News & Politics

Vince Gray Faces Rough Crowd in First Debate Since Announcing Re-election Run

Gray picked a hostile auditorium for his campaign debut.

Seven mayoral candidates showed up to a forum on education policy. Council member Muriel Bowser skipped it. Photograph by Benjamin Freed.

Mayor Vince Gray got a rough lesson Monday night when he faced down the people trying to get his job for the first time at a debate on education. The union that represents DC’s public school teachers really don’t like Gray anymore, and spent the better part of an hour slamming every explanation the mayor gave of his education policy.

It was probably not the best campaign debut for Gray, who spent the evening at Eastern High School defending his DC Public Schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, who has displaced her predecessor Michelle Rhee as the Washington Teachers Union chief bogeyman.

Henderson, Gray said, “is somebody who is flexible to move in directions that need to be moved in.” Gray tried to say more, but he was cut off by a bell and jeered back to his seat. And that was just the first question of the night from a group of union leaders who served as moderators without ever trying to quiet the audience the way a teacher might shush a rowdy classroom.

Other candidates fared better by attacking Gray, as Council member Tommy Wells did when he criticized DCPS’ closure of nine elementary schools since Gray took office, or Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal did when bashing charter schools as a “consumer idea of education where you go shopping.”

But the best strategy to win the evening came from Christian Carter, a 30-year-old city personnel contractor waging a longshot bid, who lathered up the crowd by not only dissing Henderson, but questioning the need for her position altogether. “How many of us really need a chancellor?”

If anyone had it worse than Gray, it was Council member Jack Evans, who was drowned in boos and catcalls whenever he attempted to defend the mayoral control system adopted in 2007. Not even a pledge to review the system of performance assessments DCPS uses to evaluate its teachers quelled the audience. But the strongest jeers were reserved for Gray.

Gray won in 2010 in part due to an endorsement from the Washington Teachers Union, which embraced him after three years of the schools being run by Rhee. Education policy was so politicized that year, Rhee was even hitting campaign events for then-Mayor Adrian Fenty by the end of the race. Gray’s campaign manager Chuck Thies said he has no plans to put Henderson in that position in 2014.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.