Even before it became known as Chocolate City (CC), Washington, D.C. was a mecca for African Americans, home to Howard University, Duke Ellington, the Howard Theatre, civil service jobs and a thriving intellectual black middle class.
Even after the 1968 riots and a hard time for many commercial areas in town, D.C. made its way back and regained a certain panache – CC was the symbol of what could happen in an efficiently operating town run by a black political elite.
That all may soon change. Part of it is being driven by demographic changes in the city’s population, some of it by a series of political scandals, which first struck the City Council and now threatens to engulf the mayor’s office.
It wasn’t supposed to go down this way.
When Vincent Gray was elected mayor of Washington, D.C., in 2010, it was supposed to be a return to civility, to transparency, to government run with the best interests of citizens in mind.
Instead, Gray’s accomplishments have been overshadowed by corruption by campaign officials, including the operation of a “shadow campaign,” secretly spending money in excess of what is allowed by campaign finance laws.
His predecessor, Adrian Fenty, was turned out of office by voters, angered that the once earnest, driven young council member-turned-mayor had become arrogant and had lost the common touch, had overseen the steering of contracts to friends regardless of their qualifications (though he was later cleared of wrongdoing) and had appointed a highly controversial schools chancellor, hailed nationally as a change agent, but who produced questionable results in the city.
Then-Council Chairman Gray was seen as a change agent, a man with a reputation for efficiency and civility and the ability to build consensus. A reluctant candidate, Gray was pushed into the campaign by a grassroots groundswell. Even suburbanites hosted fundraisers to encourage his candidacy.
By the time Fenty figured out he was in trouble and tried to show a more contrite side, it was too little, too late.
Gray won handily, but by the time he took office in January 2011, storm clouds were forming.
Sulaimon Brown, a minor candidate who was highly critical of Fenty, said he was paid by Gray’s campaign to undermine the incumbent and was promised a job in the administration. Brown did get a job in the young Gray administration and was fired about a month later and Brown went public with his complaint.
In May, Thomas W. Gore, assistant treasurer of Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign, pleaded guilty to a felony count of obstruction of justice for shredding a spiral notebook that prosecutors have said contained a record of the payments. He also pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of making a contribution in someone else’s name.
Later that month, Howard Brooks, 64, a consultant to the Gray campaign’s treasury and financial teams pleaded guilty to providing funds to Brown, destroying evidence and obstructing the investigation into the case and of lying to FBI agents.
Last week, Jeanne Clark Harris, 75, a public relations consultant and longtime friend of Gray’s, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court, admitting she was involved in handling $650,000 from a prominent contractor in a shadow campaign operation, covering expenses in excess of what was allowed by campaign law.
Two days later, the mayor’s office announced that a campaign official reported that some campaign donations had been handled inappropriately.
Three council members have called for Gray’s resignation, a fourth, along with the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, have urged the mayor to explain to residents what has happened and how his administration can move past these distractions.
For his part, Gray says he has no intentions of resigning and that he’s going to continue running the city and concentrate on bringing jobs to D.C.
U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. told reporters last Tuesday that the corruption investigation was continuing and more charges were likely.
“The truth is going to come out in the end,” Machen said, “and it would be better for you to come forward on your own rather than wait for us to approach you.”
Under D.C. law, the Council president would become mayor if Gray steps down, which would make Phil Mendelson – who succeeded Kwame Brown who resigned in disgrace after pleading guilty to fraud charges – the first white mayor since the city won home rule in the 1970s.
Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm