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D.C. Mayor Gray makes amends for his missteps, looks ahead

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D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Tuesday acknowledged the missteps of his administration and pledged to regain his footing after a scandal-plagued first year in office that featured hiring errors and allegations of nepotism and campaign payoffs.

"I understand why people were disappointed, and I take full responsibility for those mistakes," Mr. Gray said in his State of the District address at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Northwest.

"This is a start at earning back people's trust — and I will work every day to continue to achieve that," he said in remarks as prepared for delivery, noting that he has brought in new personnel and instituted reforms.

The speech was more humble than the one Mr. Gray delivered last year at Eastern High School, when he made only veiled references to the scandals that overwhelmed his transition and early days as mayor.

Mr. Gray touted the District as a thriving "city of firsts" that is growing, attracting investors and saving for its future while it yearns to bring its neediest residents into prosperity.

He struck familiar themes, hammering on his priorities of fiscal responsibility, job creation, education and public safety through a long list of trends and accomplishments — including projects that are breaking ground across the city and generating millions of dollars.

"Our economy is growing and indeed is one of the strongest of any city in the country," Mr. Gray told the audience, which responded with frequent applause from the pews of the high-ceilinged, ornate synagogue.

More than 100 firefighters attended the speech, many of them dressed in blue "DCFD" sweatshirts that have been frowned upon by leadership of the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, which had tried to promote the "D.C. FEMS" logo.

There were no visible confrontations or signs of disrespect between members and department leadership at the event. Firefighters union President Ed Smith said members wanted to listen to what the mayor had to say and indicate their interest in city affairs, particularly a planned shift change that could significantly alter their day-to-day routines.

Mr. Gray said the city is at a crossroads as its demographics change, and it becomes clear the local economy can no longer rely on the federal government.

The mayor was buoyed by the recent discovery of a $240 million surplus in the city's coffers and evidence suggesting the District ranks first as a retail market, in metropolitan household income and as a destination for young professionals and foreign investment.

"And one day, once again, we will be No. 1 in the National Football League," he said, flashing his trademark wit from the podium in the wake of this past weekend's Super Bowl.

The city is leveraging $2.1 billion of private investment in major developments such as the CityCenter project downtown, the Shops at Dakota Crossing in Ward 5 and a slate of Wal-Mart stores, including two east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7.

But optimism in the nation's capital is tempered by a high unemployment rate that reaches more than 20 percent among residents in the eastern wards.

"They still struggle to find a job, put food on the table and pay the rent," Mr. Gray said.

The city added 9,500 jobs in the past year and expects to add another 45,000 by 2015, the mayor said.

Mr. Gray said more than 2,000 residents were hired by 440 employers through his One City One Hire program, which offers pre-screening, job training, tax incentives and wage subsidies to companies that are willing to hire at least one D.C. resident.

Mr. Gray reiterated the District's campaign for full voting rights in Congress — garnering a standing ovation from about half the audience — and called on lawmakers on Capitol Hill to grant budget autonomy to the city without any conditions. He also thanked Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the District, for attending the speech and forging a "productive relationship" with the city.

"My friends," Mr. Gray concluded, "let's take advantage of this moment in our city's history to seize our future, harness change for the better and building the elusive 'one city' that we all dream of."

People filing out of the synagogue gave the mayor positive reviews.

Karma Cottman, Ward 7 resident and executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she feels this mayor is finally taking a serious look at conditions east of the Anacostia River.

"I feel like there's a focus," she said.

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