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

Why DC deserves a do-over when it comes to electing a mayor.
Former mayor Adrian Fenty passing the city seal to new mayor Vince Gray in 2011. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Former mayor Adrian Fenty passing the city seal to new mayor Vince Gray in 2011. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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