded. Gray frowned.
But Segraves, being the balanced journalist he is, made fun of Fenty, too. The mayor had left before Segraves got in his dig.
“Mayor Fenty was here but had to leave,” Segraves deadpanned. “He ran out of quarters for the meters.” The room erupted in laughter. And with this one, Gray also joined in the laughter. But the Fenty folks booed.
As we were packing to go out of town, we learned that former financial control board chair Alice Rivlin was among a group hosting a fundraiser for Gray at her Ward 3 home.
Rivlin, a resident scholar and leader at the Brookings Institution, told NBC4 in an e-mail why she’s supporting Gray.
“I have great respect for Chairman Gray,” Rivlin wrote. “He is a thoughtful leader who understands the District’s needs, is fiscally responsible and, as mayor, could forge consensus with the council.”
In 2006, Rivlin supported Marie Johns for mayor.
Some folks are already anxious to see who will get The Washington Post endorsement. Some believe Fenty is a certainty. Four years ago, The Post wrote about Fenty’s inexperience but said, “There is reason to believe that his achievements will outweigh his missteps and that the District will be changed for the better as a result of his mayoralty.”
To shake The Post’s position, Fenty would have to make a few more missteps. But Gray has to do better than the streetcar mess to make his own case for being mayor.
The next big event is the June 10 fundraising report. Fenty will show he still has plenty of money. It’ll be up to Gray to show that he’s making an earnest effort to be competitive. No one expects Gray to have bundles of money, but he has to have enough to show that his campaign has momentum. How much is that? We’ll know it when we see it.