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‘Ray’ of hope for D.C. Council?

Challenger takes on Mendelson

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2010

Clark Ray has worked for Bill Clinton, Al and Tipper Gore, and D.C. Mayors Anthony A. Williams and Adrian M. Fenty. As he goes door to door and runs from forum to forum in the race for an at-large D.C. Council seat, he informs voters of his Democratic pedigree.

But Mr. Clark doesn't flaunt it and prefers for voters to look at his record and his proposals to improve D.C.'s quality of life because "this isn't just a city," he says. "This is the capital of the Free World."

By the Sept. 14 primary, the former bureaucrat and schoolteacher has to set himself apart from typical D.C. politicians, who rarely step aside voluntarily after two or three terms. A first-time candidate, Mr. Ray has won straw polls and endorsements from prominent Washingtonians, and he is hoping to raise significant funding before heading into the stretch.

Right now, he is wedged between two other well-known Democrats — three-term incumbent Phil Mendelson and "shadow senator" Michael D. Brown, who lobbies for congressional representation.

Between sips of Coke and bites of a BLT at Trio Restaurant in Dupont Circle, this child of the South who loves neck bones and greens discusses his roots, his passion for public service, his accomplishments and his campaign platform.

Mr. Ray is a lieutenant, the kind of leader who gets things done, and he cites investments in human capital and recreation centers among his accomplishments as a D.C. official.

"You have to understand, I couldn't even buy a toothpick without getting someone to sign off," he said. "There were no warranties" on mechanical and electrical systems. "There was mold in [some] restrooms. I got employees certified.

"To fix the lights in swimming pools, they would drain the pool," he said, making it "unavailable to residents."

In a city like Washington, where conservative politics is a four-letter word, Mr. Ray says his transition from the national to a local scene was practically seamless. "I learned from two of the best, Bill Clinton and Al Gore."

He shares something else in common with both of those politicians. Like countless Washington power brokers and wannabes, Mr. Ray hails from somewhere else — in his case, an Arkansas county near the Louisiana border, where oil and catfish were king.

"We used to catch all the catfish we could," he said. "My dad was a pipe fitter, and my mother a substitute teacher. Everything — we either grew it or built it."

Racial segregation was a fact of life in Union County, Ark., where young Clark graduated from Smackover High School and had to slip across railroad tracks to visit his best friend, who was black.

"My dad was a racist," Mr. Ray said matter-of-factly. "I had to cross the railroad tracks to visit Tony."

When the two Southerners ran for the White House in 1992, Mr. Ray jumped into politics, working for the campaign, eventually landing jobs with the Clinton administration and, later, the 2000 Gore campaign.

As a campaign scheduler for Tipper Gore, Mr. Ray knew that collegially getting things done — and done on time — were trademarks of successful appointees. He dovetailed those honed skills as director of neighborhood services for the Williams administration and as parks and recreation chief for the Fenty administration.

Mr. Ray says he likes getting into the weeds of various communities and delivering to constituents the recreation facilities and government services they want and deserve.

His successful weeding efforts are part of the reason why Mr. Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray can tout new and modernized parks and recreation centers during their own campaign stump speeches — and Mr. Ray says he wants to improve on his own record and bring ordinary folk into the fold at City Hall.

Mr. Ray says he would be a good fit as, say, chairman of the council's government operations committee.

"We're going to focus on transparency of the budget and policy," he said. "You've got to include those whom you service in the entire process."

Mr. Ray's endorsers and fundraisers stretch from one corner of the city to the other and reflect the broad base needed in a citywide campaign: Mrs. Gore, for whom he also served as chief of staff; former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright; Dorothy Ford, mother of former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., Tennessee Democrat; D.C. Council member Jack Evans; Cora Masters Barry; the Rev. Willie Wilson; and activist Greg Rhett.

He also has the backing of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, a national network that helps fund coffers for gay candidates. If elected, Mr. Ray would join two other gay lawmakers on the council.

There are no complexities in his campaign platform, he says.

Mr. Ray says his motivation comes from the trenches — removing dead rodents, fixing aged facilities, filling potholes, formulating legislation, policies and budgets, and working hand-in-hand with city employees and contractors to get things done.

Now this man from the Bible Belt is asking voters from Anacostia to Georgetown to grant him a different public service privilege. To make his pitch, Mr. Ray says he often has to show a photo of Mr. Mendelson to voters so they know who he's running against.

But whether he's canvassing the citys bleaker neighborhoods or its toniest ones, Mr. Ray always delivers a simple message: "I tell them, 'I want to work for you.'"

He says he is struck by the anti-incumbency mood that is playing itself out in national and local politics, but he's not taking anything for granted.

"If you're good, you should move up," said Mr. Ray. "Public service is not an entitlement."

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