- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray should have been more prepared for the waves of bad publicity that overtook his young administration and been able to turn the public’s attention to his achievements and goals over the next four years, political analysts say.

The seemingly endless string of bad news for Mr. Gray began with revelations that he hired politically connected friends for high-paying city jobs and attended to official city business in a $1,000-a-month Lincoln Navigator. Yet none of that compared to allegations by former mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown that he was paid by the Gray campaign to bash incumbent Adrian M. Fenty during the 2010 race.

“People always assume [politicians] are going to hire cronies, but I’ve never seen so much criticism leveled at a mayor so early in their administration,” said conservative commentator and public relations specialist Armstrong Williams. “Sulaimon Brown’s story was believable.”

Dave Bartlett, a senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, which specialized in crisis management, said politicians and their advisers often take risks with people like Mr. Brown, “but the smart ones at least know if they have good odds.”

“I get the impression they didn’t know, or if they did, they didn’t have a Plan B if it blew up,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Mr. Gray is an experienced politician. He had to know he has critics and they’d be looking under every rock. He should have expected this level of scrutiny.”

Mr. Bartlett said Mr. Brown was telling “a sensational news story” to TV cameras and beat reporters about cash payoffs.

Mr. Gray continues to hold weekly news conferences and attend ribbon-cutting events. He has hired public relations executive Lon Walls, a former Transportation Department communications director. Mr. Walls has attended the mayor’s recent weekly briefings, and his name appears on some press releases.

The mayor has limited questions about the leased Navigator by saying he doesn’t handle such business. He also has denied knowledge of cash payments and a $110,000-a-year city job to Mr. Brown, who has been fired, and said he would cooperate with a D.C. Council investigation into charges of nepotism.

However, such efforts have not been enough. A Clarus Group poll in late March found that 31 percent of D.C. residents gave Mr. Gray a positive job-approval rating, while 41 percent disapproved.

Mr. Bartlett said Mr. Gray has had opportunities to recapture the narrative by creating a “dramatic moment” in which he could have said: “With great regret, Sulaimon Brown was not the guy we thought he was. … Bad things happened, and I take full responsibility in addressing them.”

The mayor’s best opportunity perhaps so far came March 29 during his first State of the District address, Mr. Bartlett said. But Mr. Gray instead delivered a one-hour speech focusing largely on jobs and schools that was “not very interesting” — at least compared with what Mr. Brown was saying.

Joseph Weber contributed to this report.

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