Mayor Gray’s Elaborate, Illegal Scheme to Steal the Election

Why DC deserves a do-over when it comes to electing a mayor.

By: Harry Jaffe

Perhaps it’s time to consider a do-over, another election for mayor. Would that we could toss Mayor Vince Gray and reinstall Adrian Fenty. Fenty—and the voters of DC—were robbed.

Tuesday’s court proceedings unveiled an elaborate, secret, and illegal scheme to swing votes to Gray. “Sinister,” US Attorney Ronald Machen called it. Gray and his crew stole the election, plain and simple. If not for the $653,000 that paid for a fundamental and effective get-out-the-vote operation, might Fenty have won?

The chattering classes say Fenty lost the office by his own mistakes, failures, and lack of political smarts. There’s ample evidence to support that conclusion. Fenty was always a young mayor on the run to fix stuff in the nation’s capital. In his haste to play hard within the government, he declined to play the outside game of politics.

Fenty’s takeover of schools was fraught with political risk. He confronted the teachers’ union, fired teachers, and closed schools. None of those moves was popular. He refused to play homage to DC’s established political groups. He gave the back of his hand to the DC Chamber of Commerce, the Federal City Council, and travel and hospitality associations. Called to a meeting or event, he would show up late and leave early. He loathed shaking hands and slapping backs. He made too many average Washingtonians feel as if they were a nuisance.

Still, many voters saw Fenty as an energetic and effective chief executive who was rebuilding schools and taking DC to a new level of competence. He could have built a winning narrative.

Three foul and ultimately corrupt enterprises helped weaken Fenty and bring him down.

First, Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr. led an investigation into contracting practices within the Fenty government. Thomas used his chairmanship of the parks and recreation committee to charge Fenty with steering $82 million in contracts to renovate recreation centers to his friends and fraternity brothers. Sounds juicy and corrupt. Except that it was neither. The council appointed an independent counsel to investigate, who absolved Fenty completely.

While he was harassing Fenty, Thomas was stealing more than $300,000 in funds meant to teach poor kids how to play sports. Thomas used public funds to buy fancy rides and take swell vacations. The feds caught him; he’s headed to the slammer.

Despite being absolved of any wrongdoing, Fenty bore the taint of corruption into the campaign. The mud stuck.

Second, operatives in Vincent Gray’s campaign paid another mayoral candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to harass Fenty at forums. Brown was good at it. A tall, thin, flamboyant fellow, Brown proved to be a potent weapon. I recall seeing him in action at the crucial forum in Ward 4, Fenty’s home base, at the height of the campaign. Brown would stand up in the midst of the debate, accuse Fenty of paying off his frat brothers, hurl epithets at him, and ask people to vote for Vince Gray, if not for him. I watched Fenty start the forum on message but slowly wilt with frustration. Gray was able to sit back with a Cheshire cat smile.

In hindsight, knowing that Gray’s closest aides were giving Brown envelopes of cash and money orders, I am revolted.

Now comes Jeanne Clarke Harris. At 75, wheeled into court in a chair Tuesday, Harris came across as a victim of the plot. “I’m just saying I don’t have a halo over my head,” she told the judge. But she did participate in an evil enterprise. She admitted to helping launder $38,000 in funds that reportedly came from wealthy contractor Jeffrey Thompson, who bundled the money and gave it to Gray’s campaign. None was disclosed to campaign authorities.

Whoever was directing the campaign was a pro. Documents made public in court revealed that the illicit contributions went to the building blocks of a successful voter drive. They bought signs and umbrellas, banners and lapel stickers and T-shirts. The Gray campaign used the dirty money to identify voters, convince them to vote for Gray, and drive them to the polls, in some cases.

Add it up: Convicted felon Harry Thomas, Jr. concocts and trumpets a conspiracy that Fenty steered contracts to friends. An independent counsel proves it false, but the fiction becomes a reality that Fenty must deny. Gray’s campaign pays Sulaimon Brown to wildly harass Fenty during the campaign. Then Gray’s campaign employs hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal, unreported funds to convince voters Gray is the “clean” candidate.

Gray was dirty. We were robbed.

Let’s leave aside who else might come to justice for criminal acts. Jeff Thompson, by many measures a pillar of the community, looks like toast. Everyone assumes Gray will be forced to resign, though federal investigators have yet to reveal whether he directed any aspects of the criminal enterprises. More people will go to jail.

That’s cold comfort for a city whose last election is looking to have been more of a coup d’etat.