Vince Gray is eyeing a run for his old job as D.C. mayor. Having passed on the Democratic primary, Gray’s only option at this point is to run as an independent. Despite what would be an uphill fight in the overwhelmingly Democratic city, don’t count him out.
But don’t count him in just yet either.
While Gray believes he can win, the 75-year-old former mayor must weigh another consideration: Is he prepared to endure another round of attacks from theWashington Post, which went to great lengths to defeat him four years ago.
Gray is a proud man, not the type to back down. But he says subconsciously he may be asking himself, “Do you want to go through this again?”
In 2010 Gray challenged Post favorite Adrian Fenty, the young incumbent mayor. “How dare me have the nerve… to run against the anointed one,” Gray said in his Council office. (Gray won back his old Council seat two years ago.)
Gray likely would have beaten Fenty fair and square, but his victory was aided by $650,000 in undisclosed, illegal contributions.
It was Ron Machen, the former U.S. Attorney for D.C. – hailed by the Post as “St. Ron” and “D.C.’s person of the year” – who investigated this “shadow campaign.” While Machen’s investigation led to seven guilty pleas, Gray, who denied knowledgeof the shadow campaign, was never charged. (A new U.S. Attorney quietly brought the five-year investigation to a close in December 2015, once Gray was out of office.)
The Post yearned for a Gray indictment, the surest way to rid themselves of the mayor. “A war of words won’t do. A court of law is better,” proclaimed Post columnist Colbert King.
Unable to get Gray indicted, the Post turned to its home turf: the court of public opinion. Over the next three years the newspaper relentlessly attacked Gray over his past campaign to ensure he wouldn’t win his next one.
“They had an agenda,” former Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies said of the Post. “And the agenda was to smear Gray and make him unelectable.”
‘Charges should be brought now’
As the 2014 primary election neared, Mayor Gray maintained his lead over his new chief challenger, Muriel Bowser. The Post, meanwhile, stepped up its attacks.
Anti-Gray editorials, already commonplace, started running multiple times a week, then daily. In the nine days leading up to the start of early voting the Post ran an incredible seven editorials targeting Gray. (The Post didn’t respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.)
It wasn’t just the editorial page getting in on the action.“Charges should be brought now — before D.C. voters head to the polls,” wrote Colbert King. “Just get on with it.”
While Machen didn’t bring charges against Gray, he did the next best thing. On the Monday before early voting began, with the FBI and IRS at his back and a bank of TV cameras in front, Machen all but said he would indict Gray over the 2010 shadow campaign.
Rather than condemn this electoral interference – as the Post would do two years later when it hurt their preferred presidential candidate – the newspaper gave its stamp of approval in dramatic fashion.
The morning after what some call “Machen Monday,” Gray’s ‘guilt’ was splashed across the Post’s front page “in type large enough for declarations of war,” noted housing organizer Jim McGrath. Accompanying the Post’s banner headline was an explicit call for voters to reject Gray should he refuse to do the honorable thing and drop out of the race.
Almost overnight Gray’s eight-point lead vanished.
“I don’t know if they did it willfully,” Gray said. But “it was clear that the Post was on the same page with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”
“To some in our city, I’m just another corrupt politician from the other side of town,” Gray said in his “State of the District” address the day after the “Machen Monday” press conference.
“That’s ludicrous,” said Gray, who integrated an all-white fraternity system when he was a student at George Washington University. “If you know anything about me, I’ve never played the race card.”
Ironically the Post may have been the one dog whistling to its white readers.
When Gray received the endorsement of former Mayor Marion Barry, the Post’s Dana Milbank dismissed Barry as an “old race warrior” and mocked the ailing man’s slurred speech. (Barry would only live another eight months.) The story opened:
“Embattled Washington Mayor Vincent Gray called in a notorious predecessor, Marion Barry, to prop up his reelection campaign Wednesday afternoon. Gray got exactly what he deserved.”
The Post appeared to be dog-whistling once again when the newspaper wrote that Gray may have “a secret weapon” in the “growing ex-prisoner vote,” implying Gray’s efforts to reach a disenfranchised population were purely political.
This Post story, like many others, failed to mention that Gray spent his career working with the disenfranchised, such as adults with disabilities and homeless youth; and only ran for office in his sixties.
The Post’s election-eve hounding was so relentless that when Gray stopped at McDonald’s, Post reporter Tom Jackman called him “Mayor McSleaze” on Twitter. (Jackman later claimed he meant to say, “Mayor McCheese.”)
The Post’s attacks were “absolutely horrid,” Gray said. “It was a devastating experience from a professional and a personal point of view.”
Ultimately the Post’s and Machen’s efforts proved too much and Gray lost to Bowser by 11 points.
Machen vs. Comey
Interestingly, it wasn’t long before the Post changed its view on law enforcement interference in elections. In the waning days of the 2016 presidential election, when FBI Director James Comey reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton, who the Post supported, the newspaper quickly condemnedhis action.
Comey, wrote Dana Milbank, “is essentially proposing a political death sentence for Clinton without providing the charges.” “[T]his politicization of law enforcement… is sickening,” the Post stated in an editorial headlined “Can anyone control the FBI?”
Where was this strong language two years earlier when Machen, just as Comey later would, made accusations absent charges on the eve of an election? “Can anyone control the U.S. Attorney’s Office?” was not a question the Post asked. Nor was “sickening” how the Post described Machen’s attempt to carry out “a political death sentence” on Gray. Rather than condemn Machen, the Post cheered him on.
So what’s the difference between the actions of Machen and Comey? “It’s only bad when we don’t like the candidate to whom it’s done… That’s the message” the Post is sending, said Thies. “It’s like one didn’t happen. We don’t think our readers have memories.”
In 2016 the Post condemned, in addition to Comey, an “irresponsible” Fox News anchor. Why? Because “[w]ithout any substantiation whatsoever” he “declared an ‘avalanche’ of evidence is ‘coming every day’ and… would lead ‘to likely an indictment’” of Clinton.
But rewind the clock two years and the Post’s coverage of Gray looks similar, if not more “irresponsible.” Machen “has enough evidence to indict the mayor,” Post columnist Robert McCartney claimed ahead of the election. This was only the latest salvo from McCartney, who previously called Gray “a liar” and incorrectly predicted he would “have to resign in disgrace” and may be headed “to prison.”
Neither McCartney or the Post has offered an apology to Gray or an explanation to readers for their irresponsible coverage. For the Post, it’s like the whole thing never happened; “We don’t think our readers have memories,” as Thies put it.
But Gray remembers. “There were days when I said to myself, ‘I’m sure this will just fade into the ether at some point.’ It hasn’t. And it never will.”
Whether Gray is up for another run for mayor, and another round with the Post, remains to be seen.