- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2011

WASHINGTON — When D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray and six council members were booked by U.S. Capitol Police for blocking traffic during a protest last week, folks like Barton Turner got inspired.

“I’m honored by that, as a citizen,” said the 57-year-old Northwest resident while holding a one-man protest outside the John A. Wilson Building on Thursday. “I’m thinking I’m going to get arrested next week.”

Mr. Turner was alone, yet he reflected the large number of D.C. residents fuming over a federal budget deal that they say took a swipe at the District’s autonomy.

That fervor, it seems, might save Mr. Gray’s political career.

It’s no secret that the mayor’s first 100 days in office have had myriad problems. Critics said Mr. Gray, a Democrat, didn’t move fast enough, that his transition lacked transparency and that cronyism ruled the appointee process. Federal and local investigators are looking into a former city employee’s claims he got cash payments and the promise of a city job to bash incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty in the 2010 mayoral elections.

But when Congress used an 11th-hour budget deal to strip the District of its right to fund abortions with local dollars and to reinstate a school-voucher program, Mr. Gray reclaimed the momentum that had propelled him to office by a decisive margin and arguably had his best week as D.C. mayor.

Mr. Gray’s tour de force began Monday with the arrest, an hours-long affair that began with a sit-down in the middle of Constitution Avenue and ended with a late-night fine and release to waiting television cameras. Mr. Gray, the council members and other cuffed protesters dubbed themselves the “D.C. 41.”

Two days later, the mayor showed off his arrest bracelet and listed other affronts against his city. Congress, he said, swiped D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s vote in the Committee of the Whole; too many people think the city subsists on a special federal payment; and one time, the mayor said, he heard a state legislator say he didn’t know anyone actually lived in the District.

Mr. Gray’s comments were part of a busy week that included press events with specific backdrops; namely, a Planned Parenthood office to protest congressional actions on abortion and the Ross Elementary School near Dupont Circle to condemn the voucher deal.

“We know everything else is on the table, isn’t it?” he asked.

Mr. Gray, who fared poorly in a popularity poll last month, has taken offense to the suggestion his arrest was a public relations move to turn the tide of popular sentiment.

“That’s ludicrous,” he told reporters. “I’m responding to actions taken vis-a-vis our city. What would you have said if I had done nothing?”

He said the protest and resulting arrests were “fully unscripted.” According to the mayor, he approached the curb, suggested to council members that they step into the street, then plopped down in the middle of the roadway.

“It was spontaneous combustion,” Mr. Gray said. “I think we had reached the point where the outrage had boiled over.”

More important than how the move originated may be how it was perceived.

Mr. Turner, a Mississippi native who says he was “disenfranchised for love” when he met his wife 14 years ago and moved to the District, has the mayor’s back.

“I don’t think that was a political move,” he said, “I think that was a heartfelt move.”

Mr. Gray’s recent actions have drawn applause and praise from D.C. residents and numerous community groups — a stark contrast to the air that surrounded his administration just a week prior.

The Committee on Government Operations and the Environment has held two hearings on alleged cronyism and inflated salaries among Mr. Gray’s appointees. The most recent featured a marathon list of witnesses, including a former chief of staff who admitted there were mistakes in the hiring process, and the panel’s chairman, Mary M. Cheh, has said there will be a third hearing on April 29.

It is less clear, however, whether the mayor and his supporters will be able to sustain the momentum he has gained on issues of D.C. voting rights and statehood.

The mayor has not outlined specific ways to keep the full-court press on Capitol Hill. Instead, he envisions a “carefully crafted” strategy that incorporates a wide swath of opinions from D.C. residents, and “not just Vince Gray.”

Nonetheless, he and his supporters say the arrests and other festivities are just the beginning of a sustained effort.

“Monday, at best, is a catalyst for action,” the mayor told members of D.C. Vote at a Friday rally near the Capitol.

Communications specialist Adam Clampitt, who ran for D.C. Council in 2008, is optimistic about Mr. Gray’s prospects. He said if the mayor can keep important issues in the public eye, “then people really are going to see the real Vince Gray.”

“It was a shame that things got sidetracked,” Mr. Clampitt said, a reference to the mayor’s early troubles. “If Congress continues to use the District as a bargaining chip, then I think there’s really an opportunity for him to make a name for himself.”

The District may have struggled with the autonomy question for more than 200 years, but pro-statehood folks say there is something new in the air. The usual comparisons to the abolitionist movement and civil unrest in the 1960s have been joined by references to pro-democracy flare-ups in the Middle East.

“I think what happened Monday is our fruit truck, our fruit stand,” said “Shadow” U.S. Rep. Mike Panetta, a reference to the Tunisian merchant credited with kicking off the Middle East rallies, on Friday.

Council Member Michael A. Brown, at-large independent and chairman of the Committee on Statehood and Self-Determination, said he would like to see “fresh faces” at hearings on D.C. autonomy.

“You have to use that spark, just like they did in [Beijing’s] Tiananmen Square and the civil rights movement,” Mr. Brown said.

He also offered support for the mayor, who, for one week, rose above the distractions.

“As an executive, you have to deal with a lot of things,” Mr. Brown said. “You can’t just deal with one. I think people like to see leaders step up, and that’s what they saw the other day.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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