The Democratic Primary race for Mayor of Washington, D.C., has been an unprecedented contest, characterized by turmoil, a large field and a mayor running for re-election under the worst kind of legal fire and the prospect of facing an indictment. In addition, the primary is being held in April, months before the November general election. At-large council member David Catania, an Independent, awaits the Democratic victor.
Voters are facing a difficult and unheard-of set of choices. Incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray is running for re-election despite the shock waves from the guilty plea of D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson only weeks before the election. Thompson has alleged that Gray knew about the off-the-books shadow campaign on his behalf in 2010.
There has been talk – by the mayor’s lawyer no less – that Gray could be indicted at some point. But Gray has vowed not to resign, even if indicted. This situation has become a surreal strain on the campaign itself.
Various polls—even the latest –indicate that Gray could still win this race. Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser has tied with Gray in the polls. A March 25 Washington Post poll gave her a 30-percent lead.
All of the leading contenders have been a part of the D.C. political scene for a number of years, with Evans the senior member of the council and Gray having served as Ward 7 councilman, chairman of the city council and mayor. Bowser has been on the council for seven years, winning a special election and being re-elected twice. Wells succeeded Sharon Ambrose in the Ward 6 spot. Orange at various times has served as Ward 5 councilman and at-large councilman, in addition to running unsuccessful campaigns for mayor and council chairman.
VINCENT C. GRAY
In any ordinary time, Vincent C. Gray would be a shoo-in for the mayoral nomination.
He is a Washington native and a graduate of Dunbar High School and George Washington University. He served as director of the D.C. Department of Human Services in Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly’s administration. In 2004, he defeated incumbent Kevin Chavous for the Ward 7 council seat and served two years before running for the chairman seat vacated by Linda Cropp, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor. He won handily, then upended incumbent Adrian Fenty in the 2010 mayoral primary.
Even with an ongoing federal investigation into that campaign, beginning almost at the start of his tenure and leading to the indictment and guilty pleas of several campaign officials, Gray could still possibly win. But the proverbial other shoe has dropped, and now Gray’s chances have gone in another direction.
Here are the pluses and minuses for Gray: He’s the incumbent. He can claim, at the very least, a chunk of the credit for the city’s ongoing financial stability and prosperity. Even with the Thompson explosion, he can probably look to his home base of Ward 7 and Ward 8, where council member and former mayor Marion Barry has endorsed him, for a solid base of support.
On the other hand, voters in general, if the polls are to be believed, would rather have someone else at the helm. Although that by no means is an indicator of strong or overwhelming support for any of the challengers, it’s fair to say that Bowser seems to be surging.
Barry’s endorsement may be of help, but it could also backfire in other parts of the city.
Voters will have another sticking point. Voting for Gray is a chancy thing, given the possibility of an indictment, which would add to what could be a chaotic political and emotional summer for the city. Not only would he be a mayor under indictment, he would be a mayor under indictment running for re-election.
Bowser, also a Washington native, was the first candidate to announce for mayor. Over time, she’s built a solid organization, has been an effective fundraiser and has found her comfort zone on the campaign trail, touting a fresh point of view, her status as a seven-year council member, and her claim that she has more citywide appeal than any other candidate. A recent poll has her pulling ahead of the mayor.
On the campaign trail, she’s been forceful and confident. She points to her leadership on ethics legislation as one of the principal achievements of her tenure on the council.
She has the endorsement of the Washington Post, a not inconsiderable gift. The Post also championed her mentor and sponsor Adrian Fenty and school reform.
Bowser, however, remains a mystery and is criticized by Evans as being light on experience. More than that, in spite of a certain amount of momentum and the Post endorsement, she remains something of an enigma. She’s talked about school reform, affordable housing and “leading a government that’s responsive and honest.” However, she’s been light on policy specifics.
Evans is the longest-serving member of the council, winning a special election in 1991 to replace John Wilson, who went on to become council chairman. He has been re-elected every time out, though he lost his bid for mayor in 1998 to the late-blooming candidacy of Anthony Williams.
The biggest plus he brings to the campaign should be – and is – his experience. As chairman of the City’s Committee on Finance and Revenue, he probably knows more about how the city’s finances are run, and have been run, than anybody else in the race. He can say, and certainly believes, that he’s the candidate that’s ready to be mayor.
These days, Evans, who comes from a small town in Pennsylvania, is also offering up a plan for affordable housing so that longtime residents won’t be priced out of their homes. He’s a champion of the school reform begun under Fenty and Rhee.
As Ward 2 chairman, he’s representing a diverse ward. But critics, especially Bower, have accused him of looking out more for the residents of Georgetown, where he lives with his wife Michele and his triplets. As a campaigner, Evans is tireless and earnest.
A Texas native with a master’s degree in social work, Tommy Wells came to Washington in 1985 as a social worker for the District’s child protective services agency. He headed the D.C. Consortium for Child Welfare and ran for and won the Ward 6 council seat in 2006 to which he was re-elected in 2010. He had previously served on the D.C. Board of Education.
Wells has the ethics issue sewn up. From the beginning, he made a pledge not to accept corporate donations, and he’s kept that pledge. Big on education issues, he speaks eloquently about the need for a new generation of public transit in D.C., including streetcars and an improved bus system to connect city neighborhoods.
The rap on Wells (as was brought up at a recent forum) is that he doesn’t get along with other members of the council, a charge he faced squarely by noting that three previous members of the council who were forced to resign because of ethical and legal problems – Kwame Brown, Michael Brown and Harry Thomas, Jr. – were all well-liked members of the council and their communities.
While not a native son, Orange often sounds like one like, belying his upbringing in Oakland, Calif. He’s a Howard University graduate and has a master’s degree in tax law from the Georgetown University Law Center. He has run for mayor before, as well as for council chairman several times, but he proved successful in running for the council seat in Ward 5 in 1995. After running for mayor, he returned to the council as an at-large member and is running again for mayor under the twin banners of “Leaving No One Behind” and “Taking No One For Granted.” While Orange has taken a firm stand on forcing an increase in the minimum wage for D.C. residents, he remains equally pro-business and is a strong advocate