Mayoral ambitions surfacing early in D.C.

The convictions last week of two of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s former campaign aides have scrambled local politics in the nation’s capital, dimming Gray’s influence and brightening the political prospects of some other city leaders.

Not even 18 months in office, Gray (D) is threatened with being a one-term mayor, political analysts say, and the electoral scandal has opened the door for at least two white candidates in 2014.

“I don’t see any scenario in which Vince Gray could win another race,” said Johnny Allem, a supporter of Gray’s 2010 campaign who has been active in city politics for four decades. “The issue of his last campaign won’t go away. You can make the argument that the city government hasn’t suffered, and I think it’s running fairly well. But that’s not what’s on people’s minds.”

The talk of Gray’s possible downfall intensified last week with guilty pleas from two former aides who paid a minor mayoral candidate, Sulaimon Brown, to stay in the race and harass then-incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D).

Already, potential rivals have begun laying the groundwork for a 2014 run, much earlier than normal in the electoral process. D.C. Council members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) have been meeting with potential financial backers and with community leaders who could help broaden their citywide appeal, according to several people with knowledge of the meetings.

Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s mayoral ambitions are on hold as federal authorities investigate his 2008 bid for reelection to an at-large council seat, political analysts say.

Other D.C. Council members have an eye on higher office, but they have not moved as conspicuously as Bowser, Evans and Wells. They include at-large members Michael A. Brown (I), David A. Catania (I), Phil Mendelson (D) and Vincent B. Orange (D).

In light of the appeal of an outsider in a political crisis, speculation has also emerged about potential wild-card candidates such as Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Machen’s top assistant, Vincent H. Cohen Jr.

Gray’s supporters say the mayor could mount a political comeback if the federal probe wraps up swiftly without directly implicating him. An early start on reelection and a crowded field could compensate for Gray’s weakened political punch.

Whatever happens, the District’s racial divisions, a factor in Gray’s defeat of Fenty in the 2010 Democratic primary, are likely to resurface in 2014 as some of Gray’s African American supporters are increasingly disillusioned. The possibility of two white candidates — Wells and Evans — could further expose the divide.

Overt moves

Bowser, Evans and Wells have been making overt moves to position themselves in recent weeks, according to people with knowledge of informal draft meetings.

Bowser appeared this month at the annual dinner of the regional Trial Lawyers Association — a group that is known to provide significant financial support to candidates and that has earned a reputation for backing winners.

Although other elected officials — including Gray — were at the dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bowser was escorted by former council member William P. Lightfoot, the chairman of Fenty’s mayoral campaigns.

Bowser, 39, who is running for a second full term on the council, easily won last month’s primary, and she is expected to coast through the Nov. 6 general election. Bowser said her focus is the general election, and she played down the idea that her attendance at the trial lawyers’ dinner was significant.

“The trial lawyers have supported all of my campaigns, and I’ve been to a number of dinners,” she said.

But people surrounding Bowser are pushing her to think higher. They see her as the candidate with the best chance of bridging racial and class divides: an African American and native Washingtonian who vigorously supported Fenty in 2010, when Fenty had the strong support of white Democrats.

Bowser’s ward is home to middle- and upper-class African Americans with strong ties to government and a history of being reliable voters in citywide elections. In the 2010 primary, Ward 4 abandoned Fenty, its former council member, exemplifying his loss to Gray. In April’s council primary, Bowser received 65 percent of the vote despite speculation that she was losing support there.

Her biggest hurdle is getting noticed in other corners of the District. She recently started running ads in the Current community newspapers that circulate in majority-white neighborhoods south and west of her home ward. Bowser said that she advertised before the primary but that her purpose was to stay competitive in her council race and not to prepare for a future campaign beyond Ward 4.

Two white hopefuls

As for Evans and Wells, each feels he could become the city’s first white mayor since Home Rule — if he can secure some black support. Both council members have been courting black leaders.

Evans, a 21-year council member, ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1998 and pondered a run in 2006. He is privately telling people that this may be his time.

Michael Rogers, a former city administrator, confirmed that he and Evans met at the Old Ebbitt Grill to talk about Evans’s political future, but he would not disclose details of their conversation. Evans has also met with another former city administrator, Elijah Rogers. Both are black.

Evans, 58, has to counteract an image of catering to downtown business interests. But his relationship with the business community gives him an advantage in fundraising that would help in a citywide run. He’s hoping his experience will make a difference to voters upset about the turbulent political scene.

“I’m trying to do whatever’s in the best interest of the city as everything unfolds,” Evans said, acknowledging his discussions. “What I’m going to do is wait and see what happens and make a decision based on whatever unfolds. That’s all you can really do.”

Although Evans’s coffee klatches and meetings began in recent weeks, Wells has been meeting with potential supporters for several months. He sees a potential base of support in new residents interested in neighborhood development and quality-of-life concerns and other people concerned about good government and “progressive” political issues.

Wells, 55, acknowledged being approached about a mayoral run and having “a busy schedule of breakfasts and dinners with people interested in making sure that the city moves forward.” Like Bowser and Evans, he has approached key campaign donors, including a powerful group of parking lot owners.

“Many elected officials don’t know there is a crisis of confidence of how the city is perceived and how the leaders in the city are perceived,” said Wells, who was born in Austin, went to college in Minnesota, and worked as a social worker and advocate for D.C. children for years before entering politics.

Wells served on the city school board before winning his council seat in 2006 and is chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning. He is using that position to meet with residents outside Ward 6, which includes Capitol Hill and rapidly growing neighborhoods around Nationals Park, H Street NE and the Southwest waterfront.

Despite all the posturing, said Michael Rogers, the former city administrator, it’s premature to write Gray’s political obituary.

Rogers said that Gray has made progress with his jobs initiative, which has matched 3,000 residents to private-sector employment. City services continue without interruption, in part because of Gray’s decision to keep longtime agency heads, he said.

“Who says, if he gets through this current situation, that he can’t be a candidate in 2014?”

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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