In a political verdict that one hopes will have lasting effect, District voters declared Tuesday that it wasn’t enough for Mayor Vince Gray (D) to have done a solid, workmanlike job of running the city for three years.
They also want a mayor they can trust to be honest.
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who easily beat Gray in the Democratic primary, didn’t wow anybody with her legislative or administrative record.
But she succeeded mightily in casting herself as the candidate with appeal throughout the city who wasn’t at risk of being indicted before November’s general election.
The voters’ judgment shines a beam of optimism through the dismal cloud that the scandal from Gray’s 2010 campaign has placed over the District.
It ought to put other elected officials and potential candidates on notice that the citizens will not wink at a corrupt campaign, even if they are satisfied with the administration that resulted.
It also spares the city the potential embarrassment of seeing a mayor still running for reelection while he’s on trial for criminal charges in federal court.
“We need to move forward and get rid of all this corruption,” Joan Murray, 60, said after voting for Bowser at a church near American University in Northwest Washington.
She thought Gray did “pretty well” managing the District but disliked the damage to its reputation.
“You go abroad and people know how bad our politics is, how bad our mayor is,” Murray said.
Even if they weren’t sure that Gray had done anything illegal, voters criticized him for failing to explain how five people associated with his previous campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies. The mayor has denied any wrongdoing but won’t discuss details.
“Gray removed himself from consideration by keeping his mouth shut about the scandal for so long,” Frazier Botsford, 70, said after voting for Bowser at a school in Northeast Washington’s Brookland neighborhood.
“He should have owned up to something years ago,” Botsford said.
Gray’s vulnerability on ethics was heightened by an unprecedented wave of guilty pleas by other District officials since early 2012.
Two council members — Harry Thomas Jr. and Kwame Brown — were indicted for illegalities in investigations separate from the one into Gray’s campaign. They were the first council members to be convicted of felonies since home rule began. Michael A. Brown, a former council member, also took a plea.
Tuesday’s defeat was a sad and even tragic end for Gray, 71, in what was almost certainly his last bid for elective office.
Except for the skulduggery in the 2010 campaign, Gray has had an honorable and generally successful career of public service inside and outside government.
When he became mayor, he had a real chance to unite the city. Adrian Fenty, whom Gray ousted, had left most of the black community feeling ignored and put upon.
Gray managed the trick of continuing most of Fenty’s policies, including school reforms and steady economic development, while retaining blacks’ support.
But from the opening weeks of his term, the scandal undercut Gray. Allegations, which were later confirmed, surfaced that his campaign had secretly paid a fringe candidate to stridently denounce Fenty at public events.
That inquiry led to the revelation that a $650,000 “shadow campaign” helped Gray win in 2010. He denies knowing about it, but polls show that voters disbelieve him by a large margin. He’s been on the defensive, with his credibility in tatters, for nearly two years.
Ironically, operatives from both sides of the 2010 campaign believe that Fenty was so unpopular, Gray would have won without the dirty tricks or illicit funding.
Many politically active people in the District admire Gray personally but feel that the city couldn’t move forward with him in charge because of the apparent likelihood that he will be indicted.
“Vince Gray is a wonderful person, but the question is what are we leaving on the table,” J.R. Clark, a lawyer and co-chairman of Bowser’s finance committee, told me last week.
“The bottom line is that the city is doing okay, but how great could we be if it weren’t for the ethics issue?” he said.
Tuesday’s vote for clean government gives the District a chance to find out.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.