- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 8, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has struggled so far to build relationships with the House’s new Republican majority, which could make it difficult to accomplish his top priorities given Congress‘ ultimate say over the capital city’s budget and laws.

Mr. Gray, a lifelong Democrat in a mostly Democratic city, came to the job with little experience working with Republicans or lobbying members of Congress. So far, he has held firm to his ideological stances in his appearances on Capitol Hill — some say to his detriment.

Shortly after taking office, Gray clashed with congressional Republicans over their desire to revive a private school voucher program. He found no common ground during a meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who introduced the bill, and the mayor later testified against it before a Senate committee.

Then came a flare-up with Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. As Mr. Gray was besieged by accusations of nepotism and cronyism, committee staffers began calling Gray aides and were unable to reach them, Mr. Issa said in a statement. The committee subsequently launched a full investigation that is ongoing. The Justice Department and the D.C. Council are also conducting probes.

And, the budget deal that averted a federal government shutdown included restrictions on how the city could spend funds. In protest, Mr. Gray and other D.C. leaders sat in a street in front of the U.S. Capitol and were handcuffed and hauled away in a police van.

The arrest gave the mayor a boost: He did a round of national media interviews, and it took attention away from his hiring scandals. But many say that over the long term, antagonizing Congress is the wrong approach.

“The city’s got to understand: At this point they have been taken for granted by the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party tends to be hostile. How do you change it? I don’t think you change it by sitting up there and getting arrested,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Northern Virginia Republican who fought for voting rights for the city. “To Republicans, this is so ‘60s. It’s a miscalculation, and they need a much more sophisticated way to communicate.”

Mr. Davis said he has tried to advise Mr. Gray, to little avail, describing the mayor’s top aides as “a pretty insular group.”

Some people say they don’t understand why the mayor wouldn’t take advantage of such an influential potential ally as Mr. Davis.

“If I were mayor, he’s one of the first I would reach out to,” said longtime D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. “For better or worse, Capitol Hill has a huge effect on how this city is operated.”

Mr. Gray and his aides say they are eager to work with Congress and that his meetings so far have been productive. The mayor acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press that his outreach efforts were sidetracked by the challenge of dealing with a potential federal shutdown, which could have paralyzed the city.

“We tended to focus on the very specific issues that were impacting us right away,” Mr. Gray said. “Some of the Republican relationships are in fact new, and I look at them as an opportunity and not an obstacle.”

At least one of Mr. Gray’s new relationships appears to have paid off. Rep. Trey Gowdy, S.C. Republican who chairs the oversight subcommittee that handles D.C. issues, met with Mr. Gray in his office and came away impressed.

“In the five months that I’ve known him, he’s gone out of his way to be a gentleman,” Mr. Gowdy said. “Do I anticipate us being able to work together? I do.”

When Mr. Gowdy called an unusual hearing of his subcommittee to examine the city budget, many expected it to be contentious. But it turned out to be cordial, and Mr. Issa surprised many by suggesting a bill that would give the city more freedom to spend its local tax dollars in the event of future federal shutdowns.

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