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David Gray: Intrepid intern makes mark at City Hall

on August 22, 2011

He’s the kind of guy you just can’t help but want to roll with.

The charisma was on vivid display in May at a Richmond City Council meeting. With his requisite neat tie and cool demeanor, the youthful policy intern delivered a report on the “People’s Budget,” a basket of revenue and spending priorities put together this year by U.S. Congress’ progressive caucus.

Although the council had little influence on the issue, City Council intern David Gray, under the direction of Councilman Jeff Ritterman, developed the presentation to persuade the council to pass a symbolic resolution in favor the “People’s Budget.”

The most telling reaction came from Councilman Nat Bates, who always gets testy when the council makes symbolic proclamations on national issues. “This is not going to fly,” Bates muttered, going on about the hopeless stalemate in Washington D.C. and Richmond’s folly in weighing in on such a far-off topic. Then Bates blindsided everyone. “But I’m going to support this – primarily because of David’s presentation.”

It was a twist. The curmudgeonly Bates, 79, now flashes his famous humor much less often than in the past. “But I still don’t believe this is going anywhere, David!” he said, smiling.

bill lindsay and david gray richmond

City Manager Bill Lindsay, right, is all smiles when he sees young intern David Gray. (photo by Robert Rogers)

That’s the power of personality.

“I was a little taken aback, but I appreciated what Councilman Bates said,” the 23-year-old Gray said, chuckling, reminiscing about the moment from the city council offices where he works.

Meet David Gray, intern, New Orleans native, UC Berkeley graduate student in public policy, and resident golden boy around City Hall. As a public policy intern in Richmond, Gray works about 15 hours per week in the city council offices, in addition to his regular coursework. He helps prepare the twice-monthly City Council agendas and backup documents, delivers multimedia presentations to the public and council, and is an active participant in meetings involving local policymakers.

City Manager Bill Lindsay lights up when he sees Gray’s face. Ritterman calls him “the future.” His presentations before council, the public, and various committees have built a reputation that precedes him.

“Welcome to the David Gray show,” Ritterman said at a council meeting in July, just after Gray riveted the audience with back-to-back slideshow presentations spanning topics no less expansive than the Civil Rights era and Richmond history.

One on one, Gray is less the shimmering star and more the dutiful public servant. Sitting in his indistinct gray cubicle in the city council offices Aug. 3, and wearing a minimalist, monochromatic ensemble – pin striped black suit with a black-and-white paisley tie — Gray chatted about his various projects more than himself.

He’s been here since March, but has hung no personal photographs around his desk. A few mounds of papers bookend his computer, and a small stack of books is nestled in the corner, prominent titles including Robert Reich’s Aftershock and Marcus Aurelius’s Emperors’ Handbook.

“The Reich book helped me with the People’s Budget presentation I did for Dr. Ritterman,” Gray said, popping off his spot seated atop his desk to lean toward a computer keyboard, the keys of which he tapped a few times to show off some graphs that were part of that slideshow. “I learned so much doing the research for that one. It’s amazing how much income and wealth inequality have grown since the 1970s.”

The most public part of Gray’s job is to prepare and deliver presentations to the council and public about policy issues, often aimed at garnering support for a course of action. One of his presentations this summer was on local legend Ethel Dotson and the historic International Hotel she ran on South Street.

During the mid-century era, the Pullman company serviced cross-country rail cars in Richmond, the western terminus of their runs. According to Gray’s presentation, there was a since-demolished hotel on Carlson Avenue that served “layover” white workers on the corner of Carlson. Black porters were welcomed at Dotson’s International Hotel, where there were 20 little second story rooms and a large reception area on the ground floor. The building still stands, and Gray’s presentation sparked a lively debate among the council and public about renewing efforts to get the building on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Dotson was truly a hero right here in Richmond,” Gray said later.

In a second presentation that same evening, Gray’s objective was more of a benign trot down memory lane than an open exhortation to council action. This time it was with a historical overview of the Freedom Riders movement – the thrust of the Civil Rights movement’s offensive against Jim Crow segregation of public accommodations – that culminated with an appearance by a Elizabeth Hirshfeld. A former Kennedy High School teacher, Hirshfeld was arrested while engaging in civil disobedience as a freedom rider in Mississippi in 1961.

“It was really an honor to meet her,” Gray said of Hirshfeld.

One of Gray’s Civil Rights heroes is an unconventional choice: Diane Nash. Nash was a steady force for integration, who did dignified work alongside Rev. James Lawson and John Lewis — one an influential devotee of non-violent resistance, the other, Lewis, a man who would become a member of the U.S. Congress — and others in Tennessee in the early 1960s. They were immortalized in the David Halberstram book The Children. Being a woman and so fair-skinned that some mistook for being Caucasian did not impede her in a world dominated by committed and stern African American men, Gray said.

“There is something about her proud fortitude that I just find so inspiring,” Gray said. “She never let her gender or her color hold her back, she never failed to overcome the odds, and she never even allowed herself to even look discouraged.”

Gray has a natural affinity for history, deepened by his childhood in the South. He was born in Burbank, his family having had a brief stay in Southern California because his father worked for aerospace and defense giant Lockhead Martin. But the family moved back to its southern roots when he was 3, and Gray was raised in New Orleans.

“My whole family is from Louisiana—we go back a long way,” Gray said.

Gray attended Tulane University, beginning his education in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Tulane’s campus was profoundly damaged by the flooding, and new students were encouraged to do community service as part of their curriculum.

The public service suited Gray well. “I did a lot of working with different community organizations, including creating a lot of GIS [Geographic Information Systems] maps that looked at redevelopment and unemployment, data that helped apply for grants and resources and target them properly,” Gray said. “It was rewarding work. I learned so much a city that I thought I already knew.”

After graduation, Gray was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, where he plans to graduate in 2013. He hopes to land a job in local city government in the Bay Area.

One morning earlier this month, Gray was busy preparing for a meeting after going through his normal routine of scanning the morning’s local news over a cup of coffee.

“I have been checking on the Half-Steppers first thing each day,” Gray said, referring to the local track team to which the City Council gave $17,000 for a trip to the Junior Olympics in New Orleans. “I love those stories, especially because they are from here and out in New Orleans.”

Gray adds that in the days following the council’s surprising last second decision to fund the kids’ trip, he was one of the lead staff members in scrambling to get the funds released and paid to the coaches. “We had to drop some things to move to get funds of that magnitude so quickly,” Gray said.

Asked who has been most influential to him in Richmond, Gray demurs, then narrows the group to three: His supervisor and City Council Office Manager Trina Jackson (“She keeps this office amazingly efficient and effective”), Senior Development Program Manager Shasa Curl of the city manager’s office (“Her job working with different departments on the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory event was just amazing”), and Councilman Ritterman.

“Dr. Ritterman never walks into a meeting with his mind already made up,” Gray said. “He remains open to all perspectives, and that’s a kind of open-mindedness that I really respect.”

Ritterman has an equally glowing appraisal of the young intern. “I love working with him,” Ritterman said. “He is more like a partner than an intern … Whatever David ends up doing, humanity will benefit, I just hope Richmond is one of his stops along the way.”

“If I have an opportunity for a future in Richmond, I would definitely take it in a heartbeat,” Gray said. “It’s my top option. I have fallen in love with Richmond.”

Having been on the inside for a series of high-level discussions at a momentous time in the city’s history, Gray is bullish on the city’s future. “In 10 years, I see a Richmond that is home to the Berkeley lab, an increasingly diverse community economically and ethnically, and a destination for expanding businesses looking for space in the Bay Area,” Gray said. “Farther off, in 30 years, Richmond will be a premiere place to live, work and raise a family in the Bay Area, and a place on the leading edge of innovation and green jobs, and crime won’t be a major issue.”

Gray pauses, mulling over the enormity of the possibilities.

“In 30 years, people are going to look back and say ‘Wow, Richmond, how did this success story happen?’ I hope I’m around to help explain it.”

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