Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said crime is down during Mayor Vincent Gray's tenure. While violent crime has declined, property crimes have risen in the city, leading to an overall rise in the number of crimes and the population-adjusted crime rate, according to D.C. police statistics. The story has been corrected.
To the ambitious District politician, the looming Democratic primary seems like an unmatched opportunity: A mayor seared by an ongoing federal investigation enters the race late and struggles to attract support.
The only obstacle: the swarm of other Democrats who also want the job.
A central drama driving the April 1 primary is whether a weakened Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) can persuade voters to grant him another term. With at least eight Democrats on the ballot and a Washington Post poll suggesting a splintered electorate, an equally crucial question is whether a single candidate — with less than three months before the election— can emerge as the mayor’s conqueror.
Muriel Bowser, one of four D.C. Council members in the race, was selling herself to an audience of voters in Dupont Circle when a hand shot up with a question: How will she distinguish herself from the other Democrats seeking to unseat Gray? How will she break out of the pack?
“Trust me,” Bowser (Ward 4) said, “I think about that every day.”
Bowser’s campaign has touted its own poll placing her in a “statistical tie” with Gray. And on Saturday, after Bowser triumphed in a straw poll of Ward 8 voters, her campaign said it proved “there is only one person with the vision and plan” to lead the city.
Bowser is not the only candidate anointing herself as the mayor’s most potent adversary. Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) told a circle of prospective voters in Georgetown last week that the race is between him and Gray.
“There are only two people who really could be mayor — the current mayor and myself,” Evans said. “That’s it. The other people just don’t have the experience.”
Tommy Wells ( D-Ward 6), yet another council member in the running, said his focus on ethics and campaign finance reform, as well as a strong base in his home ward, position him to capitalize on Gray’s weakness and gather citywide support.
The recent Post poll suggests a far tighter race among the challengers, with Bowser, Evans and Wells each attracting about half of Gray’s 24 percent.
Three other candidates — Vincent B. Orange, an at-large council member; Andy Shallal, a restaurant owner; and Reta Jo Lewis, a former Clinton administration official — registered in the single digits.
In other words, without a winnowing of candidates or a major development in the federal investigation into Gray’s 2010 campaign, the winner could triumph with a third of the vote or less.
Max Berry, an Evans supporter who served as campaign chairman for former mayor Anthony A. Williams, cautioned that such an outcome is unlikely.
“It’s too early to know where this race is,” Berry said. “I wouldn’t want to be in first place this early in the game, and if I was, I wouldn’t be too confident.”
Crowded and close elections have become almost standard in the District in recent years, as candidates see opportunity in the city’s changing demographics and the absence of a dominant political personality.
Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) won a special election in May, beating six challengers with less than 32 percent of the vote. In a 2011 special election, Orange surpassed eight challengers to capture an at-large seat with only 29 percent. In the Democratic primary the following year, he barely broke 40 percent.
In the mayor’s race, the size of the Democratic field grew as Gray, weighed down by the investigation into his previous campaign, remained silent for most of the past year on whether he would seek another term. He entered the race in early December, months after most of his rivals.
And in a city where race has long served as the most dominant political divide, a field that closely reflects the city’s demographic mix has contributed to the splintering. The poll shows Gray, Bowser and Orange, who are black, leading among African Americans, while Wells and Evans, who are white, and Shallal, an Iraqi American, lead among white voters.
Kevin P. Chavous, a former council member who ran for mayor in a crowded field in 1998, said breaking away is a challenge.
“You need to capture the imagination of the voters,” Chavous said. “You have to excite the possibilities of the future and give them hope and a vision. It’s more than saying, ‘I’m more ethical’ and ‘I’m a better guy.’ ”
Chavous was among the three council members who ran in a Democratic primary in which voters gravitated toward then-Chief Financial Officer Williams, hoping he would reform a political system long dominated by Marion Barry.
“It was Tony the outsider and the members of the council,” Chavous recalled. “We were almost indistinguishable.”
For months, the three lawmakers — Chavous, Evans and Harold Brazil Jr. — were bunched together in the polls, trailing Williams. Then, Chavous said, he switched tactics and began campaigning aggressively in neighborhoods, knocking on doors and promoting his name with a flatbed truck festooned with signs and equipped with a loudspeaker.
Chavous finished well behind in the primary, with 35 percent to Williams’s 50 percent. But he outpolled Evans and Brazil by more than a 3 to 1 ratio. “We just hit the streets, and we closed the gap,” he recalled. “You’ve got to touch people.”
Mayors have a history of losing after one term in the District.
Walter E. Washington (D), the city’s first popularly elected mayor, fell to Barry in 1978. In 1994, amid a financial crisis and Barry’s release from prison, voters rejected Sharon Pratt (D) after one term. And voters dismissed Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2010 after he had alienated vast swaths of his base.
Gray has maintained a more measured tone and presided over a period of prosperity in the city. Budget reserves are burgeoning, school test scores are up and home values are rising. “To beat the incumbent, you need to have something going on that unites a lot of people,” said Stanley Mayes, a member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee who is supporting Gray. “I don’t know what that issue is with Vince.”
Gray has largely ignored his challengers, leaving them to attack him and each other. As each candidate touts his or her preeminence, polling suggests that each has vulnerabilities.
Orange argued that his repeated citywide campaigns — this is his fifth since 2006 — have given him a natural base of support. “I have a number of people who are used to going to the polls and pulling the lever for Vincent Orange,” he said. “I just need to make contact with them.”
Yet Orange’s base of support in past elections — African Americans living in the eastern half of the city — is leaning toward Gray.
Lewis contended that “not being tied to the current political establishment” will propel her to victory. But poll numbers indicate that a large majority of voters are unaware of her, and she lacks the financial resources to spread her name.
During her appearance last week in Dupont Circle, Bowser touted her ability “to speak to the two Washingtons,” which she described as neighborhoods populated by older African Americans, such as the areas where she grew up and lives, and those inhabited by the waves of newer, younger residents. “That’s going to allow us to win,” she said.
The Post’s poll suggests that Bowser’s support is split between blacks and whites, although neither group has shown a particular allegiance to her. And despite being the most prominent woman in the race, she holds no advantage with female voters, the poll showed. Among black women, she has about the same level of support as Orange and is only slightly ahead of Evans.
Evans, in an interview as he traveled to a campaign appearance at a senior center in Northeast, predicted that he would win the primary because voters know about his two decades as a legislator and will recognize him as “the experienced candidate.”
“I’m the adult in the room,” he said, comparing himself with the rest of the field. “I’m the one who understands finances and can be the custodian.”
Yet, the poll showed that Evans is not much better known than Bowser or Wells. He trailed Wells among whites, the well-educated and high earners, though he was ahead of Bowser among those east of the Anacostia River.
Wells has been the most critical of Gray, describing the District government as facing an “unprecedented crisis” because of corruption, as he told a crowd last week. He was referring to three former council members having pleaded guilty to federal crimes, as well as the ongoing probe of the mayor’s 2010 campaign, which has resulted in guilty pleas from four campaign associates.
“If we have a corrupt government, we will have what happened in the ’90s,” he told prospective voters assembled at an apartment building on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. “That will undo the progress in the city.”
Wells also portrays himself as the race’s most experienced progressive candidate with his advocacy for marijuana decriminalization and campaign finance reform. His audience applauded when he said he was not accepting contributions from corporations.
But that pledge has left him with a considerably smaller bankroll than Bowser’s and Evans’s. Wells also faces a challenge from Shallal, who is appealing to the same progressive voters with talk of income inequality and social justice.
Shallal enjoys significant support among Wells’s base demographics. Yet Wells said he welcomed the restaurateur’s presence in the race.
“I love Andy Shallal,” Wells said. “I think he takes part of my votes, but I like what he says, and I want him to say it.”