On a recent evening as most people were ending their work day, Los Angeles City Council candidate Mary Lee Gray was jumping behind the wheel of the tank-like car she calls the "yellow bomber" and cruising toward Crenshaw for the second half of her 16-hour campaign day.
At her Crenshaw office, carefully decorated with still-life paintings from her home, Gray conducted a strategy and "energizing" session with key area volunteers on nuts-and-bolts issues.
Back in the "yellow bomber," a 1979 Plymouth, Gray rushed back to Venice, where she sat ramrod straight for 1 1/2 hours in a supporter's living room. She patiently and articulately discussed her positions with voters at a "coffee' in the Oxford Triangle neighborhood.
By 10:30 p.m., she was free to tell a reporter the story of her life over dinner. Then, it was on to her campaign headquarters in Venice to join her treasurer for a late night session.
What makes Mary Gray run? And why can't she stop?
A will of iron and the energy of a steamroller seem to be the dominant characteristics of the 50-year-old Gray, a tall woman who seems to always remember a mother's admonishment to hold her head high and spine straight, giving her an almost regal bearing that commands attention.
Gray is fighting an uphill battle to gain the 6th District City Council seat of incumbent Ruth Galanter. Galanter, also 50, almost won the election outright in the April primary. Gray finished a distant second with about 20% of the vote in a field of six challengers. But Gray, a longtime county government worker on leave from her post, is hoping the disenchantment that kept Galanter under the 50% mark in the primary will snowball into an upset victory for her.
"I can assure you she is not as determined as I am," said Gray.
When Gray repeats her oft-stated passion to serve the public, it comes out sounding almost like a religious calling. This is not surprising for the daughter of a Church of Christ minister who during the week worked for the Santa Fe railroad and commanded respect and obedience from his family.
When she discusses her childhood in Los Angeles, Gray recalls dinners where the whole family was expected on time, her father was served first and he was always called "sir."
The chameleon nature of Gray's political registration may be rooted in her upbringing. Her father was a Democrat, her mother a Republican. Gray has been both, veering away from the Republican Party in the '60s when it failed to keep pace with her views on social services and civil rights issues, then coming back more than a decade later, she said, because she is a fiscal conservative.
Though she pays homage to her family's values, she also had to go her own way. At 20, Gray said, she pitted her will against her father's, moving out of the family home against his wishes to claim her independence. She worked nights for the Los Angeles Police Department during her college years at Cal State Long Beach and has been going full steam ever since.
"She is one of the hardest-working people I've ever met," said former Santa Monica City Councilwoman Chris Reed, who has worked for years with Gray and Galanter and considers both of them friends. "Dogged determination is a good way to describe Mary Lee Gray."
Even her political foes have something nice to say about her. Santa Monica City Councilman Dennis Zane, a liberal Democrat and staunch supporter of Galanter for her leadership on environmental issues, called Gray "a Republican with heart."
Over the past 18 years, Gray has worked as a top aide to three successive county supervisors. Two of them--both Republicans--praise her work.
Her current boss, Supervisor Deane Dana, said: "She is totally committed to providing and spending the county dollars in the best way to improve the system for the constituents. That's her total ambition in life, and the constituents love her for it."
Dana also noted Gray's boundless energy and convincing ways: "When she believes she's right, she pushes it no matter how great the obstacles."
The first supervisor Gray worked for, James Hayes, now in private law practice, called Gray "an extremely capable deputy acutely aware of the needs of the people." He added: "She was able to communicate those needs to me."
Ex-Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the one Democrat Gray worked for, said Gray did her job and was an excellent writer, offering no further comment.
Gray's responsibilities as a senior deputy have included health issues and social services, and she takes credit for organizing the city's first homeless shelter and a countywide drug task force. She is especially proud of LIEU-CAP, a shelter for homeless women and children in Venice.
Reed said starting that shelter several years ago when "no one cared about these people" is an example of Gray's getting "hooked into an issue and not letting go of it. . . . I bet she badgered the heck out of Dana."