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In D.C., concern over health of Council member Vincent C. Gray comes into view


For months, members of the D.C. Council have commiserated privately about a subject that many are reluctant to broach publicly: the health of council member Vincent C. Gray, their oldest and perhaps most prominent colleague, who had a stroke a year ago.

Gray, 80, did not express opposition when Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), citing a majority of members’ concerns about Gray’s health, called in late December to say he wanted to remove him as chair of the Health Committee and assign him to a new committee with a narrower portfolio, according to Mendelson and a Gray spokesman.

The following day, though, Gray’s office released a letter to his colleagues in which Gray (D-Ward 7) accused the chairman of violating the D.C. Human Rights Act by citing his health as the reason to reassign him to a position Gray considers a demotion. In the letter, Gray wrote that he was “disappointed in colleagues who have attempted to leverage my health challenges for a power grab.”

“I was surprised,” Mendelson said of the tenor of Gray’s response. Referring to their phone call, the chairman said, “There was none of this outrage or intensity of opposition.”

Mendelson said that his proposed change reflected the view of a majority of the council’s 13 members that the aftereffects of Gray’s stroke have interfered with his capacity to manage the Health Committee’s robust workload. In his new role, which is contingent on the council approving Mendelson’s reorganization plan on Tuesday, Gray would chair a newly formed committee focused on hospitals and health equity, two of the council member’s main interests.

“The bottom line is that members have been concerned for months, members have complained to me for months,” Mendelson said, declining to elaborate. Mendelson said he and his colleagues were “surprised” when Gray on Dec. 6 did not attend the latter portion of a marathon council session that stretched late into the night, citing his doctor’s order that he limit his workday to eight hours.

Gray, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article or make his doctors available to answer questions about his health. In a written statement, Gray said he has “not ruled out any options for contesting” his removal from the Health Committee. He said he hopes to resolve the dispute “through discussion and diplomacy, not with headlines and hashtags.”

Yet, on Thursday, Gray’s office sought to turn up the pressure on his council colleagues. In another statement, Gray announced that he would propose a resolution on Tuesday requiring that “all Council actions must comply with the D.C. Human Rights Act,” which prohibits discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation and other traits, including disabilities. In the statement, Gray said it is “disappointing and shocking” that Mendelson “has chosen to violate the spirit” of the act “if not violated altogether the letter of the law.”

The challenges of age and health are well-known for causing complex and often awkward phases in careers in any number of professions. In politics, those challenges can become all the more magnified because the players often are public figures who carefully curate their images and reputations.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), 89, has fended off pressure to relinquish her seat because of what associates have described as her failing memory. In Pennsylvania, Democrat John Fetterman won the U.S. Senate seat in November despite voters’ concerns about his health after he suffered a stroke. As he campaigned, often virtually, Fetterman, 53, maintained that he remained cognitively sound even as his speech was noticeably labored and he was physically limited as he recovered.

Gray, who is 27 years older than Fetterman, invoked the senator-elect when he protested his council reassignment. In the letter to his council colleagues, Gray wrote that he was “shocked” that he had to remind them of the support Fetterman garnered from Pennsylvania voters “as he fought through challenges similar to mine.”

A prominent voice on the city’s political stage for most of the past two decades, Gray served a term as council chairman before becoming mayor in 2011. He lost the mayoralty in 2014 when he was defeated in the Democratic primary by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). Two years later, he returned to public office when he won the council seat representing a predominantly African American ward on the city’s east side.

Known for his detailed command of policy and rigorous work ethic, Gray has long advocated for communities east of the Anacostia river — or “the East End,” as he likes to call that area — where he also lives. Last February, he attended a groundbreaking for a new hospital being built in Ward 8, a development that he has been championing for years.

It was nearly two months before that ceremony when Gray had a stroke. After he returned to his council duties, he spoke slowly and haltingly at moments as he presided over Health Committee hearings. He also has seemed more energized at moments, such as in June when he spoke at an announcement for a new Giant supermarket in Northeast.

“C’mon y’all, give it up!” he said, urging the crowd to applaud. “Give it up!”

In August, as he was still recovering, Gray tore his Achilles’ tendon, an injury that required surgery and physical therapy. His recovery regimen was interrupted for a few weeks in mid-October when he slipped at home, said his spokesman Chuck Thies. The setback caused Gray to miss a couple of council sessions, Thies said. In December, when the council convened to have a group photograph taken, Gray arrived in a wheelchair and remained seated.

Despite his constraints, Gray has maintained that his doctor has cleared him to work and that “my only limitations are physical and they are temporary.” In his letter to his colleagues, he wrote that seniority “is traditionally taken into consideration when assigning committees” and that his years on the council qualify him over any of his colleagues to chair the Health Committee. “Breaking long-established protocol,” Gray wrote, “would further demonstrate that the decision to demote me is a clear violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act.”

By citing Gray’s health, Mendelson exposed himself to criticism that he was being unfair to the council member. But Mendelson said he believed that “some explanation was better than no explanation.” Referring to a potential Human Rights Act violation, Mendelson said that Gray’s relationship to the council is not the same as an “employer-employee relationship.”

“The Human Rights Act applies to employment relationships,” he said. “This is a political organization.”

In the days since their dispute surfaced, no council member who will preside when the lawmakers reconvene Tuesday has publicly expressed support for Gray or opposed Mendelson’s proposed change. Several council members, including Kenyan R. McDuffie, a Ward 5 Democrat who is returning in January as an at-large independent, Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large), did not respond to requests for comment. The council member whom Mendelson has assigned to chair the Health Committee, Christina Henderson (I-At Large), also did not respond to a message seeking comment, nor did council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2).

“I don’t think anyone, including myself, wants to say or be seen saying anything negative about Vince — his health is his business to talk about,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). At the same time, White, who supports Mendelson’s proposed changes, said Gray “is clearly dealing with significant health issues.” Asked to cite the evidence of those issues, White said, “That’s just not something for me to say. I think the best source for the story is talking to Vince.”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) also said he supports Mendelson’s overall reorganization plan. Regarding Gray’s proposed new assignment, Allen said that having the council member focus on issues “he clearly feels passionate about — health care on the eastern side — makes a lot of sense,” though he also added, “I’m certainly sympathetic to Vince — incredibly sympathetic — that he doesn’t support the move.”

Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), whose council term is ending and who will not vote on the reorganization plan, said that over the past year, council members at points were “alarmed” during hearings when Gray “would lose his place in his statements and stumble over his words.” Nevertheless, Cheh said she disagrees with Mendelson’s proposal because Gray “can still do his job.”

“Not only is it unfair to Vince but it is unfair to his constituents,” Cheh said. “He has served a long time and has done great things and his constituents keep sending him back into office.”

Yet, it is an open question how much support Gray has in Ward 7 regarding his dispute with his colleagues. An online petition started in the ward on Dec. 22 and calling on Mendelson to “reappoint” Gray as Health Committee chair had attracted only 28 signatures as of eight days later.

Antawan Holmes, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7 who has supported Gray in the past, said residents have not often seen the council member out and about in the past year. “We have questions about how he’s doing,” Holmes said. “We need for him to come out and say, ‘Hey look, I’m okay.’ We hear he’s okay, but no one knows how anyone is doing unless they see him.”

Yvette M. Alexander, the ward’s former council member who was unseated by Gray in 2016, said she saw him at a ceremony for the opening of a Lidl supermarket and at a community vigil in late September. She also has watched him during council hearings.

“He doesn’t seem to be what he used to be — that’s obvious,” Alexander said. “He just seems a little slower than usual.” Yet, she also said that it should be left up to Gray to determine whether he’s capable of performing his duties. “I haven’t heard anyone from Ward 7 say we need a new representative. The only thing is, people ask, ‘Where’s Vince?’ He seems to be missing in action.”

Villareal Johnson, the acting president of the Ward 7-based Hillcrest Community Civic Association, who is among several residents who started the petition on Gray’s behalf, said he has no concerns about the council member’s ability to do his job.

“Can he think? Yes. Does he have competent staff? Yes. Can he read? Yes. Those are the things council members do,” Johnson said. “If he has been cleared to work by a medical professional and can do the work, what is the authority of the chairman to say otherwise?”

Mendelson said he was “not pretending to make a medical judgment” about a colleague he described as a “longtime friend and ally.” His hope, he said, is that a lighter workload will give Gray “the full opportunity to recover.”

“I’m not sure what their endpoint is,” Mendelson said of Gray’s response. “Is it to have lots of discussion about his health? Or to pretend that the votes are there for what his staff is arguing?”

“If he wants to undo it, he will need seven votes,” the chairman said. “And I don’t see that.”