WASHINGTON — Vincent Gray will seek a second term as District of Columbia mayor, settling a question that had hung over city politics for months.
Gray’s decision Monday set up a campaign that will force voters to weigh the prosperity achieved during the Democrat’s nearly three years in office against the crimes committed by several close associates to help get him elected in 2010.
A federal investigation of the 2010 campaign has been ongoing for most of Gray’s term. Four people who worked on the campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, two of them for helping to orchestrate and spend $653,000 in illicit funds on Gray’s behalf. Prosecutors called the effort a “shadow campaign” that tainted Gray’s victory over then-Mayor Adrian Fenty.
Gray maintained on Monday as he has throughout the probe that he did nothing wrong. He has refused to discuss the case in detail and declined to comment on whether he was running with the blessing of his attorney, Robert Bennett, who also declined to comment.
The mayor arrived late Monday afternoon at the D.C. Board of Elections to pick up nominating petitions and sign a declaration of candidacy. He has one month to collect 2,000 signatures to get his name on the ballot.
Gray is a late entry to the race, with the Democratic primary scheduled for April 1. The mayor said he waited until Monday because he wanted to give U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen as much time as possible to wrap up the investigation.
“I was hoping that all the 2010 stuff would be over,” Gray said. “It isn’t, and it will continue on however long the U.S. attorney chooses to investigate it. We have 30 more days to get our petitions in, and I wanted to make sure at least I had that opportunity.”
Some of Gray’s opponents have been running for the better part of a year. The mayor remained coy about his intentions for so long that many observers — including some of his supporters and potential rivals — assumed he had no intention of running.
The mayor appeared relaxed as he sat next to an elections board staffer to sign his paperwork, accompanied only by his campaign manager, Chuck Thies. He spoke only briefly to reporters and said he would formally launch his campaign early next year.
“There are lots of people who have prevailed on me to do this,” Gray said. “I really think that people feel the city is going in the right direction.”
Supporters maintain that after a rocky first few months in office, Gray has been a conscientious leader for a city that’s enjoyed declining violent crime, soaring property values, a rising population and improving schools. The mayor contends he has fulfilled his promises to shore up the city’s finances and make strides in education, public safety, economic development and environmental stewardship. He’s also been a forceful advocate for greater autonomy for the city, whose laws and policies are subject to review by Congress.
As the incumbent mayor of a thriving city, Gray should have no trouble raising enough money to compete, but many of his influential 2010 backers have abandoned him, and he will have to rebuild a campaign organization from scratch. His approval ratings tanked amid revelations of the “shadow campaign” and a scandal involving minor candidate Sulaimon Brown, who was paid by Gray campaign workers to stay in the race and make negative comments about Fenty.
Brown was rewarded with a $110,000-a-year job in the Gray administration but was fired in early 2011 after less than a month in the position. He then came forward with his allegations, which led to the federal probe. Two people pleaded guilty to paying Brown with Gray campaign funds and trying to cover up the transactions.
A Washington Poll in July 2012 put Gray’s approval rating at 29 percent and his disapproval rating at 59 percent.
Gray enters a crowded field of candidates with no obvious front-runner. Four D.C. councilmembers — Muriel Bowser, Jack Evans, Vincent Orange and Tommy Wells — are seeking the city’s highest office. Other Democratic candidates include former State Department official Reta Lewis and Iraqi-born restaurateur Andy Shallal.
“I’m disappointed,” Wells said of Gray’s decision to run. “I’d really hoped that we could turn the page on corruption in our elected government. The fact that Vince Gray won the election with a crooked campaign, he’s never explained to the public how that happened and what his role was.”
Bowser said she was convinced that “residents of the District of Columbia want a fresh start.”
Orange, who has clashed with Gray over compensation for low-wage workers, said voters have a clear choice.
“The major distinction is, I will leave no one behind,” Orange said. “The mayor has made clear that he’s pro-business at any cost.”
While the Democratic primary winner has gone on to be elected mayor in every election since the district was granted home rule in 1973, next year’s winner could face a credible general-election challenger. Independent Councilmember David Catania, who has not lost an election since he won his seat in 1997, is considering a run. As chairman of the council’s education committee, Catania has pushed ambitious legislation aimed at improving conditions for impoverished students.
The city has also never elected a white mayor. Evans, Wells and Catania are white. Fenty is biracial, and Gray, who is black, rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Fenty in the African-American community to victory in 2010.
A Washington native, Gray, 71, previously served as council chairman and a councilmember. He’s also run the city’s human services department and a faith-based group focusing on the homeless and at-risk youth.
Gray’s campaign manager, Thies, was not involved in his previous bid. He is a veteran of city politics who has run several campaigns, most recently D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham’s 2010 re-election bid. Since then, he has worked as a consultant and political commentator.
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