Two months into his official term as mayor of Washington, D.C. — and five months after energetically defeating Adrian Fenty for the job — Vincent Gray is offering a glimpse into his style of governing. It isn’t pretty.
Last week, it was revealed that one of Gray’s campaign supporters, Cherita Whiting, gained a sweet job as a special assistant in the city’s parks and recreation department reporting only to the agency’s chief of staff. The fact that Whiting got the job outside of the normal civil service hiring process — and that 200 other administration posts are being filled the same way — merely adds to a growing perception that Gray wants to run city government like a jobs program.
Gray’s other appointments haven’t exactly given residents confidence that he’ll stay on a government reform-oriented course. In December, he appointed as fire chief Kenneth Ellerbe, a former city fire commander who had to formally quit his job two years ago after it was revealed that he was also serving as head of the fire department in Sarasota, Florida (and was still taking a tax deduction on his D.C. home even though he was no longer a full-time resident). The move didn’t sit well with the city’s firefighters union, which had backed Gray in his run for office (and expected to have a vote over who would get the job). He also created a new deputy mayor post, and revived another spot — to oversee the city’s police and fire chiefs — which Fenty left vacant; both spots will cost the city $370,000 a year.
Meanwhile Gray hasn’t exactly gotten down to the most-pressing business facing the District: Dealing with an expected $575 million shortfall in the 2011-12 fiscal year budget coming on line in October. While Gray has talked vaguely about spending cuts, tax increases, and a commitment to not using “shortsighted budget gimmicks,” he hasn’t laid out more-concrete plans. He’s also done a lot of hinting about future announcements of new initiatives on addressing public health and requiring contractors to hire more city residents to work on government projects. And that’s all.
By contrast, Gray has been active on one front: Dismantling the aggressive, often controversial, reform of the city’s traditional school district begun by Fenty and now-former chancellor Michelle Rhee. Last week, a transition committee Gray convened on education recommended that the district’s teacher evaluation system — which uses student test-score data to measure teacher performance — be overhauled because it supposedly lacked “public trust” and was seen as a “sorting and termination tool.”
Worse still, Gray is repaying the American Federation of Teachers and its D.C. local — which had long sparred with Fenty and Rhee and supported his election with a $1 million ad blitz — by placing its new local president, Nate Saunders, on the committee charged with finding Rhee’s replacement. Declares Frederick Hess, the school reform guru for the American Enterprise Institute, on his blog: “[School] reformers can pretty much pack it in.”
On one hand, it’s too early to conclude that Gray’s tenure is more likely to resemble that of the infamous Marion Barry or Gray’s onetime boss, Sharon Pratt Kelly — whose brief tenure was marked by fiscal mismanagement and an ignominious defeat at the hands of her notorious antecedent — than Gray’s more-recent predecessors, Fenty and Anthony Williams. One can at least say that Gray lacks the arrogant posture of Fenty, whose jerk behavior towards foes and friends alike doomed what had been certain re-election. More importantly, Gray, a technocrat whose most notable achievement up to now was presiding over D.C.’s dysfunctional city council, had been a backer of many of the very improvements initiated by Williams and Fenty that have made D.C. more attractive to (if not actually more livable for) middle-class families.
But given the District’s fiscal plight, the skepticism of young black and white professionals who are now a major force in local politics (and who generally backed Fenty and his school reform efforts), and the desire of his campaign supporters among the city’s ancien régime to return city government to the old corrupt order, Gray has little room to maneuver. Add to the mix the presence of congressional Republicans now back in control of the federal lower house, and the Obama Administration’s own desire to ensure that D.C. remains a shining example of school reform (and government management) success, and Gray’s margin of error slips to almost none. Gray will have to embrace the very reforms he criticized on the election trail — and take even more-radical measures — to keep the District from slipping back to the bad old days.
A NATIVE OF THE DISTRICT and a George Washington University graduate who was one of the first blacks to join the Jewish fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi, Gray got his start lobbying for the mentally retarded. He first became a player in D.C. politics in 1991 when then-Mayor Kelly appointed him to head the city’s oft-mismanaged Department of Human Services; he left three years later as Kelly was heading to defeat against Barry (whom residents returned to office despite his 1990 conviction for cocaine possession).
By 2004, Gray won a seat on D.C.’s city council by taking advantage of the anger directed at incumbent Kevin Chavous for backing the now-shuttered D.C. Opportunity voucher program and charter schools. He moved up to the presidency of the city council, taking control of a body better known as a political clown college than as a deliberative body. A colleague of Fenty’s on the council, Gray initially backed many of his efforts as mayor, including his takeover of D.C. Public Schools, whose abysmal graduation rates and low levels of student achievement made it the Superfund Site of American public education.
But by 2009, Fenty and Gray were barely speaking thanks to the mayor’s penchant for squabbling with the council. The fact that Fenty rubbed everyone else (including Barry and other corrupt old-school politicians) the wrong way, snubbed Dorothy Height (a doyenne of the city’s black elite), and wholeheartedly backed Rhee’s Churchillian school reform efforts (which offended the AFT and old-school politicians long used to the school district serving as a jobs program) also gave Gray an opportunity to advance his career. Backed by the city’s most ardent foes of reform, the city’s public employee unions and the AFT local, Gray defeated Fenty in a racially tinged mayoral campaign in which he declared that he would roll back the most offensive of his opponent’s initiatives.
But now, Gray is in a bind. The very government and school reform initiatives that Gray criticized during his campaign (despite initially supporting them) are the ones that have helped D.C. become a better place to live — and why the city’s population increased by 5.2 percent in the past decade after a 50-year decline. While the city is becoming less of a Chocolate City, it is also becoming more middle class and more affluent. Given its fiscal problems, the affluence (along with better schools) will be needed more than ever.
Gray has already declared that he wants to avoid tax increases. But cutting spending may mean layoffs of the very public employees who supported his election. Nor is he getting much help from his former colleagues on the council, who can’t seem to agree on whether the city in fiscal trouble in the first place. Some of the solutions may lie with the very school reform tools Rhee has put in place. Thanks to a new contract with the AFT which all but ends the use of reverse seniority in layoffs, and most notably IMPACT, the teacher performance management system Gray wants to disassemble, the city can save money by handing walking papers to expensive laggard veteran teachers and poor-performing new hires.
Gray refuses to offer anything concrete on what he will do in the coming days. He scoffed at Washington Examiner columnist Jonetta Rose-Barras demand that he offer a plan for his first 100 days in office, saying: “Why don’t we have a 200-day plan?” He may need something more than that. Besides the short-term fiscal problems, there is the city’s defined-benefit pension funds, whose costs are spiraling out of control. The city is expected to shell out $130 million to keep up pension payments this year, a nearly two-fold increase over 2010; given that the valuations for the pensions were last updated in 2008 (just as the financial markets collapsed), the $103 million surplus will likely turn into a deficit.
Gray will face his biggest test in the coming months as the District searches for Rhee’s fulltime replacement to run the such district. Given how he essentially ran Rhee out of the job, few reformers will want to take her place. The candidate most likely to continue Rhee’s efforts would be her protégé, Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who has already been backed for the job by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and many school reformers. But given Gray’s need to keep the AFT in his corner (and the wrongheaded decision to put new union president Saunders on the search committee), keeping Henderson may not even be a possibility.
Gray may turn out to be as good as Williams, if not better. But chances are that even Gray’s supporters may long for Fenty by the time Gray’s tenure is over.