District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray begins his second year in office with a federal investigation of his 2010 campaign still looming and more than half of city residents saying they disapprove of his job performance.
Nonetheless, Gray remains optimistic about what he can achieve in the next three years of his term. And he argues that if voters and the media look beyond the controversies, they will see his administration has done a good job.
Backers of the 69-year-old Democrat point to his work on school reform, reducing crime and stabilizing city finances. Others say he's failed to lay out a bold vision for the city.
“What we hope for is to be regarded in the way we should be, which is for what we've done,” Gray said in a recent interview. “We were elected on the basis of certain commitments, and I think we've fulfilled those commitments, or are fulfilling them.”
A Washington native, Gray ran a city department serving the homeless and at-risk youth before he was elected to the D.C. Council in 2004. He became chairman two years later, and in 2010 tapped into black community dissatisfaction with then-Mayor Adrian Fenty to oust his fellow Democrat after one term.
Gray took office pledging to unify the city after an election that exposed stark divides along racial and economic lines.
But he soon faced questions about the deliberate pace of his transition effort, and it was later revealed that he was paying inflated salaries to some of his top staff and that his administration had hired the adult children of several of Gray's top aides.
Then came the bizarre firing of Sulaimon Brown, a former mayoral candidate hired by the new administration as an auditor. The firing came a day after Gray had defended Brown as qualified for his $110,000-a-year job. A tearful Brown showed up uninvited at the press conference announcing his termination, and he later alleged that he had been paid and promised a job by members of Gray's campaign staff in exchange for making negative comments about Fenty during the 2010 campaign.
Brown said Gray was aware of the payments, and the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating his claims. Brown has provided copies of money orders signed by a Gray campaign aide and the aide's son. He also turned over a list of talking points that he said Gray handed him to use against Fenty, The Associated Press has reported.
The D.C. Council conducted its own investigation and concluded that Brown was indeed promised a job. Brown was hired without a formal interview a day after Gray's aides found a position for him in the district's Department of Health Care Finance, and he was fired less than a month later.
Gray has denied all wrongdoing and said he's confident the investigation will clear him. Although he maintains he was unaware of any illegal activity by his campaign staff, he concedes that others could be swept up in the probe.
Asked if he was prepared for the possibility of indictments, Gray said, “I think we have to be.” But he said he would try to avoid being defined by any future bad news.\
Gray has shaken up his inner circle several times in a bid to surround himself with the right people, replacing his chief of staff and communications director and bringing in a new deputy chief of staff.
The turmoil was reflected in a Clarus Research Group poll released last month that showed Gray with a 34 percent approval rating and a 53 percent disapproval rating. The poll of 500 self-identified registered voters had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.
Gray enjoyed a brief run of good publicity when he was arrested for sitting in a street in front of the U.S. Capitol while protesting a budget deal that included restrictions on how the city could spend funds.
Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement that she still supports the mayor, but she expects to see improvement.
“There is a pressing need to right this ship,” Lang said. “We must have a stable, trustworthy and honorable government so that D.C. can remain truly competitive in the regional market.”
Councilmember Marion Barry, the former four-term mayor who represents the poorest District ward and remains a firm Gray supporter, said his constituents are voicing some frustration with the mayor.
“What people tell me in Ward 8,” Barry said, is that Gray “was so busy trying to unravel all this stuff that was going on in the first few months that he ... has not focused enough on jobs.”
Despite Gray's struggles and ethical challenges confronting the council, the city has continued to prosper in many ways. Crime is down, the commercial real estate market is booming and the city is in better fiscal shape than most if not all states.
Gray can't take credit for all of that, but it's a rebuttal to the dire predictions by some Fenty supporters that Gray would return the city to the Barry era of bloated, unaccountable government. Political consultant Chuck Thies, who occasionally advises the mayor, described the Gray administration's early struggles as a “momentary throwback” to old-school crony politics.
“This city continues to move forward. People are moving here,” Thies said. “By and large, this is one of the best places to live right now, given the national economy.”
Indeed, recent Census figures show the District gained more than 16,000 residents between April 2010 and July 2011, a faster rate of growth than any state over that period.
“Vince Gray may be the most underrated mayor in D.C. history,” said Adam Rubinson, who managed Gray's campaign and is not a target of the federal probe. “Unfortunately, the much-publicized missteps of two or three people have obscured that he's moved forward aggressively on school reform, that he put our fiscal house in order ... and crime has gone down significantly on his watch.”
Unlike the hard-charging Fenty, who made school reform his top priority, Gray has been criticized for lacking a signature issue or an over-arching view for the city. A year-in-review document circulated by his staff detailed incremental progress in a variety of areas. Gray is providing incentives to companies that hire city residents and has secured a new ink-jet manufacturing plant that will bring 300 jobs to the District's poorest ward.
His legislative agenda has been modest -- a contrast from his term as council chairman, when the District approved medical marijuana and gay marriage. Perhaps the most significant bill he's introduced is a package of reforms to the taxicab industry.
While the city is required to submit a balanced budget to Congress, Gray is especially proud of balancing the budget without dipping into reserve funds. The mayor often talks about his four-pronged agenda. When asked his top priority, he listed two goals.
“It's a bit arcane, but I want to be looked at (as) the mayor who brought fiscal stability to the city. That's huge for me,” Gray said. “The other thing is being able to get people back to work and creating more economic development equitably across the city.”