The Vince I Know
The Honor & Grace of a Hometown Hero
In DC’s Hispanic community we first heard of Vince Gray in the 90’s when he was head of Covenant House, when there he made friends with a group of community leaders such as Bibi Otero, Maria Gomez, Sonia Gutierrez and others who worked in the non-profit social services sector. Vince toiled among the poorest of the poor, dealing with programs that gave shelter to the homeless and with mental retardation and the handicapped on the east side of the city in Wards 7 and 8.
What struck everyone then, as well as now, was his total dedication to the least fortunate among us and his intense attention to the details of how to improve the lives of DC residents. “That’s what turns me on’ he would later say about his work. At the time our community was fairly marginalized and also among the poorest in the District. It was odd to all of us that someone from the east side would take the time, interest and effort to understand our community and create alliances with us. It was, in fact, striking and farsighted. Even then Vince was a natural leader and sought to unite various diverse communities, an effort generally ignored at the time. He built bridges where none existed and reached out at a time when the city was even more starkly divided than it is now.
But when I really had a chance to meet Vince was during my time working with Mayor Williams. As an area coordinator I concentrated on my community in Ward 1, but because of staff turnover was asked to cover activities in Ward 7 from time to time. When I first went over to attend an activity in Ward 7 sometime in the spring of 2004 it was to monitor a Saturday morning conclave of the various civic and community leaders from the Ward. The meeting was designed to coordinate their activities and strengthen social services in Ward 7. I was shocked at the disorder and general disrespect everyone showed each other and the breakdown of order and decorum that caused these Saturday sessions to end up essentially useless for the purposes they were intended. I reported back what I had seen and hoped not to be called back to deal with meetings in that Ward again.
About 10 months later in early 2005 and again due to staff turnover I was called back to one of those Saturday morning coordinating meetings in Ward 7 and was even more shocked, but this time in a good way. Vince had just been elected Councilmember in the first election he ever participated in at the age of 60. He was concerned about the Ward and the direction it was taking and decided to take on these Saturday meetings himself. I could not believe how the atmosphere had changed. First of all everyone was serious, proper and reserved. They addressed each other as Sir and Madame, let everyone speak their piece, respected each other’s opinions and most of all left the meeting with assigned tasks and actions. My jaw dropped as I watched this man handle everyone with such seriousness, ease and aplomb, how everyone respected him and how he made sure no one was left out of the conversation. I couldn’t believe the transformation.
I was so taken by his stature and grace I approached him at the end of that meeting to tell him what a fine job I thought he had done. He immediately began asking questions about Hispanics and the conditions affecting us all over town. He gave me his Council email and asked me to follow up with information on what our concerns were, what we thought could be done about them and similar details.
Roughly 15 months later we met at the Rosario Adult Education Center for a candidate forum in the 2006 elections. Vince sought me out in the middle of the empty auditorium before the event and, after apologizing for not having responded earlier, had a long and detailed discussion of the email, recalling it from over a year earlier. He asked questions about the various points, suggested parallels and common causes and sought clarification of certain issues. The level of detail was astounding and the fact that he had taken the time to study and think about our Latino Agenda was impressive. That day he spoke before 450 students at the Rosario, the largest crowd ever to attend a civic event at the school, and incorporated in the speech a number of the points I had made to him.
There is an enormous irony in the attempts now being made to disparage the Mayor’s reputation during this campaign since the moment you meet Vince Gray what impresses you most, what you feel intuitively is his honor and integrity and his outsized commitment to social justice. Not just the ‘nerdyness’ of it but the essential decency of the guy. He’s spent a lifetime building a reputation for care and compassion. During his time as Chair of the Council he managed that legislative body with comity, dignity and a keen sense of fair play. And as Mayor he has taken on, one by one, the fundamental problems with our government, the systems and the bureaucracy, taking them on in excruciating detail, each one methodically until he was satisfied they were on the right track. The city is bustling and booming and that’s no accident. You can argue that we’ve been well on our way for over a decade now, since the William’s administration, but make no doubt about it, a good Mayor makes all the difference and there is no one anywhere in this city who can lead us better than Vince.
I’ve been slandered by the Washington Post on more than one occasion during and after I was a publisher of Spanish language newspapers. I was also instrumental, with others, in integrating the Post staff in the 70’s when they had no Latino reporters, none. I’ve held these stories of my bouts with the Post close to me for 20 years now and perhaps one day will bring myself to write about them. But I’ve never been more ashamed of my hometown newspaper. This is the newspaper, after all, whose owner and publisher negotiated the meetings between Martin Luther King and President Kennedy. This is a newspaper that purports to be more local than otherwise, that strives to be a ‘hometown’ newspaper in the heart of DC. And yet I have never quite seen the level of disdain and hatred of the Post among my African American friends and colleagues around the city.
There was, some time ago, a very famous dialogue between the Post Executive editor and James Fallows, a distinguished journalist. Fallow’s argument was that journalism needs to be committed to its community, needs to have a social conscience EVEN on the reporting side. The Post misgauges our community’s history, roots and traditions and destroys its pride while all the time claiming they have a duty to be ‘impartial’ and ‘objective’. Fallows remarked, and anyone who has travelled anywhere understands, that this is a puerile and impossible position for a newspaper. Every newspaper is a reflection of its environment and has a defined viewpoint. If you do not believe everyone at the Post follows a line and that line is defined by the top editors at the paper you’ve not been following lately. And as goes the Post so go a great many aspiring reporters about town.
Perhaps someone should let Jeff Bezos know that his top staff have become rigid, complacent, self righteous, petty and vindictive… and don’t take it from me, talk to the thousands of Gray supporters who are going to vote for him April 1 or the majority of voters in the city who voted against their Mayoral endorsement in 2010. The Post is out of touch with the black community. They have damaged their reputation by being as brutal and insensitive as they can be while twisting and turning over facts to make them appear they’re only following where the story leads them. You can make a story insinuate anything you like and editors on the reporting end make editorial decisions every day just by selecting what they will and won’t print.
Vince began his political campaigning very late in life and had run only two elections before the fateful 2010 race. In other words, he wasn’t the proverbial political pro or part of the DC political establishment. He was new and learning on the job. I don’t know if mistakes were made back then and wasn’t part of the 2010 campaign* but I certainly can tell you how money corrupts politics –everywhere and all the time. And if the man behind all the money is going to get 6 months suspended sentence for his role in the 28 campaigns we know about, well who are we fooling here? The Post has behaved shamefully with the Mayor in a personal, vindictive attempt to vindicate their judgments. The editorial leadership and those at the top of the Post need to do the right thing with the new owner and resign. They’ve been around too long and time has passed them by. As with others in power for long periods of time they’ve become ossified and convinced of their infallible righteousness. Jeff if you want to build a fresh, strong, new, innovative 21st century piece, they need to go.
And make no mistake about it; Vince is a hometown hero and a man of enormous integrity and honor. One only need have a bit of intuition and good judgment with people to understand that when you meet him. Whatever happens from here on in, the legacy of Vince Gray is one DC residents can be proud of. He will continue to be a hero to many of us long after he is gone, and perhaps after the Post is gone as well.
* Jose Sueiro, former publisher and editor of various Spanish language newspapers in Washington DC and political appointee in the Anthony Williams administration is a Deputy Field Operative for the Gray campaign.