Virginia Gray had it all planned out. Her son would be a preacher. As a black woman in rural Calvert County, Md., in the ’30s and ’40s, Virginia had seen the power of the church. It offered hope in a world that still offered separate drinking fountains. It was the moral – and social focus – of the black community. Virginia saw leadership qualities in her youngest son and figured he belonged in the church.
Vernon Gray had other ideas. Nurtured by the activism of Virginia and Major, his father, Vernon developed a head for politics before most people had developed their bike- riding skills. “My parents were always politically active,” Gray remembers. “They attended rallies; they voted every chance they got. And they always took the children. At the age of four or five, I was going to political rallies.”
Despite sixth- and eighth-grade educations, respectively, Virginia and Major made sure that their children believed in the American political system – no mean feat for black citizens living in the pre-Civil Rights years. “They would take us to the polling place when they voted,” Gray says. “People would stay at the polls all day. It was a social outing.” To Virginia and Major, it was critically important that their children see them participate in the process – although their votes, hers Republican, his Democratic, tended to cancel each other out.
Those days of tagging along behind his parents lit a fire in Gray. It was fanned in high school by a course called “The Problem of Democracy.”
“That whetted my appetite for public service,” Gray says.
Public service/political science If Gray was enthralled by the public service aspect of politics, he also was drawn to the science of the subject. Gray has been a politician since 1982; 10 years earlier he began a career as a political science professor at Baltimore’s Morgan State University. (He is now head of the department.)
Gray’s two personas give him a unique ability to both see the big political picture and tend to the minute details of local government. For example, it was Gray who introduced a resolution calling for the National Association of Counties to boycott South Africa during apartheid. (That boycott has since been lifted.) And it was Gray who introduced procurement legislation in an attempt to open up the bidding process in Howard County, Md.
“He can deal with the national spotlight,” says Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger, who, like Gray, served as president of the Maryland Association of Counties. “But he never forgets how to work on the local level.”
That, in and of itself, makes Gray unique. Having worked on the Howard County (Md.) Council for nearly two decades, Gray has a deep appreciation for the work that counties do – and an equally deep disdain for people who do not recognize that work. “County government used to be one of the backwaters of American politics,” Gray says. “It used to be that very little was ever written about county government. People saw cities and the national government as the major players, even though they receive as many or more services from counties. They can relate to mayors and senators because of their visibility.”
Still, while mayors and senators may be the stars of government, Gray believes that county commissioners are its workhorses, and he sees that fact beginning to be acknowledged on a national level. “The state association [of counties] never used to meet as a group with governors and administration officials,” he says. “Then around ’91, you had the beginning of the decentralization of governmental functions, and we became major players. We began having regular meetings with the governor, with cabinet people and with the state leadership. They began to realize that county officials were important to their success.”
The conscience Whatever success Howard County has achieved is due, in part, to Gray. Legislation he has sponsored or supported has helped cut the teacher/student ratio at local schools, gotten more minorities involved in the local government contracting process, created a virtually smoke-free county and opened up the county’s public notification process on issues that involve growth. Additionally, he helped create the county’s Sustainable Communities Task Force (Gray is a member of the Joint Center for Sustainable Communities, a partnership between the National Association of Counties and U.S. Conference of Mayors).
“He is a hard worker who takes his responsibility to the public seriously,” says Howard County Executive Jim Robey. “He is known for his ability to make things happen.”
That ability should serve Gray well when he takes over as president of NACo this month. He plans to use the pulpit of the nation’s counties to lobby for a number of measures – many already in place in Howard County – designed to highlight the organization’s minority members.
“My first priority will be economic development,” he says. “We want to provide counties with the necessary Best Practices tools and information on how they can grow their local economies. Part of that will focus on emerging domestic markets – the Latino markets and African-American markets that have been neglected.”
“He’s our conscience,” says NACo Executive Director Larry Naake. “He always makes sure that we are inclusive of women and minorities in our programs. We’re working to put together a leadership coalition between Hispanics and blacks within NACo, and he’s been instrumental in that. The thought is there are tensions between and among the races, and we want to address them on a county level.”
Gray’s focus, however, is not solely on minorities within NACo. He is determined to see that Howard County’s Healthy Families program, which works with vulnerable women and their children, goes national under his tenure as president. The program, a partnership involving a coalition of institutions such as the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., provides safe hospital deliveries and medical care to mothers with no resources.
Additionally, he wants to expand First Tee, a program of the Professional Golfers Association and the World Golf Foundation aimed at introducing golf to young people who have not found the sport affordable or accessible. (The PGA has committed $50 million to the program to build 100 golf courses by 2000.)
Recognition If Gray’s focus seems to be on the less fortunate and politically marginalized, it is because he remembers his roots. The only member of his family to have left Calvert County, he also is the only one with a college degree. One of his main memories of his first teaching job in Little Rock, Ark., was a restaurant that served blacks on one side and whites on the other with a wall and a cashier in the middle. (His memories of Arkansas, however, are not all bad; he did meet his wife, Sandra, there.) Gray never saw a movie until he was a sophomore in college because his hometown theater made blacks sit in the balcony, and he refused.
In 1982, Gray was the first African-American to win a seat on the Howard County Council, despite the fact that he had to change districts to do it and that county Republicans focused all their energies on his defeat. Since then, he has crusaded for programs designed to help the poor and minorities.
The success of those efforts has been noted. Gray has been named “Best Elected Official” by Columbia Magazine, “County Official of the Year” by the American Lung Association, and “Legislator of the Year” by the Maryland State Teacher’s Association. Additionally, he earned the Jewish National Fund’s Tree of Life award recognizing his commitment to the people of Howard County.
“He’s got integrity and intelligence,” Ruppersberger says. “When he focuses on an issue, he’s got an ability to pull people together to get what he wants. He’s a strong leader, a solid leader. He bridges a lot of gaps on diversity issues because he is respected on all fronts.”
“He works hard at what he does,” Naake says. “And he’s very persistent. If he has something he wants to pursue, he keeps after us until it gets done. His energy will be a big plus for NACo in the coming year.”