WASHINGTON -- It is time for the kickoff event of the 2014 campaign for mayor of Washington, D.C. In a few moments, we shall have the opportunity to watch the incumbent prostrate himself before us in shame, and then ask us to vote for him.
We are inside a shiny, new community arts centre in one of the most economically polarized communities in the country. As the hall fills, a woman who gives her name as "Miss Pat" is handing out flyers in support of the sitting chief executive of the District of Columbia, a slender, 71-year-old widower with dark dyed hair named Vincent Condol Gray. "From the day I graduated college to this morning when I greeted the new day, I have worked on behalf of you and the neediest among us," the handbills quote him as saying.
How times flies. Already, we are four years removed from Gray's 2010 campaign, which was so laden with illegalities three of his aides subsequently pleaded guilty to having "diverted" hundreds of thousands of honest dollars. Hizzoner himself still is under investigation by the federal authorities but so far has escaped uncharged. While he waits, he runs for re-election.
Among other improprieties, Gray's team arranged for a straw man named Sulaimon Brown to enter the 2010 race for the sole -- and successful -- purpose of slandering the opposition, and then paid off the debt with a sinecure at a salary of $110,000 a year.
"Why isn't your mayor in jail?" I ask Miss Pat as we wait for him to take the stage, finally getting my revenge on all the people here who have asked me, the longtime Torontonian, the same question.
"There are too many of his politicians in jail already," she replies. "There's no room!"
And this is one of his campaign workers!
We contrast Mayor Gray with two of his predecessors, Marion Barry and Adrian Fenty. Barry, the role model for crack-smoking big-city mayors everywhere, would be re-elected tomorrow with a huge majority despite his transgressions, Miss Pat affirms. (Barry continues to serve on the D.C. council, representing the downtrodden ward in which Mayor Gray is staging his rally.)
"He didn't take nothing from the government, he just hurt himself," she reasons. "Brought down by a piece of booty."
Of the elegant Fenty, who was defeated by Vincent Gray in 2010, Miss Pat offers a vegetarian analogy: "He's so slimy, he's worse than okra boiling."
Two evenings earlier, in a 200-year-old mansion in tony Georgetown, I was watching six of Mayor Gray's challengers -- four members of the D.C. council and two others introduced as "reasonable long shots" -- engage in a stultifying debate about on-street parking when a seventh duly registered candidate, a young African-American businessman named Christian Carter, walked in and was denied a seat at the dais.
"This isn't the slave days," Carter bristled, demanding the right to speak.
"Yes, it is," riposted the spindly white moderator, as dozens jeered.
Thus the table is set for the district's Democratic primary, which is equivalent to an election in a city with only seven per cent Republican registration, to take place on April Fools Day.
Or, as the D.C. rapper gadfly Larry Pretlow put it in a track released last week:
Even Vince Gray down witcha
But I bet you vote 'em back
Now tell me how ignorant is that
How we let a f -- up system overtake our great city like that?
Our great city, a candidate and restaurateur named Andy Shallal scolded us at the Georgetown debate, can claim the highest percentage of university-educated residents in the United States, yet the highest rate of illiteracy; one of the highest levels of income per capita, yet the highest rate of child poverty.
With this as the stakes, back at the kickoff rally, Mayor Vincent C. Gray begins to speak:
"I know that the 2010 campaign caused many people great pain," he says. "And I know that our city suffered great embarrassment. So today, I want to apologize to you. I want to apologize for the pain that my campaign caused, and I want to ask for your forgiveness for what happened."
Standing ovation. Cheers and chanting. Shouts of "Four more years!"
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.