Vincent C. Gray’s election as mayor in 2010 was the result in no small measure of his success in tapping a deep well of resentment in the black community over Adrian M. Fenty’s perceived aloofness. Gray was helped along in this effort by Marion Barry.
I wrote in this section at the time that if the template for black mayors who connect with black voters is Barry and Newark’s Sharpe James, who have both served prison terms, then “Vincent Gray needs to hurry up and get himself locked up so he can keep it real, too.”
I now regret those words, as prophetic as they appear. I still think that Gray is a decent and thoughtful man, but he stands at the center of a political culture that is corrupt and broken.
At a contentious city council meeting this summer, Barry spoke about the council’s credibility problem and voters’ doubts about the D.C. government. “The stain is deep,” he said. He’s right.
I came to D.C. in 1969, and the future I imagined for it when the Home Rule Act was signed in 1973 was that the city, home to some of the smartest people and most innovative civil rights activists I knew, would provide a shining example of a democratic revolution. Some of that has come to pass. From qualified blacks who have new access to senior positions and contracts, to the revival of downtown and other areas, from new restaurants and theaters to green spaces and bike lanes, the District has indeed improved, often in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
The political culture, however, has deteriorated. It has what is clearly a pay-to-play political process, with personal corruption and campaign fraud now at the center of the system.
The latest example of this came on Tuesday, when federal prosecutors said that Gray’s 2010 mayoral run was funded, in part, by a “shadow campaign” of $653,000 from a prominent District contractor. Three Gray campaign consultants have pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges.
This shadow over the Gray campaign comes after former council member Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty to charges of theft of government money and falsifying tax returns. In May, he was sentenced to three years in prison. And in June, Kwame Brown resigned as D.C. Council chairman after federal prosecutors charged him with bank fraud.
The question is:How did it come to this? How did we come to this?
We came to this by a quick, narrow route. The relatively short period of time since we began electing our mayor means that we haven’t built time-tested political operations comparable to those of other major cities or states. We’re still on a learning curve, so campaigns in this town tend to have all kinds of openings that invite skullduggery. Seasoned and trustworthy political operatives are in short supply, their roles eagerly adopted by back-slapping cronies and slick new arrivals.
Gray didn’t officially launch his campaign to challenge Fenty until the end of March 2010, relatively late in the game. Although he was D.C. Council chairman, he had more policy than political experience. The campaign was like a fast-moving train with conductors who hopped on board after it had left the station, collecting fares with no tickets to show for them, passing the money around so few knew who was actually paying. Sleight of hand that was clearly too dazzling for either the media or the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance to keep up with. (In fact, on Thursday, the office said the Gray campaign inaccurately documented at least $100,000 in expenses.)
But it was magical. Gray won the election.
Emboldened, a few of these operatives immediately began job-placement activities — for children, friends and even for a fringe former mayoral candidate whose major accomplishment consisted of relentless attacks on Fenty. The fact that they didn’t allow a reasonable amount of time to elapse before undertaking these activities is another indication of their lack of experience.
It didn’t take long for this to be exposed, and thus began the long and painful saga of firings, resignations, investigations, denials, perp walks and guilty pleas that have become a staple of the District’s news cycle.
City governments are often corrupt. Mayors and city council members are prosecuted and imprisoned nationwide. What makes D.C. different is that all of this is happening concurrently, in the nation’s capital, sitting in the shadow of the Congress that denies it voting rights.
This is also the city that I’ve been covering for 40 years as a journalist or talk-show host, conducting town-hall meetings in every ward, listening to the hopes, aspirations (and yes, complaints) of residents who expect integrity from their elected officials. Why? “Because this is Washington, D.C.,” they’d say.
They expected something better. But it’s exactly because this is Washington, D.C., where politics is stunted, that it never gets better.