Potential Charges Against Incumbent Throw D.C. Mayor's Race Up In Air

The possible indictment of incumbent D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has turned what many expected to be a routine election into a referendum on whether voters trust him.

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The latest scandal in the nation's capital involves Vincent Gray. He's the mayor of this city and he's hoping to be reelected. Early voting is already underway in the Democratic primary. But Gray is facing possible indictment over what he knew or didn't know about hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in the shadows to help him win office in 2010. Now questions about corruption and trust in politics have taken over in what looked like the routine city election. Here's NPR's Allison Keyes.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: The day after federal prosecutors said Mayor Gray knew about a $668,000 shadow campaign to help him get elected and that he personally asked a millionaire businessman to help pay for it, Gray addressed the allegations in a State of the District address.

MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: I didn't break the law.

(APPLAUSE)

KEYES: U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen announced last week that D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson had pleaded guilty to funneling more than $3 million in illegal contributions to federal and local political campaigns, including Hillary Clinton's 2008 race, and Gray's 2010 run.

RONALD MACHEN: Jeff Thompson's guilty plea pulls back the curtain to expose widespread corruption.

KEYES: Court documents allege that Gray personally asked Thompson for $425,000 dollars for a get out the vote campaign, among other things. Machen says the three-year probe is far from over.

MACHEN: If you participated in backroom, under-the-table deals with Jeff Thompson, I urge you to come forward now and own up to your conduct. I promise you we are not going away.

KEYES: Gray has apologized to D.C. residents, though he has not been charged with any crime, and he has aggressively defended himself against the allegations. He says Thompson lied to secure a six-month plea deal in the case. But Gray did admit it's difficult for a candidate to be involved in every aspect of a race and says it's possible something got by him.

GRAY: Well, yes. I mean don't think it's possible to monitor every detail in a campaign.

MURIEL BOWSER: People want to ask the hard questions and make sure they're electing a mayor that they can trust.

KEYES: City Councilwoman Muriel Bowser is one of seven challengers to Gray in the upcoming Democratic primary, which is usually tantamount to election day in a city that has never had a mayor of any other party. She is hoping to be the candidate that heads into the general election against independent City Councilman David Catania. He'd be the first white, gay, former Republican elected if he wins. Catania thinks Gray should step down.

DAVID CATANIA: Do you really believe it's in our best interest for you to continue to lead the city under the circumstances? I don't know how he comes to the affirmative in that question, but he does and he has.

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: It throws the entire race up into the air.

KEYES: Michael Fauntroy is an associate professor of political science at Howard University. He says Thompson's guilty plea and U.S. Attorney Machen's ominous press conference put D.C. in a negative light at the national level. It's already known as the city where former Mayor Marion Barry was arrested in 1990 for smoking crack. But in a place colloquially known as Chocolate City for its African-American majority, demographics have changed. It's now more than 42 percent white, which to Fauntroy means the next mayor might not be black.

FAUNTROY: And I think the reason there's many people in the race suggests not only the ambition of those who are running but also suggests that there's an opportunity to win.

KEYES: But voters are divided. Connie Britt is a Marion Barry supporter who doesn't believe Gray's claim that he's innocent.

CONNIE BRITT: No, I think he's a crook. I think he's a crook.

BARBARA SAVAGE: I think anybody that's mayor is going to not have an easy time. I think he's done well.

KEYES: Barbara Savage lives in Gray's home ward and likes the job he's done. But few here would talk about whether the federal probe has affected their support for him in this election. Some, including Gray's lawyer, Robert Bennett, question the timing of the U.S. attorney's press conference.

ROBERT BENNETT: It does raise a question why he would take Thompson's plea and talk so much about the mayor right before the primary.

KEYES: Bennett says if Mayor Gray is indicted he will vigorously fight the charges. Machen said at his press conference that his probe isn't driven by the election but by the evidence gathered to date. The Democratic primary is April 1. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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