The congressional life of Bill Gray set a new standard in big city politics
ABOVE PHOTO: Former PA Congressman William Gray III returned to Capitol Hill on April 16, 1997 to attend an unveiling ceremony of his portrait. He is joined by his son William IV, wife Andrea, mother, Hazel, and sons Justin and Andrew.
(Frederick Watkins, Jr./Ebony Collection)
By J. Whyatt Mondesire
William H. Gray is gone.
Long live the preacher; who also was the son and grandson of preachers. Long live the congressman who made history as the first African American Majority Whip of the U.S. House of Representatives, then the highest office any black official had ever achieved in our national government. Long live the director of the United Negro College Fund; the funnel through which millions of dollars are pumped into mainly private black colleges in some of the poorest areas of the South. Long live the consummate Washington lobbyist and insider who enjoyed being seated among the anointed on some of this country’s most prestigious corporate boards.
There were many Bill Grays. In addition to the list above we shouldn’t forget he too was a husband and father of three boys as well as grandfather to his oldest son’s children.
I knew some of these Bill Grays.
I worked for one of them--Chief of Staff of his congressional office for nearly 12 years until he stepped down from public office in 1991.
It was a unique decade of public service ushered in by the Civil Rights era predicated on the belief that government could improve people’s lives especially those who had been either locked out or disinherited from the promise of the American Dream. More importantly though, it was Bill Gray’s keen political acumen and hard work during his nearly dozen years in office that saw him keep his promise to share that American Dream with his congressional district, his church and his city—and black people in general. That’s why I left an editorship at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1980 and went to work for him; namely to be part of a transformative political paradigm that shifted black families from victims of political power into recipients of its spoils. The stifling effect of the Inquirer’s “glass ceiling” on black advancement was another factor as well.
“Congressman Bill Gray was one of the most significant figures in Philadelphia politics. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing.
“From advocating for Philadelphia’s fair share of federal dollars to fighting against the injustice of apartheid in South Africa, Congressman Gray’s mark cannot be erased. He helped make the renovation of 30th Street Station possible, and the sight of that magnificent structure should give us all reason to be thankful for his service.
“On a personal note, I always appreciated his support for the families and communities of North Philadelphia. My deepest condolences go to Congressman Gray’s wife, Andrea, their sons, and the rest of their family.”
--City Council President Darrell Clarke
Transformative political movement
Congressman William H. Gray, III was a political game-changer who built a working coalition of the city’s old-line machine ward leaders alongside the growing cadre of reformist liberals into the most dominant political operation in Philadelphia in the past quarter century. At its apex, Gray’s political operation was able to align the most money grubbing ward leaders in North and West Philly in lock-step with the white glove liberals who made up the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) along other well-off reformers in the tony neighborhoods of Chestnut Hill and Wynnefield Heights.
Gray’s coalition not only insured his own re-election every two years but also lead to the empowerment of local elected officials at every level of local and state government; from state senators to council members and even mayor.
Midway through his time in Congress, Philadelphia’s political hopefuls sought Gray’s endorsement with even more gusto than they solicited his campaign contributions. Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, who started as a State Senator had many of her Women’s Way supporters “talk her up” to Bill Gray first, so by the time he finally did meet her, word had already spread far and wide that he was her sponsor.
Bill Gray’s personal intervention resulted in the first $250,000 that W. Wilson Goode raised in his successful bid to become the city’s first African American mayor in 1983. And a year later, he was among the leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus who donated money and campaigned personally in support of Mayor Harold Washington’s history making win in Chicago.
That same coalition style of mixing races, genders and political appetites also propelled him to the highest elected post any black man had attained in American government when he successfully matched support among his southern colleagues with that of his fellow congressmen and women from urban centers to become the Majority Whip of the Congress, a position often seen as a stepping stone to Speaker of the House of Representatives.
But it was the race to become House Budget Committee Chairman that first demonstrated he could take his local model of political powerbrokering onto the national stage.
These were the Reagan days, when the White House was dominated by the new conservative ethos that the best way to get to a balanced budget was to slash and burn domestic spending since government no longer was extolled as a friend of working families. Reaganites, philosophical ancestors to today’s Tea Partyers, saw government as not part of the problem facing the American middle class, but as the problem.
PHOTO: William Gray III is presented with a gavel given to him by House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. during a reception for Gray on January 4, 1985, celebrating his appointment as the first Black chairman of the House Budget Committee.
(Maurice Sorrell/Ebony Collection via AP Images)
At first, Gray was not convinced he would win enough support among his non-black colleagues to win a nationally prominent position. At one early staff meeting he suggested he might instead go after the title of Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. However, when the consensus among staff and close friends showed how his urbane and low key pubic demeanor (in addition to his pastorate of Bright Hope Baptist Church) would not easily fit into the mode of permanent scold of the Reagan administration’s anti-urban, anti-poor, anti-minority posture he listened as a junior staff member laid out the plan of how he, and only he, could attract enough southern votes to win.
Using his formidable fundraising skills to swell his own campaign war chest beyond his personal needs, Gray soon had enough “extra” resources on hand to help members whose own intra-district re-election contests were a lot closer. It marked the first time a black congressman was on the giving side of the deal. A few editorial writers for mainstream newspapers criticized his largesse as “buying votes.” But the congressional candidates who needed donations were glad to get it and they were not bashful about remembering the second golden rule, namely--help them who help you.
Before the wider world witnessed the formidable political skills Gray had gleaned from his father and friends of his father such as Martin Luther “Daddy” King, Sr. as well as some of North Philadelphia’s most notorious ward leaders, Philadelphians were given a firsthand lesson after Gray lost his first congressional election in 1976.
Incumbent Congressman Robert N.C. Nix [for whom a young Bill Gray had once interned courtesy of his father’s connections] prevailed but only after the city’s Democratic political machine had pulled out all manner of shenanigans to eke out a whisker thin margin. Even the legendary civil rights attorney Cecil B. Moore had been corrupted, when he bragged to this reporter about how he manipulated the count in “my North Philly wards” until he saw how the rest of the Second District were polling. The final recount listed Nix’s victory at 239 votes when it was eventually settled by the courts.
The quest to find a way to employ the 239-vote margin became an instant obsession. During one of the all too frequent strategy sessions Gray would convene in his living room of his East Mt. Airy home, a young white campaign volunteer suggested creating a “239 fundraising club.” The idea ignited in a rush. Bright Hope members started “paying down” on their “239” memberships in $10, $20 and $30 installments. Other, more flush constituents in Center City and Chestnut Hill sent in their checks for the full amount to get a “239 club” lapel pin. In less than two months, nearly $20,000 had been collected; a princely sum at the time for a challenger’s political campaign treasury.
By the time the campaign was in full swing and Congressman Nix had imported no less than boxing hero Muhammad Ali to ride with him in an open convertible during a North Philadelphia motorcade, you could hear people in the crowd laughing about, “Who is that guy in the sunglasses riding next to the champ?” Gray went on to win by over 10,000 votes.
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