Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 09/22/10

By Tom Sherwood
|  Thursday, Oct 14, 2010  |  Updated 2:16 PM EDT
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Gray Won't Be Boring or Dull

NBCWashington.com

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And Vincent Gray won't be another Marion Barry.

Going into the weekend after the primary election, we were surprised by the fear expressed by many voters -- almost all white -- that Gray was going to turn back the clock and somehow re-create the city of the 1990s and Marion Barry.

Despite suggestions and fears to the contrary, Barry was only a peripheral figure in the Gray campaign, not a leading indicator for how Gray will conduct himself and his policies. Barry inserted himself into the campaign -- even appearing on a Fox 5 debate supporting Gray -- despite Gray and his aides' efforts to persuade him to keep a lower profile, exactly because he is such a polarizing figure. (Barry did not appear on stage with Gray election night, but he was a few feet away and gladly would have come up if Gray had given even a hint it was OK.)

The city's predominantly white wards voted 70 percent and 80 percent for Adrian Fenty. Whether that was because those voters liked Fenty and his message or feared Gray as a candidate they didn't really know makes no difference now. It'll be up to Gray to chart a course -- personal and professional -- that shows respect for all parts of the city. That's what he has said he will do. Worried, apprehensive or hypercritical citizens should give him the chance. Gray has said the city government needs to address the disparate interests of the entire city so that no matter where you live you feel your neighborhood and city concerns are being addressed.

In the wake of his primary win, Gray continues to battle the perception that he'll roll back school reform. He says continuing reform is his No. 1 agenda item, along with working to increase jobs for hard-hit areas of the city.

He's also emphasizing that his plans to appoint a cabinet “that looks like the city” are not just code words meaning he'll hire African-Americans whether they're qualified or not.

And as of last Friday, Gray seemed a little miffed that President Barack Obama had not made the traditional personal call to congratulate Gray on his victory. Some lower-level White House official did. Doesn’t anyone at the White House know that this city voted 93 percent for Obama in 2006?

"I do want to hear from President Obama," Gray said Friday on the WAMU 88.5 "Politics Hour." He also said that the president should put the city's "No Taxation Without Representation" license tag on the presidential limousine and should support some version of voting rights.

Gray can be quick on his feet, is easy to laugh and seems genuinely interested in virtually any subject anyone brings up with him. But he is known to think long and hard about things -- and to seek advice -- before acting. And this will be a key test of his transition and governance.

As mayor rather than council chairman, he really won't have time to sit for 10 and 15 hours at hearings to gather residents' thoughts and think about different issues.

He's been known to stay in his chairman's office well past midnight reading legislation and working on other matters. He'll find his day as mayor long and difficult enough without that quiet reflection and reading time.

It's the difference between being the legislative leader of the council and the executive of the entire city government.

Gray tires of hearing and reading all this news analysis saying that he's not a man of action. He says he does make decisions. He has executive experience at the D.C. Department of Human Services, the nonprofit group Covenant House and other organizations. And he says he ran the 13-member council efficiently and moved legislation without unnecessary delay.

As the campaign begins for the pro-forma Nov. 2 general election, Gray will find that reporters, citizens and interest groups aren't interested in waiting until Nov. 3 to begin asking hard questions and seeking jobs or favorable policy decisions.

Given the 24/7 news cycle, elected leaders really don't even get "honeymoon" periods while they adjust from candidate to official anymore. People are saying, "You won -- what are you going to do now?"

Although it's a foregone conclusion that Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee will either quit or be fired, the personnel decision on her is the first one that Gray must confront.

The day after the primary election, Gray announced that he had called Rhee but missed her. He said he hoped to meet with her in the next few days. Well, Rhee wasn't around. She flew to California to visit her future husband, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

So a Gray-Rhee meeting may occur this week. Bottom line, Gray won't have time to be dull or boring. His deliberative style will bump up against the incessant demands for action on myriad issues.

If he doesn't act quickly enough, that will be news. If he rushes into a decision, that will be news. His close friends and associates say Gray, at 67, has the maturity and poise of someone who knows where he wants to go and, more importantly, how he believes he can get there.

The Notebook sees some stress down the road, but it may turn out that the reporters and commentators will be the ones who experience that stress as Gray ratchets down our expectations to his speed, whatever it is.

• Final Word.

A belated happy birthday to 90-year-old Jerry Cooper, a heart-and-soul Democrat from Ward 1 who used to be the guru and right-hand man for the late David A. Clarke. Cooper remains active in city politics, and we feted him at the Pier 7 Restaurant on the Southwest Waterfront.

You have never heard a worse version of “Happy Birthday” than the one sung by WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi, WTOP's Mark Plotkin, Cultural Tourism staff member Pat Wheeler and yours truly. But we meant every off-key word.


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