Foxworth maintains that Gray's stock is soaring. "Wellstone is doing the right thing," he notes, saying the senator has always received high marks from the NAACP. "He knows that if he gets the black vote, he wins the election, sure. But he's also behind Gray because it's the right thing to do."
Foxworth, who is also the chair of the DNC's African-American caucus, is quick to add that Gray is widely seen as a symbolic candidate by democrats nationwide. "It's not many times an African American or minority is in this situation," Foxworth says, noting that the committee is funneling soft money to two black candidates running for state office in South Carolina. "We want to open lots of doors for Greg Gray. These are not just candidates who are handpicked. Gray has paid his dues and is more than qualified to hold that office."
¬ Sitting in a booth at a Chinese restaurant, just across the street from his campaign office near the University of Minnesota's Stadium Village, Gray comes across as someone tailor-made for the auditor's office. The job is all about detail and reliability; the state auditor mostly analyzes the finances of cities, townships, and other government agencies to ensure accuracy, compliance, and efficiency. In essence, the auditor is gatekeeper of the state's budget.
Gray, 48, grew up in south Minneapolis, attended the now-defunct Central High School, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and earned a degree from Hamline Law School. He is affable and talkative, expressing most of his enthusiasm for his time served as an auditor for a host of Minnesota companies like Pillsbury, Dayton Hudson, Land O'Lakes, Honeywell, and Cenex.
Gray does not play up his race, but he doesn't shy away from talking about it. He recalls how he was in one of the first classes at River Falls made up of actively recruited black students; and he knows full well how difficult it can be to rent an apartment or move ahead in business in a predominantly white city like Minneapolis. All that said, Gray has made it his goal to move beyond the racism he has regularly encountered: "The defining moment of my life was the civil rights movement, and watching the sacrifice that these people before me made. I was the beneficiary of that, and hopefully it will get better with the generations after mine."
In 1996 Gray first sought the state senate seat for District 58; he eventually dropped out. Richard Jefferson, the retiring state rep in north Minneapolis's District 58B, urged Gray to run for his seat in 1998. Initially, Gray and his wife of 25 years, Renee, politely declined, thinking that another run for office would make him look egotistical. Gray eventually ran and won. In 2000, he was reelected.
"I've been successful in corporate America as an African American, and I knew because of that I could do something in return," Gray says. "Running for office is an outgrowth of that."
Gray recalls the time he won the DFL endorsement for state auditor as "one of the best days of [his] life," and has a refreshingly idealistic view of what he could do in the office. He sees himself as a moderate democrat, one determined to find middle ground on a host of issues. Because of his stint with Land O'Lakes, which gave him a glimpse into the difficulties of agribusiness, Gray says, he has empathy for the plight of the family farmer; because of his experience with local corporations, Gray is also decidedly pro-union: "Working men and women don't get a fair shake unless somebody's working on their behalf." He believes these convictions have been well-received in places like Duluth and the Iron Range, where he has campaigned hard and often.
Gray knows that the DNC is pushing for him to make the ballot, but he clearly doesn't want to get into specifics. "If it's soft money," he shrugs, "I'll take it." Still, he understands why he's a golden boy of sorts. "I'd be foolish to think that self-interest doesn't play a part, but I've spent time with Paul and Sheila, and they like me," Gray insists. "The Wellstone race likes the thought of having me on the ballot. I'm not crazy.
"They don't need me to sway black voters, because the DFL always gets 90 percent of the black vote. But the turnout could certainly be higher with a black on the ticket."
At the Wellstone rally in Loring Park, Gray demonstrates how neatly he can align his minority status with other special-interest groups, deftly transcending his race while remaining self-deprecating. "My name is Gregory Gray and I'm a candidate for state auditor," he says, before jokingly repeating the refrain two more times. Then he draws on some grassroots rhetoric: "Communities like ours and communities like yours, and communities in north Minneapolis and south Minneapolis, will make a difference in this race."
Gray then launches into his qualifications for state auditor, saying he will understand the job from his first day in office, before he cracks that he needs votes because "[he doesn't] want to be unemployed." Then he spells out his role in the bigger picture. "There's a huge amount at stake this year," Gray claims. "The whole U.S. Senate is up for grabs."