Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 12/15/10

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    NBCWashington.com
    Vincent Gray addresses Ward 3 residents.

    Are you still nervous about the looming Vincent Gray administration?

    Worried that Gray won’t be a man of action? Too bureaucratic?

    Is he too old school, with ties to the old D.C. way of doing things?

    Well, Gray took a step toward breaking that moldy image this past week. He named Allen Lew as his city administrator, calling him a person with “top-notch management skills.”

    What’s Lew’s style? “I like lean operations. I like efficient operations,” Lew said in his simple, declarative way of speaking. “I like thin bureaucracies.”

    In short, Lew is a get-it-done administrator who is both praised -- and feared -- for his abilities. For the past decade, he’s been the man in charge for the city as it built the new convention center and baseball stadium.

    And for the past three years, Lew has been the point man on the billion-dollar effort to remodel or rebuild every school building in town. The efforts to date were impressive achievements for Mayor Adrian Fenty, and Lew made them happen.

    Now Lew is emerging from the side stage of city government and politics to take on day-to-day responsibility for the entire government bureaucracy.

    Lew is polite to a fault in public, but he can be steel-willed and brutally blunt in private when dealing with contractors or others who aren’t getting the job done.

    At his news conference, Lew good-naturedly addressed that tough reputation. “I usually employ charm, Tom,” Lew told me, smiling. “Charm is my most favorite tool.” Well, just hope you never have to see the flip side of Lew’s “charm.”

    Many believe he’s a good match for the more polite, process-oriented mayor-elect. While Gray feels comfortable discussing and weighing issues before acting, Lew is more likely to make a decision and then decide how to implement it.

    Gray said he got to know, like and respect Lew particularly over the past three years, during which time Gray oversaw Lew’s school renovation work. “Allen and I worked very closely together for four years. And I’ve gotten to know him extremely well,” Gray said. “I was quoted in the paper a few weeks ago saying everyone knows I like Allen Lew. And you know what? It is a correct quote.”

    One criticism, or maybe just a note of caution, is that in his past jobs Lew has been goal-oriented: Build a convention center. Build a stadium. Fix the schools. The city administrator’s job is an open-ended series of daily decisions, crises and opportunities.

    We’d love to be inside one of the first cabinet meetings when Lew decides one or two cabinet members aren’t pulling their weight.

    And that’s the mystery as we approach the Gray administration that takes over Jan. 2: Is the Gray-Lew team in fact a good match? Will Lew be hamstrung by the competing demands of politics, policy and performance? While Lew understands the politics -- and he has chief of staff Warren Graves to help him -- it will be interesting to see how he works with other Gray cabinet heads.

    As city administrator, Lew is not subject to D.C. Council confirmation. He has to answer to only one person, Mayor-elect Gray. Some city officials say Gray needs to give Lew the same kind of unconditional backing that Fenty gave former Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

    We doubt that will happen. But how Lew soars or sinks should be great fodder for the news media. And it will tell a lot about how Gray intends to govern.

    • Link to Lorraine.

    Gray appointed Gerri Mason Hall as his chief of staff. That’s the person who basically decides who gets in to see the mayor and who doesn’t.

    Hall is an experienced government official, having worked in both the city and federal personnel offices. She was a deputy director during the Clinton administration.

    But beyond her management skills, Hall’s key attribute is that she is closely linked with Gray transition chair Lorraine Green, who is closer to the mayor-elect than anyone.

    While Green will keep her job with Amtrak and not join the Gray administration, having Hall there is almost as good.

    • More appointments.

    As the next two weeks unfold, Gray is expected to pick up the pace of naming more key department heads. Most believe Police Chief Cathy Lanier will keep her post. And many of those same people believe he’ll keep interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

    (We reported last week that Henderson was about to be named. We had it on pretty good sources. But we were a bit taken aback when someone close to Henderson told us that Gray had not yet told her anything. It taught us to be a little more gun-shy in getting out in front of Gray’s choices.)