Muriel Bowser’s cautious D.C. mayoral campaign is rooted in arithmetic

She is the only Democrat on the ballot in a mainly Democratic city.


Democratic D.C. mayoral candidate Muriel E. Bowser talks with voters as Fort Stevens celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle fought there on July 12. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Since winning the District’s Democratic mayoral nomination in April, Muriel E. Bowser has pursued a time-honored strategy for a candidate seeking to retain the mantle of front-runner: Don’t mess up.

In the first four months of the general-election campaign, Bowser has avoided debates, offered few hard positions on the issues and filled her speeches with broad generalizations.

Bowser and her campaign chiefs say they are using the summer to extend their fundraising advantage, build their infrastructure and otherwise prepare for what they predict will be a hard-fought contest that will kick off in earnest after summer vacations are over and kids are back in school.

In a city with a 40-year streak of Democratic rule, Bowser (Ward 4) has reason to assume that she carries an advantage. But her refusal to engage with her opponents — including council colleague David A. Catania (I-At Large) and former council member Carol Schwartz — has alienated some voters, who are eager to learn more about all of the contenders in this unusually competitive general-election race.

“Voters deserve to know the views of the candidates. That’s the only way they can make a legitimate evaluation,” said Martha H. Mitchell, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and political activist who had hoped to organize a summertime debate in Bowser’s ward.


D.C. Council member David A. Catania, independent candidate for mayor, middle, meets with voters at the home of Sirraya Gant, right. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)

Bowser’s campaign rebuffed the invitation, like several others, saying that she would not engage in any debates before the Nov. 4 ballot is set.

Catania, Schwartz and five other independent candidates are gathering voter signatures and need 3,000 to qualify. Depending on challenges to those petitions, the ballot may not be set until mid-September.

Mitchell, who said she is leaning toward supporting Catania, said she finds Bowser’s posture frustrating.

“People definitely do not want to wait to make a choice, and to wait all the way to September is a long time,” she said, noting that Catania and Schwartz repeatedly qualified for the ballot in past elections. “They want to know what’s she’s hiding, why they wouldn’t be willing to discuss the issues side by side.”

Bowser’s strategy is rooted in basic arithmetic: She is the only Democrat on the ballot, and 76 percent of the District’s 455,000 registered voters are Democrats. And non-Democrats are less likely to vote in general elections, according to a Washington Post analysis. In the 2010 mayoral general election, turnout among current Democratic voters was roughly 40 percent, while turnout among all other voters was about 23 percent.

In addition, polls published shortly before the primary showed Bowser with leads of 20 to 30 percentage points in a head-to-head race with Catania, and she registered a fundraising lead of $370,000 in June. Such advantages have left many in Bowser’s campaign privately convinced that the race isn’t nearly as competitive as Catania and the news media might like it to be.

Outwardly, however, Bowser’s campaign claims to be taking her competitors and the general-election race seriously. The quiet summer, advisers said, is more the result of the behind-the-scenes focus on building a formidable operation for the fall campaign.


Muriel Bowser has tried to remain out of the spotlight, declining to engage in debates. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“If somebody is looking for high-profile media activity, no, we’re not doing that this summer,” said Bill Lightfoot, a lawyer and former council member who chairs her campaign. “Muriel is involved in the grunt work of the building a campaign. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard work, and it’s time intensive.”

Bowser’s highest-profile campaign moments since the primary have involved associations with popular political figures meant to ease voters’ doubts — saying she intended to keep Kaya Henderson as schools chancellor and unveiling Democratic former mayor Anthony A. Williams’s endorsement before an Independence Day parade.

She also seems to be trying to present a reassuring alternative to what she describes as Catania’s more inflammatory style.

Catania has taken a more outwardly aggressive approach to his campaign, attending near-daily meet-and-greet events in voters’ living rooms and pressing Bowser constantly on her record and on her political approach.

“As someone who has no record and no ideas, she risks a lot by engaging in a discussion,” Catania said in an interview.

“She’s taken the only strategy available to her. The last thing she wants to do is be exposed for her lack of substance.”

Last week, Catania introduced an emergency bill that would address the possible displacement of the mostly Chinese American residents of a 300-unit apartment building near Mount Vernon Square. In a subsequent interview, he questioned why he was taking action rather than Bowser, who is chairwoman of the council committee overseeing housing issues.

When Catania pressed the issue during Monday’s council meeting, Bowser dismissed it as “grandstanding.”

In an interview, Bowser drew a contrast with Catania. “People want a mayor that doesn’t fly off the handle or blow with the wind,” she said. “People are measuring my ability to lead, and, yes, part of my leadership is listening to all of the issues and making balanced decisions.”

That balance — and caution in taking a stand — has been on display in recent months as the council has debated the city’s 2015 spending plan.

One of the most controversial proposals extended the city’s sales tax to health-club memberships for the first time as part of a broader tax-cutting package — a move that generated major pushback among gym owners and patrons.

Ahead of a final vote on the budget last month, Catania proposed an amendment that would eliminate the “gym tax” or “yoga tax,” as opponents styled it. As Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) endeavored to keep his budget package intact, tax opponents canvassed the Wilson Building for support.

Ori Gorfine, chief operating officer for Balance Gym, a small D.C. chain, said Bowser was “in­cred­ibly noncommittal” when he and fellow advocates asked for her support before the vote.

“She basically said she didn’t know which way she was going to fall,” Gorfine said. “She said she didn’t support the wellness tax, but she wanted to hear everyone out.”

In the end, the council rejected Catania’s amendment on a 9-to-4 vote. Bowser voted for the amendment, but she did not speak in support of it from the dais.

The stakes are highest for Bowser on education. Catania, chairman of the council’s education committee, has used the issue as a political cudgel, and Schwartz has said she, too, would outflank Bowser on education matters.

After briefly seeming to endorse a wildly unpopular proposal to replace guaranteed neighborhood school placements with a citywide lottery system, Bowser has shied away from making pronouncements about an ongoing and deeply sensitive redrawing of public school boundaries and feeder patterns.

More recently, Henderson has criticized what she considers a lack of coordination between charter schools and the traditional school system she leads — putting a crucial question about the city’s future in the campaign spotlight.

Matthew Frumin, a Chevy Chase education activist who serves on the boundary review committee, said the education platform Bowser leaned on in the primary — an “Alice Deal for all,” a reference to the high-performing Northwest middle school — is “not nearly sufficient” for the general-election race.

But Frumin said that Bowser has been engaged with voters in his neighborhood and that Catania, while more facile on education policy matters, has not necessarily sketched out a more compelling vision for the city’s future.

“One can understand not wanting to debate in July and August,” he said of Bowser. “But, boy, is she going to have to come September and October.”

Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

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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