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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