Navy Yard Shooting Shows D.C. Mayor in a New Light

Can Vincent Gray’s response to Monday’s tragedy help restore his scandal-ridden image?

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray briefs reporters on the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, Monday, Sept. 16, 2013. At least one gunman opened fire inside a building at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Sept. 17, 2013, 9:54 a.m.

For at least this week — as D.C. and the rest of the coun­try reels over the vi­ol­ence at Navy Yard — Wash­ing­ton May­or Vin­cent Gray will get to play a much more sym­path­et­ic na­tion­al role.

He spent much of Monday blas­ted across cable tele­vi­sion, sur­roun­ded by FBI agents. This shouldn’t have come as a big sur­prise for a politi­cian who has been dogged by scan­dal throughout his may­or­alty and whose 2010 cam­paign is un­der fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion

But Gray wasn’t on TV get­ting perp-walked. He was there to take on the too-fa­mil­i­ar, too-ter­rible role of a lead­er fa­cing enorm­ous tragedy.

And it is, at least tem­por­ar­ily, a big shift in cast­ing for him. Just this week, hours be­fore the shoot­ing, the As­so­ci­ated Press ran a story head­lined, “Amid Fed­er­al Probe, Gray Coy About Re-Elec­tion Bid.” The story laid out, in part, what people fol­low­ing the years-long scan­dal sur­round­ing Gray already know: In the may­or­al cam­paign that led to his 2010 Demo­crat­ic primary win, Gray re­ceived $650,000 in off-the-book money from D.C. busi­ness­man Jef­frey Thompson. Some former Gray cam­paign aides have also ad­mit­ted to pay­ing an­oth­er may­or­al can­did­ate to stay in the race to help knock down Gray’s chief op­pon­ent and former D.C. may­or, Ad­ri­an Fenty.

Gray’s may­or­alty has been on the rocks since the start. And this has been hanging over the pos­sib­il­ity of Gray run­ning for reelec­tion next year. Earli­er in the sum­mer, his aides told The Wash­ing­ton Post that they’d ex­pect Gray to run, as long as noth­ing blows up with the fed­er­al in­vest­ig­a­tion.

But the Gray the coun­try has seen over the last day is a dif­fer­ent be­ing. A vis­ibly tired and dis­traught may­or held mul­tiple press con­fer­ences after Monday’s vi­ol­ence, help­ing to con­vey in­form­a­tion about what had happened. And, more than any­thing else, he looked dis­tinctly hu­man, not just like some scan­dal-gen­er­at­ing auto­maton. On Tues­day, Gray used his na­tion­al mi­cro­phone as ad­vocacy for his city, sug­gest­ing that gov­ern­ment spend­ing cuts from se­quest­ra­tion may have had something to do with how a shoot­er wasn’t pre­ven­ted from get­ting in­to Navy Yard.

There’s some re­cent pre­ced­ent to think that man­a­ga­ing tra­gedies well can help a politi­cian’s im­age over the long term. New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie’s re­sponse to last year’s su­per­storm Sandy led to a long-term polling bump. In the weeks be­fore the storm, a Quin­nipi­ac poll had the gov­ernor’s ap­prov­al rat­ing at 56 per­cent. A month later, Quin­nipi­ac had Christie’s ap­prov­al rat­ing up to 72 per­cent. While Christie’s pop­ular­ity peaked earli­er this year at 74 per­cent, the gov­ernor’s ap­prov­al is still far above its pre-Sandy levels, sit­ting at 68 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a Ju­ly Quin­nipi­ac poll. 

Post-tragedy polling bumps aren’t al­ways so last­ing, however. Few gov­ernors have faced so much hard­ship in so little time as Col­or­ado Gov. John Hick­en­loop­er. In the sum­mer of 2012, he had to deal with not only a wide-reach­ing drought but also the deadly shoot­ing at a movie theat­er in Au­rora. That Septem­ber, a Den­ver Post poll had the gov­ernor’s ap­prov­al rat­ing at al­most 60 per­cent. But by this June, Hick­en­loop­er’s ap­prov­al rat­ing was down to 47 per­cent, and he’s fa­cing a pos­sibly up­hill reelec­tion cam­paign.

The les­son here? There’s not much reas­on to think that Gray is go­ing to be able to save his may­or­alty with a co­her­ent re­sponse to what happened at the Navy Yard. Be­cause, in case you were pre­vi­ously mis­taken, Vin­cent Gray is not Chris Christie. Un­like Christie, who had strong ap­prov­al rat­ings be­fore last year’s storm, the most re­cent polling on Gray had his ap­prov­al at 29 per­cent, with most D.C. res­id­ents say­ing he should resign last year. And it’d take a very gen­er­ous and cre­at­ive mind to com­pare his cha­risma in the hand­ling of tragedy to that of Rudy Gi­uliani. 

Where Gray goes in the com­ing days is any­one’s guess, es­pe­cially with the FBI tak­ing the lead on the Navy Yard in­vest­ig­a­tion. But if his se­quest­ra­tion re­marks are any guide, the may­or could use his po­s­i­tion and some na­tion­al at­ten­tion to ad­voc­ate for his city in a way that he’s rarely been able to do dur­ing his term. Gray has been an in­cred­ibly flawed ad­voc­ate for a city with lim­ited fed­er­al rep­res­ent­a­tion that could really use a strong cham­pi­on. He’s not go­ing to sud­denly be able to shake off his demons now, but a may­or who’s had to re­sort to pub­li­city stunts to get at­ten­tion for his city now has the eyes of the na­tion.

Gray may not be able to save him­self, but in help­ing to guide a seem­ingly hugely suc­cess­ful re­sponse to a mass-cas­u­alty event, he can add something to his may­or­al leg­acy that’s a bit more ster­ling than scan­dal.

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