The State of the Union of DC: An Interview With Mayor Vincent Gray

The city’s mayor finally ’fesses up to having a special someone and responds to claims that he’s “embattled.”

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Mayor Gray at his office. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

More than a year ago, just before he was inaugurated, I did a 45-minute interview with mayor-elect Vincent Gray. It covered all the usual bases but ended in a highly unusual way: He spun me around in a spontaneous demonstration of hand dancing, his favorite pastime. During that interview, Gray seemed just a bit defensive about the expectations loaded on him as the successor to Adrian Fenty, who was a charismatic leader but failed to connect with the voter base he needed—the very base who elected Gray. The year since has been a tough one for the mayor, though he won’t say so himself. Tuesday afternoon he invited me to his office for a “State of the Union of DC” interview. What struck me was his apparent self-confidence, polish, ease in the job. No defensiveness now. We did the interview with no handlers, no tape recorders—just the two of us and photographer Erik Uecke. 

We started with the day’s news of Flip Saunders being fired as the Wizards’ head coach, news we were breaking to the mayor.

What do you think of the firing of Flip Saunders?

I’m learning it from you but I’m not at all surprised. The team has gotten off to a really poor start. I saw the opening game of the season. I really questioned the chemistry of the team. It seemed like they had a prescription for losing. A lot is being asked of John Wall, but a point guard can’t carry an entire team. Yeah, I think they need a fresh start.

The last time we did an interview, it ended with us dancing. Do you still feel like dancing?

Absolutely. Dancing is a great form of recreation and a great way to establish and sustain relationships with people.

Do you have a special someone you dance with? 

Actually, I don’t. I go to places where they have hand dancing, and I find partners there. 

What I’m really asking, I think, is do you have special someone in your life? 

Yes. Linda Greene. 

Does she like to hand dance? 

I’ve never hand danced with her. I don’t even know if she knows how. For people who aren’t from DC it doesn’t come easy.

Where is she from?

[Pause] I think it’s Newport News, Virginia. 

Travel and Leisure magazine just ranked America’s rudest cities, and DC came in third, behind New York and Miami. Since we know NY and Miami are rude, there must be some truth about DC. Why are we getting called out like that?

It is an unfair characterization. I think the people of DC are quite affable. DC is a busy place, with people trying to get from one place to the other. I think them being focused is mistaken as rude. We’re also the hippest city in America and the fastest-growing state in America, based on the most recent census report. From 2000 to 2010 we grew from 570,000 to 601,000, but then in the 15 months immediately thereafter we grew to almost 618,000. That’s a gain of about 17,000 people in 15 months.

Do you take credit for that?

I think the whole city should take credit for that. These kinds of things have to be viewed as occurring over time. You can go back to the Anthony Williams administration; those who preceded me have to be given credit, as well.

Would you say you’ve been treated fairly by the Washington media?

There are some instances where we’ve been treated fairly and others where we’ve been treated unfairly. Certainly there are days I look at an issue and the way it was handled and think it should have been handled differently. I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the things we’ve done well. I have focused on the things I said I would focus on when I ran for office—if you go back and compare [with] what I said I would do, that is precisely what we have focused on, and we’ve accomplished a great deal based on those priorities.

On February 11 you will be hosting a so-called “One City Summit” at the Convention Center. What is it, and what do you hope to achieve?

It is one of the most tangible forms of participatory democracy, a great way of getting people from all sectors of the city to see that we are in touch with the priorities of the city. Also [it helps] craft our next budget for the next fiscal years, focusing on the things that are important to people. We want to get their views on how to get jobs, on public education, citizen services. I want to leave there feeling we’ve got our finger on the pulse of the city. 

How many people will be there?

As of yesterday we had 940 people registered to come. I hope we get 1,500 registered to assure we have 1,000 people there.

Can anyone attend and speak at the summit? Can the public ask questions about any subject?

Yes, they will be able to speak, but we won’t have speeches. It will be focused on subject matters and stay focused on those subject matters. It will be interactive. And people will be able to interact with me. I love to do that.

It’s been a little more than a year since Michelle Rhee was replaced as school’s chancellor. What grade do you give DC education overall, and Kaya Henderson in particular? 

I would give us a B-minus. Kaya has been a wonderful addition, helping us build on education reform. She’s focused on getting a standard curriculum, building the work force, getting capable teachers and capable principals in each of our schools. She continues to work with us on school modernization. 

Did Rhee leave a legacy?

Certainly. She will always be known as the first chancellor to be able to have the latitude that previous superintendents didn’t have. That will endure over time.

Is there a benchmark you’re aiming for by the time of the next mayoral race, where you can measure progress in the schools and know whether you have succeeded or failed?

No; I don’t want to set a benchmark. It’s too complex for us to set one indicator. We want to look at dropout rates, truancy rates, graduation rates, and obviously proficiency in areas like reading and math. Also enrollment growth. I particularly want to look at the area of special education. It is a huge part of our budget, and I don’t believe with the money we spend that we’ve done as much as we could for children with disabilities. 

How do you personally reach out to students?

I have a youth town hall meeting once a month. One of the things we talked about [at a past meeting] was whether we should look at formalizing a way that students can evaluate teachers. It would be wonderful to give students that kind of voice.

From the statistics I’ve had access to, it appears violent and property crimes are down across the District. Is that a big pat on the back for Chief Cathy Lanier and her management, or is the culture of crime in Washington changing?

I think it’s both. I’m a huge fan of Chief Lanier. I’m delighted to have her as chief of police. Homicide is down by 18.2 percent in 2011. We had the lowest number of homicides in 48 years in the District. I think it’s also a function of people having changed their expectations, and are internalizing our thinking about community policing and recognizing how citizens can play a role in stopping and solving crimes. One of the most important statistics we had was a 95.4 percent closure rate on solving homicides. That’s compared with about 56 percent nationally. So many crimes are retaliatory. What we’re seeing is that we’re solving these crimes quickly and taking out the issue of retaliation. We’ve also made it a lot easier for people to interact with the police.

Do you want to see more cops on the beat?

We are going to have more cops on the beat. We’ve made a commitment to hire 300 more police officers this year, 180 of whom will replace those who are leaving. So that’s a net increase of 120 new police officers. That, again, helps people feel safer. At the same time it will encourage more citizens to participate. We were out at Shepherd Park last night, where they’ve had an increase in armed robberies. We wanted people to know we were there and responsive. We had the deputy mayor, the chief of police, other members of our administration. People have to have confidence in public leadership.

But last year more than 20 DC police officers were charged with crimes. What do you say to that? 

There is no explanation except it has to be dealt with quickly and decisively. We have to make others realize it will not be tolerated and that [members of the police force] have to uphold the oath.

Where are the city’s neediest and are they being taken care of?

We know that poverty rates continue to be the highest on the east end of the city, in wards 5, 7 and 8. One of the things we have focused on is getting people back to work, on jobs and being better equipped to have a job. We’re in a changing economy. We’ve been in a recession three and a half years. A lot of the jobs that existed before the recession are not going to come back. We have to have a retrained work force. We have a program, One City/One Hire. It was formed to serve as a bridge between those who need a job and those who have a job to fill. It’s actually working quite well. As of yesterday we had 442 firms that had signed on to be partners with us and we placed 1,840 people with jobs, with another 300 to 340 expected to be placed in the next weeks. 

The bigger challenge is making education work in this city, so more and more of our kids come out of school with marketable skills.

Do the city’s hospitals meet the needs of residents? Would you encourage a facility like Georgetown University, which wants to expand, to do so, or would you encourage the building of new hospitals in Washington?

What I’m interested in is a real health care system. Hospitals by definition are the back end of a health-care problem. People have to have options to address their health before they show up in an emergency room. I think we have one of the finest hospital systems in the country, but there is some disparity. The East End is not as well developed as elsewhere. I want to get the east end more committed to preventive health and primary care services. But the people have to be there for the services to develop. We will be opening a new clinic in Anacostia in 60 days.

Fourteenth Street has been revived beautifully. H Street, Northeast, is coming along. What do you see as the next hot neighborhood?

There’s no question that we’ll continue to work on NoMa, which is rapidly developing; the Southwest waterfront area is rapidly developing; the Ball Park District. We’re now working on an economic development strategy for Ward 8. We want to develop the east side of the St. Elizabeth’s campus. The federal government has the west side.

Do you feel your administration works effectively with developers to make sure they put community first?

We work very closely with the development community. We have a dynamic deputy mayor for development, Victor Hoskins. I meet often with the development community. I meet with all their associations. So they understand my commitment; they know they have access to me. The developers have actually come together, investing resources in our five-year economic plan.

Do you keep a mental list of developers you feel are good for DC and those you feel don’t have the city’s best interests as priority number one?

I think we all know those who have done a good job, and we pay attention to them and want to continue to work with them. 

News reports about your first year often identify you as the ‘embattled’ mayor of Washington. Do you feel embattled?

No. I certainly think the issues that came up early were ones we didn’t anticipate happening, and we had to deal with them. And we did. Go back—what we promised to fulfill, we did.

How do you feel about grassroots effort by one group to have you recalled as mayor?

I think it’s unwarranted. I looked at the statement that person [Frederick Butler] wrote. It’s gibberish to me. Is the job being done? Yes. I’m doing the job the voters elected me to do.

After the Sulaimon Brown episode, you said you would clean up city hiring practices. Has that been done significantly and to your satisfaction? 

Absolutely. The hiring practices we used, the background checks, were the ones that existed. We have substantially strengthened those with much more extensive checks into the backgrounds of people. I brought in a new director of human resources. We’ve got some good people who work for this administration. Our deputy mayors, our department directors, our agency heads. Very talented people.

It can’t be fun or comfortable knowing you are being investigated by the US Attorney’s office and the FBI. Have they given you an indication of when the probe will be completed and a report issued?

No. I think this is their timetable. I recognize that this is painstaking, and we continue to do our jobs as they do theirs.

Do you sleep well at night?

I do.

If they find that any crimes were committed, or even incriminating practices, would you resign?

I think we’ll face whatever the results are when they come.

What’s the worst the report could say?

I don’t know. That’s up to them.

Is Darrell Issa [Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s DC subcommittee] a friend or a foe of DC?

I work very well with Darrell Issa. He came to a hearing last spring that focused on District budget issues. We worked closely with him on the District’s right to have budget autonomy. My relationship with him has been very constructive.

Would you rather have the Democrats running the House and overseeing the city? 

I want people in these positions to recognize the District’s autonomy.

Do you plan to run for reelection in 2014?

I haven’t even thought about it. We’re one year in, and that’s a long way down the road.

Are you having fun?

I love the city. I was born and raised here. There is no greater honor than serving the city. This is a tough and challenging job. . . . 

But are you having fun?

 Yes.