Everything you need to know about the D.C. mayoral race

December 5, 2013

For months, the race to become the next mayor of Washington has focused on several city council members and a few outsiders nervously eying each other. Then Vincent Gray (D) decided to run for reelection.

Gray’s announcement earlier this week that he will seek a second term, in spite of the ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign, has rattled the race. It even lured another candidate, independent city councilman David Catania, into the fray. To sort it all out, we asked the Post’s D.C. politics expert, Mike DeBonis, what he makes of recent developments.

GovBeat: Mike, Vincent Gray is running for a second term as D.C.’s mayor. Now’s as good a time as ever to hit reset and take a broad overview of the race: What’s your take on Gray’s chances? Is it even conceivable for a mayor who, for the majority of his first term, has had a major federal investigation hanging over his last campaign and one of his biggest supporters?

Mike DeBonis: Well, Reid, believe it or not, Gray’s chances are not all that bad. On the negative side of the ledger: His 2010 campaign remains under federal investigation, it’s already claimed four former campaign associates, and he’s shown no urgency is personally answering outstanding questions about it. On the positive side: There is no indication the U.S. attorney in D.C. is going to move against Gray any time soon.

According to most recent polling his favorability is bad, but it’s not that bad, and he seems to have retained a base that looks like it may translate into 25-35 percent on Election Day. He’s got a record to run on, so he may have room to grow his support beyond that. The field is crowded, and none of the candidates have thus far especially tickled the electorate’s fancy, so that chunk might well be enough to win.

GB: And that’s why David Catania is getting in, right? The calculation is that if Gray survives the primary, say with 30 percent of the (very splintered) vote, general election voters would be more inclined to back an independent than a scandal-plagued Democrat. So is it fair to assume voters are going to hear nothing but proposals for ethics reform for the next eight months?

MD: That’s absolutely right. Catania wouldn’t say Wednesday that his announcement of an exploratory run was keyed to the mayor’s decision, but it is safe to assume he is envisioning a scenario where Gray wins the primary but is vulnerable to a strong independent challenger. The interesting thing will be what other independents jump in.

I’m not sure how much ethics reform is going to be a stump issue. Ethics certainly is — as in candidates will be arguing that Gray is a crook and doesn’t deserve reelection. But only a few candidates, most prominently Tommy Wells and Andy Shallal, are really calling for big changes in ethics and campaign finance laws.

GB: Before we get to a general, the Democratic primary looms. Where do the other Democrats find their bases?

MD: Well, the two outsiders — Reta Jo Lewis, a former Clinton administration and Obama State Department official, and Busboys & Poets owner Andy Shallal — are running as outsiders. Neither has a geographic base but are trying to appeal to voters looking for a fresh face. Lewis is more establishment-oriented; Shallal, likely the most liberal candidate in the Democratic primary, is targeting progressives.

Jack Evans has represented Ward 2 for 22 years, but it’s the second-lowest-turnout ward, and he’s hoping to expand his appeal to folks who like the trajectory the city is on and who want a steady hand on the tiller. Problem for him is, Gray is now running, and he’s been reticent to criticize him.

Muriel Bowser represents what is typically the highest-voting ward, Ward 4, but there is some splintering there — particularly with folks who identify her with Adrian Fenty and not in a good way. She potentially has the most citywide appeal, though, playing up her roots in working-class Ward 5 while embracing the Fenty mantle in the western wards.

Tommy Wells represents Ward 6, which has been the fastest-growing area of the city in recent years. Its voter registration now rivals Ward 4. But the question is whether he can motivate newer residents to get to the polls, and whether his ethics-heavy, good-government message will play well elsewhere — particularly voter-rich Ward 3.

Vincent Orange is carving out a niche as the populist favorite, leaning heavily on his role in the Wal-Mart living wage bill and  the pending minimum wage increase. He has had significant union support and has a good base in wards 5, 7 and 8. But he’ll be fighting with Gray for those votes, and his prior union support is not assured.

Washington D.C.'s eight city council wards (Graphic: District of Columbia)
Washington D.C.’s eight city council wards (District of Columbia)

(Note: Ward lines have changed slightly since the 2010 elections. New ward lines took effect in 2012, after the decennial redistricting process.)

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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