Whether or not ethics overshadow accomplishments is a question many in the District of Columbia are asking with regard to Vince Gray's first year as Mayor. There is no question that Gray got off to a bad start. Some unfortunate hires including his first Chief of Staff, who made things worse by hiring what seemed like every friend's kid. It played into what many said would happen, a return to the Marion Barry days of patronage and friends getting benefits.
The public quickly forgot that former Mayor Fenty hired his fraternity brothers, gave them some very questionable contracts and tried to install unqualified friends on Boards and Commissions. Be that as it may, Gray was wrong and his problems were compounded by the Sulaimon Brown fiasco. While we wait for the U.S. Attorney to determine whether any criminal charges will be filed against anyone in these cases, criminal or not they were stupid and the Mayor rightfully took responsibility.
The result of these missteps was seen last week in a newly released poll showing the Mayor's popularity down to 34% and indicating he would lose today not only to Fenty but to former Mayor Anthony Williams. Since neither has shown any inclination to run again this polling against non-existent candidates is a little specious, but there is no doubt that Gray's popularity has taken a strong hit.
It would be a miracle if it hadn't. During the first year of his administration the Washington Post found it hard to write a story or editorial about him without bringing up the ethics issues, even when writing about something good he had done or someone else's problems. They were joined by the preponderance of the other media in town in doing that. These ethics issues are legitimate fodder for news but it clearly made it more difficult to get across the positive things that have been accomplished. The Mayor has also had a difficult time sharing a succinct vision for the District's future and clearly his "One City" mantra, while important, isn't the clarion call people are looking for.
Despite these problems the District of Columbia isn't going backwards but rather outpacing many other cities in its forward momentum. The Mayor recently hired a new Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff as well as a new Communications Director and it appears they are already making strides in seeing that the good things this administration has accomplished are getting out to the public. As someone recently said, "that is why there are four year terms."
The Washington Post recently reported that city services, which have improved dramatically since the '90s, have continued to improve in the past five months of the Gray administration. This is crucial to people's everyday lives. City response times for everything from filling a pothole to replacing a street light to picking up garbage, have all improved. Where there used to be many hour waits to have your car inspected recently people have done it in about 20 minutes. Business in the District over the last year is booming. Billions of dollars of investments are pouring in. Agreement has been reached to build six Walmart stores, most in chronically underserved areas, and a new Trader Joe's will be opening in the busy 'U' street corridor. Microsoft is about to sign a contract to build a research lab. In a recent Washington Business Journal interview with the mayor, Michael Niebauer reported that there is about $11 billion in the pipeline for projects through 2015 and when pressed on whether the ethics issues were having an impact, Peter Corbett, CEO of D.C.'s iStrategy Labs, said, "As a business leader and tech community guy, I don't pay attention to what politicians are doing -- scandal or otherwise -- and I believe my peers are largely in the same boat with me on that."
DC was recently named the best place in the country to do business by MarketWatch and the census bureau reported that in the past 14 months the District's population has grown faster than that of any other State in the nation. Not too shabby for an administration that is still fighting its reputation on ethics.
Mayor Gray has reinvigorated the fight for Statehood, legislative and budget autonomy on the Hill. His commitment to continue former Mayor Fenty's signature issue, education reform, is moving ahead with renewed focus and for the first time includes early childhood education, charter schools and the new community college. Nearly 40% of DC students attend public charter schools.
There is a renewed focus on the HIV/AIDS crisis in the District with new testing programs and infection rates are starting to come down. There is a new treatment-on-demand program with rapid response for anyone testing positive. The summer jobs program for youth ran without a glitch and within budget and the city's budget was passed without the use of gimmicks or dipping into the reserve fund. The Mayor is also moving forward with programs that will make D.C. the greenest city in the nation.
So for all those who said the sky would fall if Vincent Gray was elected Mayor, we now have clear proof that it hasn't. The start of his second year in office will bring new tests for the Mayor. These include preparing another budget in difficult economic times, how he works with Congress, how he maximizes getting available federal funds, and how he communicates a vision for the future of the District to its residents. From all indications I have seen the forward momentum of the past year will continue.