As a longtime resident of the District of Columbia, where 76 percent of registered voters are Democrats, I’m accustomed to the Democratic primary deciding local elections. But this Tuesday’s primary will be different. The Democrat that emerges with a plurality of the vote from a crowded field will likely face opposition in November from Independent Council member David Catania, an education reform activist and former Republican who has won four citywide elections as an at-large councilman.
I say “likely” because one of the arguments supporters of Council member and mayoral contender Muriel Bowser make is that if she wins the most votes on Tuesday, Catania would bow out of the race. A Washington Post poll shows Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, beating Catania by more than 30 points in a head-to-head race. Full disclosure, Bowser is my council member in Ward 4 in the District.
Bowser has emerged as the candidate most able to overtake incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray, who is running for reelection in the midst of an investigation into what he knew about an illegal “shadow campaign” that helped elect him in 2010. Gray maintains he knew nothing about it, but close associates have been implicated, and U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen appears to be painstakingly putting the pieces in place that could lead to the mayor’s indictment.
The dilemma facing District residents is that Gray has been an effective mayor, encouraging investment in the city and pushing forward school reforms initiated by former chancellor Michele Rhee. Rhee’s deputy and successor, Kaya Henderson, is a contentious issue in the mayor’s race with Bowser refusing to say whether she would keep Henderson in the post, and Gray strongly defending her.
There’s plenty room for improvement in an urban school system, but Gray generally gets high marks. Student test scores are up, and his signature achievement, universal pre-school for 3 and 4 year-olds, is the result of legislation that he first pushed when he chaired the DC Council. The latest enrollment numbers have 70 percent of 3-year-olds in school, and 92 percent of 4-year-olds.
One thousand people every month are moving into the District, most of them young professionals, and the prospect of free pre-school is an incentive for young families to stay in the city. “The city is booming and [Gray] can take some credit for it,” says Mark Plotkin, a longtime DC political analyst and activist. The amenities of urban life, restaurants, theaters, walk-able neighborhoods, bicycle lanes, attract the next generation. At the same time Gray hasn’t forgotten parts of the city that feel neglected in the rush to gentrification. “If Gray weren’t in trouble, he wouldn’t even have serious opposition,” says Plotkin.
Gray maintains he is innocent, but he could be indicted. He has said he would not leave office if indicted, and for some that is a welcome battle cry. For others it brings back painful memories of former Mayor Marion Barry, arrested for cocaine use and possession in a sting operation in a Washington hotel room in January 1990.
Barry’s memorable phrase, “The bitch set me up,” emblazoned on T-shirts, symbolized the backlash in the city against what many black residents saw as entrapment. Barry was convicted on a misdemeanor charge and served time in federal prison. He returned to win election to the DC Council in Ward 8, the poorest ward in the city, where he is known as “mayor for life” and continues to serve.
Reelecting Gray knowing he could be indicted would once again make the District a punch line for the late-night talk shows. It’s bad enough that residents don’t have full voting rights. “Taxation Without Representation” is on many license plates. Congress already oversees District matters, and reelecting an official under the threat of indictment feeds the narrative that DC residents are not capable of self-rule without congressional oversight.
Unease about Gray is propelling Bowser’s candidacy, doubling her support among white voters and turning the eight-person field into a two-person race. Bowser is smart, disciplined, tough, and free from any taint of scandal, but she has not been a standout presence in her seven years on the Council, and some worry that her cautious nature would hold her back from being a bold leader.
A more cutting criticism of Bowser can be found in the dominantly black wards of the city, where they see her as “Fenty in a dress.” She was former Mayor Fenty’s protégé, and the city’s black population felt that he catered to the whiter and wealthier parts of the city. Fenty was defeated after one term, in part, we learned later, because of the “shadow campaign” orchestrated by Gray’s people, if not Gray himself.
Bowser has taken to heart the criticism that Fenty lost touch with the people, and she has been walking the wards of the city where she is weakest against Gray, Wards 7 and 8 East of the Anacostia River and Ward 5 in northeast DC. Councilman Barry endorsed Gray in a press conference last week, praising him for boosting ex-offender services and for bringing down the unemployment rate east of the River.
With early voting underway, the candidates are working hard to get their supporters to the polls, and while all the principle players are African-American—Gray, Bowser, U.S. Attorney Machen and businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who implicated Gray in the illegal funding scheme—Tuesday’s election still has racial overtones. Gray has aligned himself with Barry and is counting on voters in the most racially aggrieved wards of 7 and 8 to come out in force. “Bowser has the momentum but her support is soft,” says Plotkin. “If Gray racks up the numbers he racked up last time in the three predominantly black wards, he can win.”
If Gray squeaks through on Tuesday, he will face a strong challenge from Catania, who is white and would become not only the city’s first white mayor, but the first openly gay mayor, too. The Washington Post poll shows Catania running even with Gray. Catania would get 90 percent of disaffected white Democrats, 90 percent of Independents and every Republican. “Black Democrats won’t vote for David Catania,” says Plotkin. If Bowser wins, the whole rationale for his candidacy, to stop Gray, “goes out the window.”
Tuesday’s race is not about ideology. The differences between Gray and Bowser and even Catania are miniscule. Party affiliation and race are factors, but Tuesday will turn on attitudes towards Gray’s trustworthiness, and whether voters want to stick with him if he can stay one step ahead of the law for another four years.