WASHINGTON — From the time he entered Congress 11 years ago, representing a Northeast inner-city district, Rep. William H. Gray III (D-Pa.) served notice that he was anything but a knee-jerk liberal.
The charismatic black politician from Philadelphia built bridges to diverse political bases, including Southern Democrats, and rose through the ranks to become chairman of the House Budget Committee. He developed a reputation as a skillful consensus-builder and a legislator who knew how to tighten the reins on government spending.
Now, with his election Wednesday to the No. 3 leadership post in the House, Gray, the highest-ranking black in Congress, can aim his sights even higher.
'On a Fast Track'
"He's on a fast track to rise in the leadership, and might one day be part of a presidential ticket," said one House Democrat. "A lot of people have said that about him. Right now, there's no telling how far he could go."
Gray's election to the majority whip job was a vindication of sorts for the 47-year-old congressman, who had come under a cloud when reports circulated in recent weeks that his office was the target of an investigation by the Department of Justice. Gray angrily denied that he was under investigation in the case, which reportedly involves a no-show employee of a House committee, and the Justice Department issued a statement this week confirming that contention.
In his new job, Gray will be responsible for coordinating the flow and content of key legislation, and also for lining up votes in the Democratic-controlled House. It should not be a major adjustment for a legislator who has demonstrated an ability to build coalitions spanning both sides of the aisle on controversial issues.
When the House was debating plans in 1986 to impose sanctions on South Africa's government, for example, Gray was able to win Republican support for a plan that was less stringent than one advanced by Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Berkeley). The vote was just one of many where Gray's penchant for seeking out the political middle ground won him conservative friends but confounded his liberal allies.
"He (Gray) has a good ability to work with differing political factions and that's very important," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who briefly challenged Gray for the post before withdrawing from the race last week and throwing his support to the Pennsylvania Democrat.
Gray, like his father and grandfather, serves as chief minister of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, one of the city's largest black churches. He began moving up the leadership ladder with his election last year as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the organization for Democratic members of the chamber. In the spirited, three-way contest for that post, which he will now relinquish, Gray flexed his muscles by contributing more than $136,000 to the campaigns of House Democrats.
A witty and engaging conversationalist, Gray's first triumph came in 1985, when he won the chairmanship of the House Budget Committee. To do so, he had to overcome the skepticism of many Democrats that an urban black lawmaker could not be an effective budget cutter. At the time, his predecessor, former Rep. Jim Jones of Oklahoma, credited Gray's rise with the fact that he could "say no to an awful lot of special interests."
While Gray took heat from some liberals, who wanted more money earmarked for social programs, he was able to win strong Democratic support for four annual budget resolutions, which outlined spending priorities.
Born in Baton Rouge, La., Gray is married and has three children.