A Gray council: GW alumnus to lead top body in D.C.

For the past eight years, the wife of GW professor Dwight Cropp held one of the top positions in D.C. government. Now, the position is getting a little closer to the University.

GW alumnus and Ward 7 City Councilman Vincent Gray won the uncontested election for D.C. City Council chairman last month after a landslide victory in September for the Democratic nomination. Gray officially takes office in January, when he will replace Council Chairman Linda Cropp.

A native Washingtonian, Gray graduated from GW with a B.A. in psychology in 1964. As a student during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Gray’s skin color presented challenges to his education. He said GW was “symbolic of society at the time” in terms of racism and there were only 20 blacks at the University.

Gray, 64, ran his campaign for chairman from his City Council seat on the slogan of “One City” – a motto he said symbolizes a city devoid of any social, gender, age, race or socioeconomic biases.

“This is an elusive and lofty goal, but we’ll all benefit from it,” he said.

Bernard Demczuk, assistant vice president for D.C. affairs, said Gray is “very compassionate in advocating on behalf of poor people.” Demczuk, who worked in two mayoral administrations in Washington, said he doesn’t think that having an alumnus in the chairman position will garner any preferential treatment for GW.

“He’s a fair legislator and views everything based on merit,” Demczuk said. “The people elected him to be fair.”

As chairman, one of Gray’s priorities is education, on which he and Mayor-elect Adrian Fenty share many goals, Gray said.

“Education is an avenue for being able to address problems people have,” he said.

Rather than succumb to the discrimination he faced during his education at GW, Gray worked to transcend his social role.

A particularly groundbreaking achievement was the bid he received from the predominantly Jewish fraternity Tau Epsilon Phi. Recently deceased Red Auerbach, Hall of Fame Boston Celtics coach and GW alumnus, was also a member of the same fraternity.

Gray was the first-ever black member of any fraternity at GW. He served as chancellor of the fraternity for two consecutive terms during his senior undergraduate year and his first year of graduate school at GW.

“Fraternities are social experiences, but for me this was a civil rights experience,” Gray said.

Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for WTOP radio, was a fellow undergraduate during Gray’s studies. Plotkin described Gray as a “big man on campus.”

“He transcended a lot of psychological hurdles,” Plotkin said. “I remember being only 17 years old and thinking ‘God, this guy must be extraordinary.'”

Public service was Gray’s primary career track. After finishing his work in the clinical psychology graduate program in 1964, Gray began working at the Association for Retarded Citizens. He said his mentor, late GW psychology professor Eva Johnson, persuaded him to take the job.

He then moved to the Department of Human Services and in 1994 co-founded the Covenant House, a non-profit, youth-services organization.

“I’ve always enjoyed trying to help people get to a different place in their life,” Gray said.

In 2004 Gray ran for the Ward 7 City Council seat and beat incumbent Councilman Kevin Chavis. Gray said his motive for running was having “the chance to effect change from being part of the government.”

Gray said the endeavor of serving as City Council chairman is a “daunting experience” ahead of him. He hopes his successes in life – much of which he attributes to his alma mater – can serve as an example for overcoming social adversity.

“As I look back on GW,” Gray said, “it was a very trying time but also one of the best experiences because I had to adapt to reality.”

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