Incumbent Muriel Bowser’s challengers in Ward 4 find little traction

March 7, 2012

Just over a year ago, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser’s political future looked shaky.

The Ward 4 Democrat had been a close ally of Adrian M. Fenty, who endorsed her to run for the council seat he gave up to become mayor in 2007. When Fenty lost a reelection fight in 2010 after his popularity waned, Bowser’s faded, too. A frequent chorus at candidates’ debates spoke of potential political peril: “Bow­ser’s next!”

But Bowser, 39, now appears poised to successfully fend off five challengers in the April 3 Democratic primary. Supporters say her profile was raised last year when, as head of the Government Operations Committee, she led the overhaul of the city’s ethics rules, requiring that she meld nine bills and assuage myriad interests. Bowser attributes her newfound fortune to a record that includes development in Takoma and along Georgia Avenue as well as construction of recreation centers and parks.

But her opponents, critics and even some supporters say Ward 4, which stretches from tony Chevy Chase to the more working-class Riggs Park, is experiencing an uptick in crime, lags behind other communities in school modernization and test scores, and needs better anchors of development than the two Wal-Marts that will be built less than two miles apart.

Bowser, who raised more than $266,000 for her reelection bid by late January, also has had to answer questions about corporate contributions she accepted and why she did not push for a ban on corporate giving when the council considered its sweeping ethics legislation. At recent candidate forums, she has said that such contributions are banned in federal elections but that corporations still find ways to give to campaigns.


Muriel Bowser talks with David Ball, one of her constituents, at a candidates’ forum. Activists say that even though Bowser faces five people in the April 3 Democratic primary, those five would split the opposition vote. (Michael S. Williamson/WASHINGTON POST)

“Who believes there’s no corporate contributions in federal elections?” asked Bowser, who has been mentioned as a potential 2014 mayoral candidate by some insiders concerned about a grand jury probe into Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s campaign.

In Ward 4, neighborhood activists said Bowser stands a good chance at the polls April 3 because there has not been a strong rally behind any of her challengers. They say her opponents — labor lawyer Renee Bowser (no relation), perennial candidate and government accountant Calvin Gurley, community organizer Baruti Jahi, community activist Judi Jones and Max Skolnik, founder of an education nonprofit group — would split the opposition vote.

Community activist Cherita Whiting said Renee Bowser, 63, and Jones, 51, both former Advisory Neighborhood Commission members, are well-known community leaders but lack name recognition beyond their district lines. Jahi is a founder of Ward Four Thrives, a grassroots organization that protests Wal-Mart stores locating to the community.

But Skolnik, a 36-year-old native New Yorker, has emerged as a primary challenger.

“Max is the biggest threat,” said Whiting, noting strong grass-roots organization and door-knocking skills. “The only thing against him is that people didn’t know who he was prior to getting into the race.”

Skolnik said he is running to improve the city for residents, such as his 17-month-old son, who will go to public school, and his wife, a baker who runs a small business out of their Petworth home.

As of late January, Skolnik had raised more than $39,000, much less than Bowser, but he noted that he has raised more than any of the other challengers. “I knew from day one that this had to be a professional campaign,” he said. “It’s really come down to a ground game. I’ve knocked on 7,000 doors.”

Skolnik, the only white candidate in the race, said he has been compared to a carpetbagger and gentrifier. “I can’t change what I am,” he said. “I hope people see my commitment, my ideas. . . . I’m also not going to hew to the white gentrifier. I don’t have a bike. I don’t have a dog. I’m not going to play to the wedge issues.”

Muriel Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian whose parents worked for city government, appears to recognize Skolnik as her main contender. In her closing statement at a candidates’ forum this week at Takoma Park Baptist Church, Bowser directed her comments at Skolnik when she talked about how her goal was always to go into government and politics, pointing to her master’s degree in public policy. She said her aim was “not to be an entrepreneur, not to run a nonprofit.”

At the forum, Pam Ellison, who has lived in Takoma since 1986, said she liked “some of the other ideas from other candidates,” but she wore a Bowser sticker. “She is very responsive to community concerns,” Ellison said. “She’s done a great deal for economic development.”

Bowser campaign chairman Darryl Wiggins said that kind of sentiment can be seen throughout the ward. “She’s not just like Fenty. She’s from Riggs Park. Her parents were government workers,” said Wiggins, who added that Bowser is no longer in Fenty’s shadow.

Her campaign signs — once very similar to Fenty’s — are now green and yellow instead of green and white. “That’s called evolution. That’s not distancing,” Wiggins said. “You have to establish your own identity and who you are.”

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