Vincent Gray’s future in the District was thrown into question this week after federal prosecutors said he was involved with a local businessman who ran the illegal campaign fund that buoyed the mayor’s 2010 bid.
Gray has for three years fended off questions about the shadow campaign, which prosecutors revealed Monday was worth $668,800 – nearly the same amount of cash he has to spend for his reelection effort this year.
Jeffrey Thompson, the businessman who created the illegal fund, pled guilty to two counts of conspiracy Monday, which included more than $2 million funneled into local and national political campaigns from 2006 to 2010.
One day after Thompson’s court appearance, Gray defended his “clean and unblemished” record in his State of the District address, during which he received a standing ovation and chants of “four more years.” Gray described his former benefactor as “a greedy man attempting to save himself.”
Skepticism has spread across the District: The Current, a chain of community newspapers with a circulation of about 50,000, – retracted their endorsement of Gray on Wednesday. In a response to Gray’s State of the District address, Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser called the day “a tragic one for D.C. politics and our city.”
Still, experts predict that Gray can survive the scandal. He has been busily building up his support across the District, rallying supporters and raising more than $1.1 million since launching his campaign in January.
“I don’t think I learned anything new this week that I hadn’t heard before or heard imagined before. At this point, unless more comes out to indicate that the mayor was involved in the situation I prefer to believe him over a plea bargaining guy who is a major lawbreaker,” said Ann Hoffman, a 22-year D.C. resident who has donated to both of Gray’s campaigns.
Hoffman said she had considered supporting Foggy Bottom’s Council member Jack Evans or Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, but she doesn’t think either has the experience to run a city.
“It’s a big operation,” she said. “What the mayor has shown is that he’s capable of running it. Our budgets are balanced, schools seem to be getting better, policing is doing fine, people are moving in. I don’t see any of the other candidates capable of putting it all together and making it work.”
Norman Linsky, who has donated about $300 to Gray’s campaign, said he “wholeheartedly” supports the mayor and believes Gray when he denies knowing anything about the shadow campaign – a position he has continued to repeat.
“We’re going to have to wait and see what happens. Right now it’s a case of he said-he said,” Linsky said Wednesday. “I believe [Gray] has the right just as anyone does to be innocent until proven guilty.”
D.C. voters are not unfamiliar with scandal-ridden politicians. Four-term Mayor Marion Barry spent six months in prison for cocaine possession before winning a D.C. Council seat in 1992 followed by a fourth term in the mayor’s office.
Mark Plotkin, an alumnus and contributor to BBC News, said he thought the allegations may have “energized” Gray’s base, and said Gray has a “good chance at winning” – unless he is indicted.
“I think his base will stay with him sparing an indictment,” Plotkin said. “If he is indicted then it’s a different ball of wax.”
Plotkin said Gray could eek out a win in April’s closed Democratic primary by securing a plurality instead of a majority. In a January poll by The Washington Post, Gray led the with 24 percent of the vote.
However, the race won’t be decided in April now that At-Large Council member David Catania – a fiery independent who is white and gay – launched his mayoral bid Wednesday as the most high-profile challenger to April’s primary winner.
The city has never had a white mayor or a mayor who is not a Democrat since home rule began in 1974.
“I don’t think African Americans will leave [Gray] in a general election for someone who is not a Democrat and has a temperament and personality that is unsuited to be mayor,” Plotkin said. “To be a Democrat, even a troubled Democrat like Gray, is still a distinct advantage.”