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D.C. mayor navigates unfamiliar territory on Hill

- 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.

Mr. Gowdy said the mayor later called him and thanked him for the way the hearing was conducted.
The new mayor has also met with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, Missouri Republican and chairman of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, who is respected by city leaders.

A D.C. native, Mr. Gray, 68, ran the city's human services department and a community service organization serving the homeless and at-risk youth before he was elected to the D.C. Council in 2004. He became chairman two years later, and last year tapped into black community dissatisfaction with then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in ousting his fellow Democrat after one term.

Meanwhile, Republicans were taking over Congress, many backed by the tea party. Now, Mr. Gray has to make nice with lawmakers whose home districts are thousands of miles away but wield considerable influence over D.C. affairs.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents the District in Congress but cannot vote on the House floor, said the mayor has done his diligence in reaching out to Republicans. But the tea party contingent that has become a GOP force is a different breed from the moderates who've advocated for the District in the past, she said.

"At the end of the day, members of the House vote their districts, vote their ideology and vote their party," Mrs. Norton said. "So, I don't think the mayor or I have any illusions that somehow if you schmooze with Republicans, they will break with their leadership, which has a kind of structural hostility to the district, just because they like you."

Indeed, Mr. Gowdy opposes expanded voting rights for the D.C. delegate to Congress, calling the district "constitutionally unique."

Mr. Fenty had little presence on Capitol Hill, but he had a Democratic Congress that largely supported his agenda, though D.C. leaders fell short in efforts to get voting rights legislation passed.

Mr. Fenty's predecessor, Anthony A. Williams, was regarded as a masterful city advocate during two terms when Republicans controlled the House.

When Republicans initially proposed vouchers, Mr. Williams pushed successfully for the bill to also increase funding for D.C.'s public and charter schools. He also found common ground on public safety, securing funding for a new crime lab.

Mr. Williams, now a consultant, told the AP he did not want to criticize Mr. Gray. But he said the mayor was taking on certain risks by fighting Congress on ideological grounds.

"It's kind of like a basket of things that you put together in each administration, weighing the pluses and minuses," Mr. Williams said. "He's got stuff in his basket that's different from mine."

Some say the mayor needs to take a two-pronged approach: standing up for the District when he feels bullied by Congress while working to build relationships on Capitol Hill.

But while Mr. Williams made lobbying Congress a priority, there were limits to what he could accomplish.
"We didn't get voting rights," he said, "so what can I say?"

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