D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray used his State of the District address Tuesday to forcefully defend himself against accusations that he participated in an illegal campaign finance scheme — his first public attempt to right a re-election campaign reeling from an ongoing federal investigation in which he has been implicated.
The mayor, speaking before a friendly crowd in a Ward 7 neighborhood he once represented on the D.C. Council, trumpeted his administration's recent accomplishments during his hour-long speech.
But first he had to address the state of his own affairs.
"I say this to all of you now, clearly and unequivocally: I didn't break the law," Mr. Gray told the crowd.
Some stood, cheered and chanted, "Four more years!"
The mayor suggested that Jeffrey E. Thompson, who pleaded guilty Monday to felony conspiracy charges for funding a $668,800 off-the-books campaign on Mr. Gray's behalf in 2010, was lying when he said the mayor had full knowledge of the scheme.
"So I ask you, who do you believe: a greedy man attempting to save himself, or me, a public servant who has dedicated his entire career to giving back to our communities?" Mr. Gray said to applause.
Much of the crowd shouted, "You," but one heckler yelled out, "Uncle Earl" — a name Thompson instructed Mr. Gray to use when referring to him.
He made the speech three weeks before a hotly contested Democratic primary election that is almost certain to turn on whether voters believe Mr. Gray — who maintains he knew nothing of the "shadow campaign" that operated on his behalf — or U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., whose prosecutors named Mr. Gray as a co-conspirator in open court and who pledged to lift the "veil of political corruption" in the city.
Glen Donath, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked in the District's fraud and public corruption section, said the showdown is "almost the legal equivalent of a game of chicken."
"I found Mr. Machen's comments to be almost unprecedented. He was sending shots across the bow at Mr. Gray," he said.
Mr. Donath said the timing and language of the Thompson plea were "designed to convince [the mayor] to either pull out or come to terms with the prosecutors."
Based on the nature of the remarks, Mr. Donath said, prosecutors likely have had extensive debriefings with Thompson and might be in a position to bring charges against others before the election.
Prosecutors are advised not to time investigations with elections, but D.C. lawyer A. Scott Bolden said they essentially did the next best thing by unleashing a "political bombshell" that could hobble the mayor's efforts in the primary.
"This will prove to be politically embarrassing to the mayor and will have a major impact on the race for voters who were on the fence," Mr. Bolden said.
"For strong supporters of the mayor, most likely this is a disappointment," he said, adding that there is still time to recover before the primary election. "But only the voters will decide whether he can recover or not."
Those challenging Mr. Gray for his seat were quick to pick up the rhetoric of the investigation to attack the mayor.
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser delivered a response to the State of the District address in which she said voters want a mayor who can "command moral authority" and who has the "character, integrity, vision and the management and leadership skills to get the job done."
Ms. Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat, has attempted to position herself as an alternative to Mr. Gray after passing an ethics reform bill in 2011.
Another challenger, council member Tommy Wells, has stressed that he is among the few sitting D.C. lawmakers who never accepted Thompson's cash. The Ward 6 Democrat set himself apart by refusing to accept corporate contributions.
In a campaign email after the speech, Mr. Wells said Mr. Gray's "ability to achieve what are at best mixed results cannot begin to excuse the corrupt campaign that brought him to office."
"It is clearer than ever that his 2010 campaign disqualifies him from running for reelection — and may even preclude him from continuing in office," Mr. Wells said.
It's yet to be seen how Thompson's guilty plea will affect the polls. A survey released last month had Mr. Gray holding an edge of 28 percent to 20 percent over Ms. Bowser, the nearest challenger.
The results of the survey, conducted by WRC-TV, WAMU Radio, the Washington Informer and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, were mixed for the mayor, whose first term has been all but overshadowed by the long-running corruption probe.
Among Democrats, his job approval rating stood at 56 percent, yet only 31 percent said he deserved to be re-elected. The poll showed that 70 percent of Democratic respondents thought Mr. Gray did something either unethical or illegal during the 2010 campaign, but 74 percent said the city was headed in the right direction.
Mr. Gray also leads the pack of mayoral contenders with the most money in the bank leading up to the April 1 primary election — a boon given the uphill battle he is likely to face.
The mayor reported having more than $710,000 on hand and raising more than $1.1 million thus far during the campaign, according to reports filed Monday night.
Ms. Bowser has the most money on hand after Mr. Gray, with more than $694,000 in the bank, followed by D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, who has $457,000 on hand. Mr. Wells has just less than $69,000 on hand of the $570,000 his campaign has raised.
For such a scandal to break so late in the campaign cycle would be detrimental to any candidate, but an incumbent like Mr. Gray has a better chance to survive, said Paul S. Herrnson, executive director for the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut and a longtime D.C. political observer.
"This will hurt Gray's chances. Maybe the saving grace for him is the opposition is spread across several candidates," he said. "The first thing you say to survive is, 'No mea culpa. These allegations against me have not been proven and they are brought about by my political enemies.'"
Challenging Thompson's version of events and calling the accusations "lies," Mr. Gray appears to be embracing that strategy. He also appears to be playing to his base — black voters from the city's poorer wards east of the Anacostia River that were crucial to his 2010 win.
During his address, Mr. Gray announced an initiative to curb homelessness and pledged $100 million to affordable housing on top of $116 million he promised in additional education spending.
The mayor criticized his portrayal by reporters and characterized Thompson — whose guilty plea included an admission to having assisted the 2008 presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton — as a man who "sought to illegally subvert the election of President Barack Obama."
"To some in our city, I'm just another corrupt politician from the other side of town," he said. "I ask them to look beyond their preconceived notions, and instead to look at my record, both as mayor and especially as a human being."
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