Mayor Vince Gray immediately becomes the candidate to beat, after announcing Monday he’s taking out petitions to run for reelection.
True, today’s formal announcement at the O Street Market was largely taken up by questions about the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 mayoral campaign. Four of Gray’s closest political aides have pleaded guilty to charges relating to the campaign, and US Attorney Ronald Machen has called it “corrupted” by concealed cash.
But Gray enters the race as an incumbent who has governed a city that has a healthy economy, a lowering unemployment rate, and a bureaucracy that functions well enough. He can use the perks and powers of his office to continue cutting ribbons on new playgrounds, as he did Monday on his home turf of Hillcrest in Ward 7.
No doubt there are voters who will not support Gray because they believe his election victory against Adrian Fenty was fraudulent. His approval rating hovers around 30 percent, a dismal number for an incumbent. But against a crowded field in the April 1 Democratic primary, 30 percent represents a decent base from which to run.
How best to run against Gray and nick his record in office?
Hammer him on ethics.
Council member Tommy Wells was first to go for Gray’s throat. “Mayor Gray let me and everyone in DC down when he ran a corrupt campaign in 2010 and brought a lack of ethics back into the mayor’s office,” he said in a statement. Wells has been running on his ethical purity for months; now he has a target.
Gray’s entry into the race also gives Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser a chance to attack him in person. The two do not like one another. Her race has lacked passion, in the eyes of many voters, and her antipathy for Gray might give her a chance to let it out. Look for Bowser to cast the race as Gray’s “old guard” versus her vision for DC’s future with a younger, fresher administration.
Jack Evans might be in a tough spot. The Ward 2 council member has been careful to not criticize Gray. Indeed, he’s been the mayor’s ally on the council. He will have to appeal to African-American voters disillusioned with the mayor and hope his deep experience attracts voters across the city.
Vincent Orange, the fourth council member in the race, has less chance of winning with Gray in the campaign. Don’t be surprised if he drops out.
Restaurateur Andy Shallal waited until the last minute to jump into the race, because he said he wouldn’t run if Gray entered the fray. So is he dropping out now?
“I am staying in,” Shallal says. Running against the crowd of incumbents, Shallal can drive home the anybody-but-them theme.
Gray has issues beyond the scent of corruption. Homicides are up in DC, while they are dropping in major cities nationwide. Violent crime is rising in some parts of the city. While police chief Cathy Lanier is popular, Gray is vulnerable on crime.
Gray is starting late. He might not have an easy time raising cash, especially since contributions into his 2010 coffers were tainted by $650,000 in unreported funds that were part of the “shadow campaign” still under investigation.
When asked about the investigation Monday, Gray responded, “I didn’t do anything.”
He will be asked that question daily for the next four months. Will enough voters buy his vapid explanation?
That’s the campaign’s central question.