Gray adds China trip to his growing resume Councilman's visit part of long journey from Calvert County

October 06, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray -- who grew up on the Southern Maryland tobacco farm where his grandfather was a sharecropper -- began a two-week official visit to China yesterday that marks a high point in a lifetime of political striving.

As vice president of the National Association of Counties, the east Columbia Democrat will be the guest of the Chinese government, traveling from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Beijing, visiting local officials in counties a world away.

The trip, coming shortly before the 15th anniversary of Gray's election to the council, illustrates how far he has come -- and how far he might go.

Since his election in July as vice president of the counties group, known as NACo, Gray, 58, has visited the White House twice, had dinner at the Chinese Embassy and gone to conferences for county officials in four states.

That pace could quicken in 1999. If he maintains his status as a Howard County official, he will become NACo president, essentially a lobbying job that requires regular trips to Washington.

Friday, hours before leaving for China, Gray spoke of his first three months as NACo vice president with enthusiasm.

"I was amazed," Gray said of his front-row seat for President Clinton's signing of the balanced-budget deal in August. "I was almost right by the stage."

Fellow politicians in both parties have noticed how much Gray enjoys his new job. His mood has improved markedly since a year ago, when he appeared unhappy for months after losing an earlier bid for the NACo position.

At a fund-raiser for the Columbia Democratic Club on Monday, Gray was ebullient.

"He was hugging and kissing everybody in the room," said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the Howard Democratic Central Committee. "Vernon is sometimes reserved, but he seemed in very good spirits."

Longtime rival Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican who has often feuded with Gray, said he can tell Gray is enjoying his new job.

"He gets to hobnob with the president and governors and senators," Drown said. "That's where that man loves to float."

Gray can be taciturn or combative, but he has the gregariousness of a politician and excels at the one-on-one relationships common to government at all levels.

They are skills well-suited to the lobbying NACo does on behalf of the nation's 3,000 counties.

Gray was born into politics. His parents are not well-educated -- neither went past eighth grade -- but they instilled in Gray a love of education and politics.

On a tobacco farm near the bayside town of Chesapeake Beach, Gray began attending political rallies with his parents when he was 5.

Student politician

He was active in student politics in high school, at Morgan State University and at graduate school at the University of Massachusetts, where he earned a doctorate in political science.

He returned to Morgan State as a professor in 1972 and moved to Columbia in 1973. In 1976, he was director of the "black desk" for Jimmy Carter's successful presidential campaign, traveling the country to gather support from blacks.

In 1982, when Gray became the first black county councilman in Howard, he gave a speech noting his progress in life.

"It's just 60 miles to get from Calvert County to Howard County," Gray said. "But to get from there to this place was many more miles than 60."

Dangerous path

Fifteen years on the County Council have given Gray such stature within the Democratic Party that he would face little opposition in a party primary if he chose to run for county executive in 1998.

But that would be a dangerous path for Gray. He must remain a county official to keep his NACo job. And in an increasingly Republican county such as Howard, Gray is safer running for a fifth term as councilman for liberal east Columbia.

"If he elects not to run for county executive," said Jim Kraft, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, "he's giving himself four additional years to build himself a national presence and stature for himself."

Party leaders expect Gray to announce soon -- perhaps at an event Nov. 5 commemorating his 15th anniversary on the council -- that he will not run for county executive.

Gray remains coy on that point, but he spoke concretely about plans for his year as NACo president: "My theme when I become president, which I'm starting to work on now, is economic development."

Republicans love to label Gray a liberal, but he has been supported by Howard's business community and plans to create a committee of business leaders to advise him on such issues as tax credits, economic incentives and other development tools.

Business opportunities

Between stops at the Great Wall and China's 2,200-year-old terra cotta soldiers, Gray also hopes to visit Maryland's trade office in Shanghai. He will look for opportunities for Howard County businesses in China, he says.

Gray is also building his network of national and international contacts, not to mention the kind of resume that could help him win appointment at the state or federal level when his NACo job is done.

But Gray said his focus is Howard County and calls the trip "just another step along the way."

"In the Baptist Church," he said, "we say you must run on to see what the end might be."

Pub Date: 10/06/97

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