Alumnus makes mark in District politics

When Vincent Gray was an undergraduate at GW, he almost left after his freshman year.

After two out of the three high school classmates he knew attending GW dropped out during their first year, Gray, who said he was one of just 50 black students at GW in the 1960s, went to his parents for advice.

“They just couldn’t take it anymore, it was just that difficult in terms of the social environment,” he said of his classmates.

Today, he is the chairman of the D.C. Council – the city’s powerful and influence-wielding legislative body – and a potential candidate for mayor. In an interview with The Hatchet at the Washington Convention Center, he said he is grateful he stuck it out at GW.

“I realized after that first year – after that conversation – that if I walked away from this, I’d probably walk away from every tough experience in the future and find some excuse as to why it was okay to do that,” Gray said. “And so I didn’t, and I know I’m a better person for it.”

Gray graduated in 1964 and then attended graduate school at GW, continuing his studies in psychology. Gray began serving on the council in 2005, then became chairman in 2007. Now his popularity in recent polls shows that he could be D.C.’s next mayor.

Despite recent reports that question Gray’s ethical standards – the Washington Post reported he used official council stationery last summer to ask for a contribution from Comcast for the D.C. Democratic Party, and a company involved in a large, city development project also did repairs on his house – data from a recent poll shows residents would elect Gray over Mayor Adrian Fenty.

In a poll of 500 likely voters conducted in November, Lester & Associates found that 43 percent of likely voters would vote for Gray, with 39 percent for Fenty. The poll was conducted on behalf of the Greater Washington D.C. Metropolitan Labor Council AFL-CIO, the Post reported.

“We have been considering [running for mayor]. There are a couple of polls out that show us, even though I’m not even a declared candidate, they show me in front,” Gray said on Friday.

“I love this city; I was born and raised here, and I’ve said to many people: I will do whatever I think is the best to move the city forward. So I think it would be disrespectful not to consider this opportunity, and I am seriously considering it,” Gray said of the mayor’s race.

Gray attended D.C. public schools, graduating from Dunbar High in Northwest D.C. GW was not his first choice for college, though.

“I was a good baseball player. I had three scholarships coming out [of high school]. But for some reason my parents – who had never finished high school – they wanted me to go to George Washington University. I never knew why,” he said.

At GW, Gray never got to play on the University’s baseball team. No African Americans were on GW athletic teams until his senior year, he said.

The chairman integrated in other ways, however. He joined Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity, becoming the first African-American in a fraternity at GW, and eventually served as president for two years.

Gray fondly remembers one GW professor in particular – Dr. Eva Johnson, who taught Gray psychology during undergraduate and graduate school.

“She really was like a second parent to me – she and her husband didn’t have children and they would often say, ‘You were the son we never had,’ ” he said.

Gray said Johnson and her husband gave him a lot of emotional support, and Johnson’s teaching influenced his career path to help those with mental retardation.

“It was because of Dr. Johnson – she was involved with the Association for Retarded Citizens – and she steered me in that direction and it was a great experience,” Gray said.

He started his career working with the association, now called The Arc, an organization of and for people with mental and developmental disabilities.

In 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly offered him the position of director of the Department of Human Services and he accepted, serving four years. In 1994, he helped to found the Washington branch of Covenant House, which is an organization that works with homeless and at-risk youth.

Gray lives in Ward 7 and before the 2004 election, he said some people came to him and asked him to consider running for D.C. Council. Though he said he had never been in political life, just around it, he decided to run. He beat the incumbent in his first election by 16 percentage points and was sworn in as chairman just three years later.

Regardless of the mayoral election, Gray says he wants to focus on improving public education in the District, a perennial problem.

“One of the things that has not been done is to bring together a cohesive and comprehensive approach to public education. By that I mean starting with birth up through age 24,” he said.

A bill he championed has now been enacted by the D.C. Council, creating pre-kindergarten for all children. He’s working with the University of the District of Columbia on the city’s first community college, too.

Back at his alma mater, Gray praised both President Emeritus Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and President Steven Knapp for their leadership at GW and credits them for reaching out to the public schools in the city, including the School Without Walls.

Bernard Demczuk, GW’s assistant vice president for D.C. relations, has known Gray for 25 years. They collaborated on advocating for employees and the mentally disabled, Demczuk said.

“He’s a highly intellectual, highly compassionate and highly competent person, who has devoted his life to public service,” Demczuk said.

Demczuk praised Gray for his work as D.C. Council chairman and for his support for GW, noting that Gray was awarded GW’s Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.

“He comes to the basketball games and whenever he gets an opportunity, he comes to campus,” Demczuk said.

Gray said he loves GW and the education he received, reflecting back on his time on campus and his decision to stay: “It was a tough experience at GW, but I’m definitely the better for it,” he said.

“It was significant then, too, but it feels even more so in the aftermath when you realize that it was really a process of breaking down barriers.”

Gray said his desire to be involved in public service has driven his career path, whether it was working with people with mental disabilities, or becoming chairman of the D.C. Council.

“I would urge students to get involved in service projects [and] non-profit organizations in the city, and even if you don’t stay here and go back home, you’ll be the better for it.”

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