Once in a rare while you hear someone speak, maybe just in conversation, and you know instantly that you’re in the presence of a leader. That was former U.S. Rep. Bill Gray, who died Monday.
Twenty-three years after he resigned from public office, his influence on Philadelphia’s political scene is profound. I asked Mayor Michael Nutter today if he’d be mayor without his relationship with Gray.
“It’s fair to say that there’s no way in the world I would have been a City Council person to be even in a position to run for mayor, but for Bill Gray,” he said.
A host of political figures could say the same thing, like U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, State Rep. Dwight Evans, City Councilwoman Marian Tasco and many others including, perhaps, W. Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor.
The remarkable thing is that Gray supported and mentored a whole generation of Philadelphia political figures while he was playing the national political game so skillfully he became Majority Whip, the third most powerful person in the House before age 50.
We’ve seen local pols who make it big.
Bill Gray managed to become a power on Capitol Hill and become an even more influential power broker at home.
Where he started
Gray was in the vanguard of Philadelphia’s independent black political movement in the 1970s. There had been black elected officials more, but they served with the support of the white Democratic establishment. Gray and a few others changed the game.
He was a very young pastor of Bright Hope Baptist church when Gray won the Second Congressional seat in 1978. He was immediately a force in the city, but a battle that established a new fault in city politics came four years later when Milton Street challenged Gray for re-election.
It was a horrifically nasty race, with Street calling Gray “an Uncle Tom and a house n—– … controlled by white people.”
Gray won overwhelmingly and for years after, the city’s black political establishment was seen as divided between the Gray faction and the Street-Blackwell faction (named for Milton and John Street, later a two-term mayor, and Lucien Blackwell a councilman who later served in Congress).
Gray built a serious political machine. He understood personal relationships, and he practiced coalition politics: Black and white, middle class and poor, reformers and machine politicians.
And, he knew how to raise serious money with a growing set of national and local-business connections. When Bill Gray backed you for office, you got his fundraising help, idealistic activists and plenty of traditional ward leaders and petty power brokers along for the ride.
His chief of staff, J. Whyatt “Jerry” Mondesire (now Philadelphia NAACP president) managed it all, wearing his trademark cowboy hat — interviewing candidates, making connections, settling squabbles and, around election time, delivering cash to ward leaders ready to play for the team. Nothing illegal. Just good old-fashioned “Philadelphia Street Money.”
Gray soon had influence in many elected local offices along with his national connections.
I remember talking to Councilwoman Tasco about her position on some policy issue back then, and she said she’d first have to talk to the Congressman about it. I didn’t have to ask which Congressman.
It was a powerful organization, a force to be reckoned with citywide. Then, lightning struck.
The man departs
In 1991, when Gray was a local kingmaker and rising national star perhaps destined to become Speaker of the House, he shocked the political world by announcing his resignation from Congress.
He left to become president of the United Negro College Fund, but the suddenness of it confounded analysts and left some of his supporters feeling betrayed.
There were reports of an FBI investigation of Gray and his associates, but no charges came of it.
Rumors persisted that the feds agreed to drop a case against him if he’d resign, but that never made sense to me. Gray was known to have a taste for the good life, and with the new gig, he could serve on a bunch of corporate boards and prosper.
But he could do that without resigning mid-term, leaving a chaotic fight for his seat in a special election. It went first to Blackwell, then eventually to then-State Sen. Chaka Fattah, a pol who’d been an ally, though not a charter member of the Gray team.
A legacy, and memories
The Gray organization lost its leader and some cohesion when he resigned, but it remained an influential network of political figures, many of which had their own organizations, not to mention political offices with which to work.
People who remember Gray talk not just about his political acumen — he learned a lot growing up the son of a pastor — but about his magnetism and personal touch.
Tasco recalled that when Gray was elected chairman of the House Budget Committee, he celebrated with a big party in Washington, but didn’t just invite his Capitol Hill buddies. He brought church people, ward leaders and political friends from Philly, too.
“And the ward leaders and block captains all felt a part of it,” Tasco told me. “They weren’t standing on the side. They were right there, in Colin Powell’s face and talking with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We all felt good when we went to a Bill Gray event.”
Tasco said she’d spoke to Gray recently, and he sounded fine.
“You know the saddest part?” she said. “I’m never going to hear that voice again.”