In D.C. mayor’s race, Round Two begins for Muriel Bowser

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, Democratic D.C. mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser says she still has not spoken with Mayor Vincent Gray after Tuesday's primary win. (Pamela Kirkland and Randolph Smith/The Washington Post)

Muriel Bowser woke up Wednesday morning as the Democratic nominee for District mayor. Historically, that has meant a victory lap as the mayor-in-waiting.

But the two-term council member, who surged from relative obscurity to beat Mayor Vincent C. Gray in Tuesday’s primary, remained locked in campaign mode.

For the first time in two decades, the Democratic nominee faces a serious challenge in the November general election in the District, where three of four registered voters are Democrats.

“We’re asking for every Democrat — and everybody out there, independents, Republicans — to take a good hard look at our campaign,” Bowser said Wednesday. “For everybody who doesn’t know us . . . my vision for the future is very substantial.”

Even as she acknowledged that Gray had not called her, Bowser also sought to unify her party, saying she wanted to be the candidate of all Democrats.

“People came out for us, and they spoke with a loud voice,” said Bowser, smiling in the face of repeated questions about the matchup with popular 17-year council veteran David A. Catania (I-At Large). “We take no voters for granted. We have an election in November, and we are going to be ready for it.”

More immediately, Bowser’s win in the District’s first April primary thrust the city into a protracted political bog. Gray will be a lame duck for nine months, twice as long as any other mayor.

Despite the November challenge, Bowser began to assert herself Wednesday as a rising political force, cautioning that as a lame duck, Gray should defer to the council more often, especially her Economic Development Committee.

Her win came on the eve of Gray’s release of a proposed $11 billion budget and amid negotiations over a proposed soccer stadium. Bowser twice said Gray should proceed carefully on such issues. About the city budget, which she will inherit if she becomes mayor, Bowser said she will “dig into it deeply” during council deliberations.

Gray’s defeat also raises questions about the future of agencies important to the city’s 645,000 residents.

Neither Bowser nor Catania has taken a position on retaining Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who has continued changes initiated during the polarizing tenure of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and his schools chief, Michelle A. Rhee.

Henderson called an emergency staff meeting Wednesday morning and assured aides that she remained committed. “Nothing has changed for us from yesterday to today,” she said later in an interview. “We’re still doing what we do, which is provide a great education for our kids.”

Gray’s loss all but guaranteed that D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth B. Ellerbe will not be retained. Both Bowser and Catania have said that Ellerbe should go in light of continuing problems with emergency response. On the other hand, they have praised Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and suggested that they would ask her to stay.

Without going into specifics, Bowser remarked on the change she promised during the primary. “This is what people have said across the city: They want a fresh start. They want a mayor who is going to be focused and energetic on the big issues that affect them, and that’s what we’re going to stay focused on,” she said.

Bowser (Ward 4) won Tuesday with 44.3 percent of the vote to Gray’s 32.4 percent — a 12-point margin that capped a dramatic surge for her during the campaign’s final months.

In a Washington Post poll in January, Gray led the primary field by double digits, with Bowser in a virtual tie with council members Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6).

But as voters sought an alternative to Gray, they coalesced around Bowser. That shift solidified last month after prosecutors said in federal court that Gray was aware of illegal contributions that went to a “shadow” campaign in support of his 2010 run for mayor. The man who made the contributions, Jeffrey E. Thompson, pleaded guilty and said Gray had personally asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars in under-the-table spending, tying Gray to allegations of wrongdoing for the first time.

Amid snowstorms and downpours in the race’s final days, relatively few D.C. voters seemed to engage. On Tuesday, just one in five registered Democrats cast ballots — a three-decade low.

Maurice Jackson, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, said the low turnout suggested that none of the candidates, including Bowser, had great appeal with the electorate.

In her contest with Catania, Jackson said, Bowser will have work to do, but she starts with a commanding advantage as the Democrat on the ballot.

“In my own personal opinion, there are no mandates, no issues people felt that stuck out one more than the other,” Jackson said. “The only thing that is obvious is that what people do want is honesty in government. Nothing has been proven about the mayor, but there was just a lot hanging on his head.”

In interviews Wednesday, Catania seized on that notion. “This was the election about who should not be the mayor,” Catania said. “The next one is about who should be the mayor.”

Catania, who is white, gay and a combative litigator, provides voters with a stark choice.

Catania first opened his campaign account early last month, when Gray appeared likely to win reelection and the two were almost even in a head-to-head comparison in a Post poll.

According to a Post poll last week, Bowser would begin with a 30-point advantage over Catania. Catania said he was undeterred and vowed to stay in the race.

Bowser won Tuesday by harnessing a coalition of many of the middle-class and upper-income voters in Northwest Washington and around Capitol Hill who propelled Fenty to victory eight years ago. She also carried her home ward, which Fenty lost to Gray.

For Catania to overcome Bowser’s dramatic advantage in party registration, he would have to carry a wide swath of the city and upend her in scores of precincts — including many in heavily African American areas — that she won handily Tuesday.

Heavily African American wards that Gray won in the eastern half of the city could be in play. Party allegiance would probably send many of those votes to Bowser. But Catania has spent significant time at schools in wards 7 and 8, and he is credited with negotiating a deal to keep open the only hospital there.

On Wednesday, Catania offered a more stinging critique of Bowser’s record than any Democrat had. He said Bowser had done virtually nothing on education policy in seven years, despite calling it her top priority. He also said that as chairman of the council committee with oversight of housing, she has accomplished little.

“In a year and a quarter of chairing the committee, she has not advanced a single substantive measure to address a single part of the problem,” Catania said. “I think she’s very good at making promises, not so good at delivering.”

Bowser said that she disagreed with Catania’s analysis of the primary and that she was confident Democrats would stick with a candidate who espouses party values.

“Democrats are loyal to their nominee, and that has been our history in this city,” she said. “I go into this race very strong against our potential opponent.”

Emma Brown contributed to this report.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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