WASHINGTON (AP) - Calling his campaign of four years ago an "embarrassment," District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray nevertheless made a forceful case Saturday that he's earned the opportunity to serve another term.
Gray's 2010 campaign against then-mayor Adrian Fenty was rife with criminal activity, resulting in four guilty pleas by aides to Gray in two separate schemes to help get him elected. Federal prosecutors continue to investigate the mayor, who has not been accused of a crime, and his ties to a businessman who's suspected of boosting Gray's bid with $650,000 in illicit funds.
"I know that the 2010 campaign caused many people great pain, and I know that our city - because I was among them - suffered embarrassment," Gray said as he launched his re-election bid. "So today, I want to apologize to you. I want to apologize for the pain that my campaign - my campaign - caused. And I want to ask for your forgiveness for what happened."
The remarks earned a partial standing ovation and chants of "Four more years!" from the few hundred supporters who packed inside an auditorium at an arts and recreation center in southeast Washington.
Ambrose Lane Jr., a real estate developer based in northeast Washington, said the mayor's apology showed his strength of character.
"It takes a very strong leader to say, 'I'm sorry,'" Lane said. "(New Jersey) Gov. (Chris) Christie went through a whole diatribe and never said the words, 'I'm sorry.'"
The mayor was swarmed by well-wishers after his nearly 30-minute speech, but he did not answer reporters' questions. Campaign manager Chuck Thies said the mayor's time was better spent interacting with voters.
The Democratic primary is April 1, leaving the mayor with little time to make his case to voters. His challengers include four D.C. councilmembers with bases of support in different parts of the city. The field of candidates, Gray's shaky popularity and the unusually early primary date raise the possibility that a winner could emerge with a small plurality of voters amid low turnout.
The Democratic nominee has gone on to win every general election since the District of Columbia was granted self-rule in 1973. But this year could bring an unusually competitive general election, with independent D.C. council member David Catania exploring a mayoral bid.
Gray, 71, a veteran public servant, rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Fenty, particularly in the African-American community, to victory in 2010. He ran up huge margins in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where he lives and where poverty and unemployment rates are much higher than in the rest of the city.
Gray argued Saturday that future economic opportunity was more important to voters than the misdeeds of his underlings, characterizing his previous campaign as old news.
"It is time to turn the page. I know that some journalists and our opponents want you to focus on the past," Gray said. "I know they that they care about ratings and selling newspapers. But you know what I care about, ladies and gentlemen? I care about you, and moving the city forward."
Playing to his base, Gray said he was committed to extending the city's prosperity to struggling neighborhoods while protecting longtime residents from gentrification.
"Today, people who move into the District of Columbia because it offers opportunity and a wonderfully diverse culture, we welcome them," Gray said. "But we cannot forget those who held our city together."
Gray argues that under his watch, the city has made strides in education, economic development, fiscal stability, public safety and environmental stewardship. The city ended last fiscal year with a $400 million surplus, and the mayor has replenished the city's reserve fund. The city is gaining more than 1,000 new residents a month, according to Census figures, and once-neglected neighborhoods have been transformed into high-rent districts with bustling nightlife.
Critics, however, say the mayor's policies have little to do with the city's resurgence.
Gray has largely kept in place the school reforms implemented under Fenty, including a strong emphasis on standardized testing and firing teachers for poor performance. The district enjoyed big gains this year on the federally administered tests known as the Nation's Report Card. However, the gaps between black and white students are among the nation's highest, and many public schools in less affluent neighborhoods continue to struggle.
The city's electorate is reliably liberal, with Democrats making up 76 percent of voters and Republicans stuck at 6 percent, and the candidates have many similarities on policy.
The four councilmembers challenging Gray say they are more suitable for office, for different reasons. Tommy Wells has been outspoken on ethics, saying the mayor should be disqualified from consideration because of his 2010 campaign. Muriel Bowser has touted herself as an energetic leader in the Fenty mold. Jack Evans has pointed to his experience as the longest-tenured councilmember. And Vincent Orange is running a populist campaign, painting the mayor as too friendly to big business.