He was at his height as leader of Strathclyde Regional Council before "Madame" Thatcher (as he calls her) took on the Scottish Labour council strongholds.
With age and experience have come "an evenness of temper I didn't always have", he says, no doubt a relief to the union representatives he will be facing across the table of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers.
Teachers' pay talks are scheduled to start again next year within the tripartite SNCT. Councillor Gray is effectively a caretaker education convener for Cosla, as he retires from council politics in the May local elections next year.
Nevertheless, he has signalled that he would like to see another three-year pay deal struck.
"When you look at the innovations and increasing responsibilities the teaching profession has taken on, I don't think we should argue about cost," he added.
Local government finance, and how education budgets are decided, seem likely to dominate talks with the Scottish Executive.
"Local government has not really liked ring-fenced sums. In any case, there is proof that some cash ring-fenced by the Minister for Education has not been spent on the purpose for which it was given. If we are going to review things as important as McCrone and post-McCrone arrangements, we will have to review funding of education," he said.
As education convener at North Lanarkshire Council for the past decade he has been a keen supporter of moves to broaden vocational opportunities. He accepts that his authority has been fortunate in terms of grant-funding, partly because of its progressive policies.
"But it is not fair that that is what we have to depend on. I do believe there should be a complete review of the way education is financed," he said.
With local authorities under growing pressure from the executive to share backroom functions, and even some frontroom functions, there is speculation that the current 32 local authorities may be reduced in number.
Nevertheless, Cllr Gray foresees no return of the old Strathclyde Regional Council. Given proper consultation, he sees sense in the two Lanarkshires being merged, and likewise the three Ayrshire councils and two Renfrewshire councils.