D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s Guide for Taking on the Federal Government 

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 12 2013 8:30 AM

The Pawn’s Move

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray will do just about anything to get the Capitol City a little more respect.

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“We’re trying to determine what authority would be required to use those funds for contingency purposes,” said Gray. “What happens if we get to the point where we’ve exhausted everything? There are potentially fines, potentially jail time, but then you’re rolling the dice. Will you really be prosecuted?”

This isn’t what concerns Democrats. They didn’t just vote down the “piecemeal” CR to fund D.C.—they voted down all of the piecemeal CRs. They view the Republicans’ plans more cynically than Gray does. At the start of 2013, the House Oversight Committee collapsed the subcommittee that used to manage D.C., and Chairman Darrell Issa took ownership of the task. Issa’s talked about giving D.C. more autonomy.

Gray believes him. “He represents a district in California,” Gray explained. “Somebody tell me what he gets out of this, in tangible terms? Probably, this city does suffer from being too ‘Democratic.’ Republicans assume they’re not going to get much out of it because there’s so little Republican representation here. And then the Democrats just take it for granted because they figure no matter what they do, people will vote Democratic in this city.” This is Gray’s problem with the theory that hurting D.C. will, somehow, make Republicans panic and cut a deal. “How does allowing garbage pickup in a city that’s 80 percent Democrat hurt the Republicans?”

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Maybe it doesn’t. In 2011, though, when the Congress narrowly averted a shutdown, it was partially at the expense of D.C. Republicans, who then had wanted to pack the CR with policy riders. One of the Democratic compromises put the riders in effect for D.C., and just D.C. “I’ll give you D.C. abortion,” President Obama told House Speaker John Boehner. There is no evidence that this lost Obama any votes in the city.

“But I actually don’t think they will do that again,” said Gray. When that deal was made, he got himself arrested in a mass protest in front of the Senate offices. “The way we reacted to it, that actually got international press. And it didn’t make anybody, especially the president, look very good. So I don’t think that there will be a statement made like that. A statement either verbally or in how they resolve this. Also, when you look at our budget now, most of those riders have disappeared. The abortion rights issue has been a rider consistently, but the guns stuff, the needle exchange, all those things have disappeared, and that’s progress.”

That’s how the mayor of the Capitol City ekes out gains: by getting arrested, arguing with people, and hoping the media pays attention. “I’ve talked to Harry Reid after that press conference,” said Gray. “I’ve talked to Valerie Jarrett. The day before last, I had a discussion with the White House, for 45 minutes. We went back and forth, back and forth, until the person I was talking to said: You have a point of view and I’m not going to change it.”

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics