- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Eager to tout the District’s progress on the HIV/AIDS epidemic at a worldwide summit on his home turf, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray took the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Monday for a respite from the scandal that has dogged his days and nights since the 2010 campaign.

Yet trouble found him.

Several boisterous protesters upstaged Mr. Gray’s welcome address to the AIDS 2012 convention by shouting him down and demanding more D.C. housing for city residents infected by HIV.

“Numbers don’t lie, politicians do,” they chanted while Mr. Gray paused at the podium and looked around.

The episode was a study in contrasts for the embattled mayor, who on a daily basis is swatting away questions about a federal probe into an alleged “shadow” campaign that injected more than a half-million dollars into his bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Surrounded by his security team, Mr. Gray exchanged smiles with passers-by in the busy convention center and shook a few hands — a reminder of those who are rooting for him, who want to see the investigation play out — before finding his seat at the opening ceremonies of the AIDS 2012 Global Village.

Mr. Gray had awakened Monday to another front-page story in The Washington Post alleging his 2010 campaign had committed underhanded deeds — this time, that it had acquired an internal list of residents in public housing so the campaign could target them for get-out-the-vote efforts.

It was yet another turn in the gears of turmoil that are ripping the public’s attention away from any signs of progress under Mr. Gray’s watch. For instance, “there has not been a baby born in Washington, D.C., since 2009 who is HIV positive,” Mr. Gray told the AIDS 2012 audience.

Before his remarks, Mr. Gray studied his notes while a singer who appeared on television’s “The Voice” performed and then the Warhorse Drum Circle played a traditional chant. He had to wait several minutes for the protest to die down before he could begin.

“As somebody who used to be an activist, I actually can appreciate this,” Mr. Gray said, raising his voice in communion with the protesters’ sentiments.

But the demonstrators could not be satisfied. They wanted to know Mr. Gray’s plans to house persons infected with HIV/AIDS, premised on the fact people with lodging are more likely to take their medication. Television cameras surrounded the protesters, who held up black-and-white signs that read, “D.C. needs a comprehensive HIV/AIDS plan.”

Mr. Gray said he was about to outline the city’s efforts in his remarks and would be happy to talk to the protesters afterward, but they demanded a plan.

“Would you like to have a conversation or not?” Mr. Gray asked from the stage. “I think it would be helpful if you let me go forward.”

Mr. Gray said he was “delighted” to see the AIDS conference back on U.S. soil for the first time in 20 years and promoted his efforts to increase HIV/AIDS awareness among D.C. government employees. After his welcome address, the protesters started their chants again while Mr. Gray descended into a fray of news reporters and supporters who thanked him for his leadership or posed for pictures with him.

Mr. Gray alternated between patience and anger over relentless questions about the protest and new allegations that his campaign leveraged a non-public list from the D.C. Housing Authority.

“A list like that would have been totally useless,” he said amid a scrum of TV cameras and reporters who stumbled into conference attendees and merged onto single-file escalators.

The slow-moving mass of media around Mr. Gray’s entourage has become a familiar sight, as the mayor refuses to speak substantively on whether he knew about an off-the-books effort to get him elected. His attorney, Robert S. Bennett, issued a statement last week accusing the media and political operatives of rushing to judgment against the mayor instead of respecting the investigative process.

So far, three campaign operatives have pleaded guilty in federal court, and several other people who have not been named have been implicated but not charged.

Prosecutors say some Gray donors were reimbursed for thousands of dollars in 2010 campaign contributions in an effort to bypass legal limits on campaign funding. They also say officials in the Gray camp coordinated with others who ran a secret campaign during the 2010 election season that purchased materials and funded get-out-the-vote efforts in targeted areas of the city.

The scandal has compelled three D.C. Council members — David A. Catania, at-large independent; Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat; and Muriel Bowser, Ward 4 Democrat — to call on Mr. Gray to resign.

At least one protester who challenged Mr. Gray Monday said he did not know about the legal troubles swirling around Mr. Gray.

“Oh, not at all,” said Tony R. Ray, a New York City resident with the We Can End AIDS campaign.

Mr. Ray said his group has launched similar protests before to apply public pressure on politicians and policymakers. He said he was not impressed by Mr. Gray’s attempt to find common ground with their activism.

“He was pretty much trying to appease us,” Mr. Ray said.

Mr. Gray referred questions about the housing issues to Dr. Gregory Pappas, the senior deputy director for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, STD and tuberculosis administration at the D.C. Department of Health.

Dr. Pappas said the city receives a small grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist persons who have HIV/AIDS. He also sits on an interagency task force to vouch for infected persons who need lodging, although they are just one part of a large population fighting for a place to stay.

“Housing,” he said, “is a serious problem in D.C.”

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

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