D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray took the defensive during his State of the District address March 11, asking his constituents to believe in his innocence just one day after allegations were fired at him by a major fundraiser in his 2010 bid for mayor.
From the start, an obviously irritated Gray struck out at D.C. developer Jeffrey E. Thompson, who pleaded guilty March 10 in federal court to federal conspiracy counts in connection with campaign finance fraud he perpetrated to assist in Gray’s election. Thompson told prosecutors that Gray was aware of and accepted his illegal campaign contributions. He is believed to have spent upwards of $650,000 on behalf of Gray’s campaign.
As he appeared before an audience heavy with supporters at Kelly Miller Middle School in Ward 7, where he was elected to the D.C. Council in 2004, Gray said while some people now consider him “just another corrupt politician from another part of town,” he has done nothing wrong.
“I say this to all of you now—clearly and unequivocally,” he said. “I didn’t break the law.”
He had harsh words for Thompson, whose potential jail time is believed to have been slashed from a likely sentence of five years to six months when he turned state’s evidence against Gray.
“Federal authorities, who have conducted a wide-ranging investigation into years of campaign and election fraud, brought a man to justice yesterday,” Gray said.
“That man sought to illegally subvert the election of President Barack Obama and illegally pumped money into 28 District and federal campaigns and elections over the past decade. Federal investigators are now using this man’s words to suggest that I broke the law.”
He later referred to Thompson as “a greedy man attempting to save himself.”
Indeed, there are many in Washington who question Thompson’s veracity, even as they suspect that Gray’s hands are not entirely clean.
“I surely don’t believe anybody should use Jeffrey Thompson’s word as the basis for an investigation, knowing what he has done,” said Roberta Williams, 37, a marketing consultant who moved to the District last year from the Midwest. “He’s obviously dirty. The mayor associated with him, but people who are operating on the wrong side of the law often hide it from others, so I’m not sure if the mayor knew Thompson was doing.”
Thompson’s timing in coming to a deal with prosecutors couldn’t have been worse for Gray with three weeks left before the April 1 primary. He is believed to have held a lead over his seven opponents. The primary will effectively determine the winner in the mayoral race because Democrats significantly outnumber Republicans in the city and the Democratic contender will likely win.
Gray used the speech to highlight success of his administration including higher test scores among students and an increase in public school enrollment to the current 83,000; a drop in the unemployment rate from 11 percent when he took office to 7.8 percent; the creation of 34,000 jobs; a $1.75 billion budget surplus; the investment of $187 million in affordable housing; and a population that is increasing by 1,000 people per month taking the current number of residents to 647,000, a population not seen since 1979.
He cited development projects including the CityCenter, which is near completion in the old D.C. Convention Center; the redevelopment of the historic O Street Market into a retail and housing complex; the renovation of the Howard Theatre; the Shops at Dakota Crossing, including the city’s first Costco; and the ground breaking on March 12 of the Skyland Town Center in Ward 7 at the intersection of Good Hope Road, Naylor Road and Alabama Avenue in Southeast.
He told the audience improvements he wants to make to at-risk schools will receive much of $116 million he has earmarked in next year’s budget.
“In short, the state of the District is strong—certainly much stronger than it was just three short years ago when I took office and perhaps the strongest its ever been,” Gray said.
As shortcomings, he listed the achievement gap between minority and White students, the unease that often exists between long-time residents and those new to the city,. the shrinking availability of affordable housing and the need to make sure that development and its benefits reach every area of the city.
Gray told the audience that he has spent his career in public service, from running Covenant House to working for the Department of Human Services to founding a “nonprofit to rescue homeless children” before being elected to the D.C. Council.
“I have spent my entire life in public service, all of it with a clean and unblemished record,” Gray said. “Why would I, at the tail end of that, suddenly turn on that life, a life lived openly and honestly?”
His supporters answered with cheers of “Four more years! Four more years!”
LaTrina Antoine and Maria Adebola contributed to this report.