Gray Earned His Chance To Climb The Ladder

Comment

April 20, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

C. VERNON GRAY's surname is misleading. People either like him or they don't. It's black and white. Not a shade of gray.

The 3rd District councilman enjoys a long political career, which could crest this summer if he is elected vice president of the National Association of Counties (NACo) and possibly, though not likely, again next year, when he is expected to run for Howard County executive. Time has gained him loyal friends and made bitter enemies. He swept into office when Howard was considered an incubator for progressive thought.

Those were heady days in 1982, when Howard residents widely believed that it was only a matter of years before a person of color would become county executive.

Mr. Gray still believes. That is why the Democrat is a good bet to launch a candidacy to succeed Republican Charles I. Ecker, who would easily win a third term if not for the county charter's two-term limit for county executive.

Can Mr. Gray win? Probably not, unless he can tap into some Indonesian cash. The county's lurch to the right over the last decade makes it doubtful that any African-American can capture a countywide election, although conservatives say "the right kind of black candidate" can win.

They don't realize that Justice Clarence Thomas doesn't live here.

Should Mr. Gray run? Absolutely. Nobody in the county has a better record for government service. For certain, he is the consummate politician, with the spectrum of connotations the phrase entails. But he is fiercely committed to constituents within and outside his district. Even his most publicized "fault" attests to this.

His enemies sought to make political hay over his large expense accounts, driven primarily by his marathon cellular phone use. Foes said none of his colleagues on council came close to using a cell phone as much.

But an exhaustive examination by The Sun showed that nearly all his cell phone calls were for business purposes, county business.

Residents who pay his council salary were getting their money's worth. You may disagree with him on issues or his core philosophy that government should play a big part in healing public problems. But you've got to admit that the Traveling Man never stops working on the county's behalf.

These are not the best of times for Mr. Gray. Republicans are the majority on council, leaving him powerless on legislative matters. He believes media portrayals of him have been excessively negative and unfair. And last year he was demonized by one faction in the county's ugly judicial race.

He created problems for himself when he raised money to finance his bid for a NACo post last year. Technically, he followed the rules by getting advice from county and state lawyers before he began seeking donations, but he should have reported all contributions to ensure that not even a hint of a conflict would arise.

Still, these are blips in a long political career that has meant a lot to Howard County, for reasons substantive and symbolic.

Mr. Gray is an old-school government zealot. When he became Morgan State University's first political science department chairman in 1972, the 33-year-old Mr. Gray already had been a senior staff associate at the Joint Center for Political [and Economic] Studies, a government research assistant at the University of Massachussetts and a college instructor in Little Rock, Ark.

In 1982, he ran in the countywide race for County Council and finished fifth, good enough to earn him a seat as Howard's first African-American lawmaker. This suburban-rural enclave was at the forefront of social progress.

Looking beyond race

The buoyant Mr. Gray remarked that his election "shows that in fact whites will vote for blacks because they are qualified. A number of whites really looked beyond the question of race."

The new councilman brought fresh ideas. A few years after his election, he proposed a measure to divest county money from companies operating in apartheid South Africa. The legislation surprised the administration of then-County Executive J. Hugh Nichols, who worried needlessly that such a move would jeopardize the county's investment portfolio.

He's worked harder than any other elected county official to build the supply of desperately needed low- and moderate-income housing. He would prefer to scatter it around an affluent county to prevent pockets of poverty.

Mr. Gray raises big money from local businesses to fuel his campaigns, but he stands up more often than other council colleagues for the little guy, be they neighbors of the Alpha Ridge Landfill concerned about health problems or police officers seeking to boost their retirement benefits.

Democrats are afraid that a Gray nomination would ensure defeat in next year's race for county executive and Republicans would prefer him as an opponent to state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer and others mentioned as contenders. But Mr. Gray has earned the opportunity to run and to be seriously considered by anyone who still believes that government can help change things for the better.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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