Before Mayor Vince Gray launched into an hour-long speech about the city's progress and the policies he'd like to enact, he cast the 2014 mayoral election as a binary choice. Residents, Gray said at the opening of his annual State of the District address, can pick him and his record, or the word of Jeffrey Thompson, who pleaded guilty Monday to financing "shadow campaigns" on behalf of numerous politicians, including Gray.
Gray, reeling from Thompson's hearing Monday, during which federal prosecutors alleged for the first time that the mayor had direct involvement in under-the-table payments to help win the 2010 mayoral election, asked a packed auditorium at Kelly Miller Middle School in Northeast DC to compare him, a longtime public servant, to an admitted felon at the heart of a three-year federal investigation.
"So I ask you, who do you believe?" Gray asked. "A greedy man attempting to save himself, or me, a public servant who has dedicated his entire career to giving back to our communities?"
Many in the crowd, coming from Gray's stronghold of Ward 7, shouted back, "You!" But at least one person blurted out "Uncle Earl," a reference to the nickname prosecutors say Thompson asked Gray and his confidantes to use in order to conceal his support.
And Gray admitted that with Thompson's guilty plea and US Attorney Ron Machen pledging to continue investigating people tied to Thompson, he could be losing support among some voting blocs—specifically, those in wealther, whiter neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River.
"To some in our city, I’m just another corrupt politician from the other side of town," Gray said. " I’m not some caricature drawn up by an eager press corps; I’m a person. I say this to all of you now, clearly and unequivocally: I didn’t break the law."
Gray then pivoted to his record as mayor, taking credit for a falling unemployment rate, more stable city finances, and the sometimes defiant stance he took against the federal government during last year's shutdown. He also tried to brush off the notion that he inherited a city on an upward swing created by former mayors Adrian Fenty and Anthony Williams. Gray mentioned major projects like CityCenter, and the $702 million that Qatar's soverign wealth fund invested, and the re-opening of the Howard Theatre.
"That's not coasting; it's leadership," Gray said.
The mayor also announced a few new proposals, including paid parental leave for city employees, a $116 million increase in funding for DC Public Schools, and $100 million for affordable housing on top of the $187 million the pledged last year.
But even as Gray touts his administration's achievements and tries to divert attention from the goings-on at Machen's office, the mayoral race and the continued fallout from Thompson's guilty plea won't be that distant. While Gray breaks ground tomorrow morning on the new Skyland Town Center in Ward 7, the future home of a Walmart and 480 apartments, Council member David Catania will be across town launching his independent campaign for mayor.