Residents of the nation’s capital may have thought they’d outgrown the scourge of a crack-using mayor and high murder rates, of exploding manhole covers and crumbling schools. But an embarrassing corruption scandal further threatens to tarnish the city’s burnished image and could topple its new leadership.
A federal probe into Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign has snared three of his aides, and news that some close advisers helped orchestrate an illegal shadow campaign could force him from office. Three city council members have called on Gray to step down.
The city already is reeling from leadership changes. One council member, Harry Thomas Jr., just began a three-year prison term for stealing $353,000 in taxpayer money slated for poor kids. And, in an entirely separate corruption probe, the council president, Kwame Brown, stepped down last month after pleading guilty to federal charges of falsifying mortgage documents.
Piled on top of the other bad news: The regional utility, Pepco, took a week to fully restore electricity after a massive thunderstorm left thousands sweltering earlier this month. The city learned this summer it has one of the worst HIV infection rates in the country, particularly among African-American women in the poorest neighborhoods. And the Metro transit system hiked its fares for the third time in five years.
The scandals suggest a systemic culture of cronyism and self-dealing in city government that threatens to overshadow the other Washington, which had been making progress remaking its image since the lows, such as when former Mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack with a prostitute in a hotel room in 1990 and uttered the infamous words, “Bitch set me up.”
The city’s population is growing for the first time since the 1950s. The murder rate is at its lowest since 1963, a federal government workforce has been largely immune to recession, young professionals are transforming neighborhoods into trendy entertainment destinations and affluent parents in some neighborhoods are once again considering sending their children to D.C.’s public schools.
“The complicated part of today’s story is that the city is really a great city,” said Tom Lindenfeld, a political consultant who helped elect Gray’s predecessor, Adrian Fenty.
“The city is a place where people are moving back to, and want to live in the city,” Lindenfeld said. “It’s a hot place, a place that’s doing well financially. You see construction across the city, all over the place. People are putting their kids back into the public school system. People are moving back from the suburbs because they don’t like the commute.”
Despite the gains, locals are fed up – particularly those who watched Gray campaign for a more transparent government, and who disapproved of Fenty’s aloof leadership style that included allies such as the union-battling schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee.
“Seems like same old, same old, just a different mayor,” said Joy Parker, 31, a lifelong Washingtonian interviewed at the city’s iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street. “It’s the same pattern with every elected official. If he directly knew what was going on then overlooked it, then he shouldn’t be in office.”
News of the shadow campaign, which secretly supported a third candidate to siphon off support from Fenty, calls into question the legitimacy of the 2010 mayoral race.
“The mayor should resign for the goodwill of the city,” said Diego Tunstall, 42, interviewed near the U Street Metro station. “The election was corrupted and he was the ultimate winner of the election. Just for those reasons, he should resign.”
Federal investigators have been probing Gray’s campaign for more than a year. Already, three campaign aides to the Democratic mayor have pleaded guilty to financial misconduct. They include a public-relations executive, Jeanne Clarke Harris, who admitted this week to orchestrating the use of $653,000 from a powerful businessman to support the shadow campaign.
Gray has not been accused of a crime, and the mayor said he has no plans to step down. On a television call-in show Friday, he described his colleagues’ calls for him to resign as politically motivated.
"We hope this will come to a conclusion very soon," he said on a local news program.
Mo Elleithee, a national political consultant who made his first foray into city politics during Gray’s 2010 campaign, said he thought the mayor owes a more forthcoming explanation to the people who worked on his legitimate campaign – not to mention those who voted for him. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Elleithee and fellow consultant Steve McMahon said they hope the mayor was “just as unaware of it as the rest of us on the legitimate campaign were.”
"It was a betrayal of everything our campaign stood for," the two wrote. "It was a betrayal of the candidate by some people he trusted. And it was a betrayal of the voters who put their trust in our promise to change the way local government conducted business."
In an interview, Elleithee said it was "disheartening" how brazenly the shadow campaign worked. "I still want to believe he didn’t know about it," Elleithee said of Gray. "There’s a plausible scenario in my mind where he didn’t know about it."
Reform-minded city residents say there’s much to be done in the wake of the scandals, which will trigger at least one special election. The city has weak contracting regulations, poorly policed ethics laws and a culture where those in power think it’s acceptable to help out their friends, activists say.
Dorothy Brizill, who along with her husband runs DCWatch, a government watchdog Website, predicts the city will emerge from the crisis stronger.
"It’ll be unpleasant, it’ll be nasty," she said. "But in the end, I’m hopeful that the district itself will come out better, because it’s finally able to address these problems that have been lingering for 20 or 30 years."
Alex Kane Rudansky of the Washington Bureau contributed.