Photo by the author.

On Monday, DC Council Chair and candidate for mayor Vincent Gray sat down with DC bloggers at Ben’s Chili Bowl.

For nearly ninety minutes, Gray answered questions posed by bloggers from DCist, We Love DC, Borderstan, the District Curmudgeon and Greater Greater Washington. The event was part of the Gray campaign’s effort to tap into new media, and it provided a chance to talk about topics including education, crime, poverty and transportation.

This was my first chance to meet with Gray, who is challenging the incumbent Mayor Adrian Fenty for the Democratic nomination for mayor. The meeting was interesting, and shed some light into Gray’s attitude towards DC government, as well as his campaign style.

On the matter of the controversial streetcar funding maneuver, Gray was very candid. He admits it was a mistake, both in the initial cut as well as how it was handled. He maintains that he never intended to cut off all of the funding, but rather direct efforts at better planning. There was a “misunderstanding,” he says, and that “it should not have happened.” He says he is dedicated to getting streetcars running as mayor. His candor was surprising, and he did offer a sincere and personal apology.

Gray is an experienced politician and also a bit of a policy wonk. The first impression you get is that he knows what is going on, and that he doesn’t always need to fall back on talking points. It is obvious that Gray is running a campaign aimed directly at people who have felt left behind by Fenty. Gray stresses that he is a uniter, and that he wants to be the mayor of “all of the people, not just some of the people.” He aims to bridge the divide between rich and poor, Northwest and Southeast. He feels too many people have been left behind, and that too many people don’t feel invested in the city.

To achieve these goals of unity, Gray is pushing his birth-to-24 education plan. He wants better education for all ages, both to help adults get better jobs and college degrees and to keep young families in the District. His plan, which was released last week, is lofty. He again stressed that he won’t answer if he’d keep Michelle Rhee on board, even if she has made it clear she would not stay. He wants reform that is institutionalized, and he wants to get the public more involved.

On a similar note, he would also not commit either way on the future of MPD Chief Cathy Lanier. Overall, Gray has been pleased with her performance, but was very careful to be non-committal. Given his recent endorsement by the police union, this was unsurprising.

Gray also took some time to talk about development and inclusionary zoning. He made it a point that he had been at the front end of that push, and as mayor he would “aggressively implement” inclusionary zoning. This was one of the few points on which Gray hit directly at Fenty, noting his delays have caused lost units. Gray also noted that he supports making rent control permanent. When discussing development, Gray wants to see more expansion of economic diversity in developments, but without such significant displacement. A key part of his plan would be to relocate people nearby during construction, to give them a realistic chance of returning.

During the meeting, Gray was reluctant to take personal swipes at Fenty. He would note areas where Fenty’s policies had failed, but it was often his campaign manager Adam Rubinson who would chime in with a more direct attack. Gray’s style is moderate and low-key. He knows how government works, and he has some very idealistic plans. His campaign is building a solid alternative to Fenty, but the political calculus in the District is complex. Gray has the support of many who dislike Fenty, but he also needs to attract those on the fence. Gray acknowledges the intensity of the campaign, but did not have a solid answer when asked how he can attract people who are happy with a lot of Fenty’s accomplishments.

Gray’s campaign can be summed up mostly as providing more opportunities. This includes education, housing, health care and employment. He wants more government transparency and pledges to hold weekly press conferences. I don’t think you’d find anyone in the District who would disagree with his platform at this point.

Any skilled candidate will provide thoughtful and compelling answers at a session such as this. The real questions are always in the nitty-gritty. There’s no doubt that Vincent Gray loves the District and wants to see things change for the better. This campaign will be won or lost on Gray’s ability to convince District voters that he can make these things happen. The wisest thing Gray said on Monday was that this campaign will not come down to who has the most money. Fenty has a large war chest, and a record of results. He also has vulnerabilities. This will be an extremely close race, and it will be interesting to see whether the idealistic campaign plan of Vincent Gray can weather the long, hot DC summer.

Cross-posted at We Love DC.

Dave Stroup is an online organizer and progressive activist. He enjoys public transit, Democratic politics, and rabble-rousing.