They don’t know which way is the right path forward, and they wish they did. They love their city — the old neighborhoods and the new places to eat, drink and play. They fear for their city, worrying it is becoming a place for the childless and the rich.
Along streets where ordinary houses sell for a million dollars, and in apartment buildings where going condo can mean becoming homeless for some renters, Tuesday’s primary election for D.C. mayor is welcomed and dreaded: It’s a chance to speak out about the ever more palpable division between haves and have-nots. And it’s a puzzle, many residents say, forcing them to decide which is more important, competence or honesty.
Residents of all eight wards say they are struggling — do they choose four more years of a mayor whose own lawyer says he may soon be indicted in a scandal stemming from his last campaign, or do they take a chance on one of seven challengers who have largely failed to impress voters as viable alternatives?
“It’s hard not to feel in D.C. like there’s a lot going well and a lot of people with hard times,” says Laura Lindamood, 36, who lives in Brookland in Northeast. She loves the new playground built near her home but worries that if her children need emergency care, the city’s problematic fire-EMS service might not come through. She thinks Mayor Vincent C. Gray has done some things well, but she’s “uncomfortable with his ethics situation.” She looks over the field of candidates and ends up, “well, not super-enthusiastic about any of them.”
Four years ago, in the primary showdown between Gray and then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, all Gray had to be to win was not Fenty — not arrogant, not detached from the daily lives of those who felt left behind in a fast-booming city. This time, with the latest Washington Post poll showing Ward 4 council member Muriel Bowser running neck and neck with the mayor, many voters say she and the other challengers are little more than not Gray — not living under the cloud of corruption allegations, not refusing to explain themselves, not speaking mainly to one part of the city.
But is “not Gray” reason enough to oust the mayor of a city with a booming economy, a fat surplus and near-record-low crime? Or does Gray’s alleged role in directing — or, by his account, ignorance of — an illegal shadow campaign disqualify him from a second term?
On Election Day, campaign managers pay extra attention to a few precincts that have proved decisive in past elections. Voters in four of those areas — Hillcrest in Ward 7 in Southeast, near Gray’s home; Turkey Thicket in Northeast, near Catholic University in Ward 5; Shepherd Park in Ward 4, near the Maryland border; and American University Park in Ward 3 in upper Northwest — sometimes feel as though the city is changing so quickly, they don’t know their place in it anymore. Regardless of class, race or ideology, they want a mayor who can figure out how to thrive without hurting those with less.
A few blocks from the mayor’s house in elegant Hillcrest, a wiry man with 27 cents in his pocket passes the day on the steps of the Fairfax Village shopping center, paging through the Express paper, over and over.
The District’s boom is hard to detect here. Men walk straight from the dialysis place to the liquor store, buy lottery tickets, maybe a flask of vodka. In several shops, customers must shout through heavy bulletproof plastic to place their orders.
At T&N Nails, Davonda Ross celebrates her 35th birthday with a pedicure while her six children are at school. She won’t vote for Gray, because she’s seen no improvement in programs for kids and, she says, “because we got a crook for a mayor. Then you see kids loitering in front of the corner and the mayor don’t do nothing about it.”
When she was a teen, Ross recalls, “we used to have all the Boys and Girls Clubs — gone now. But we have all these skyscrapers going up. When we had Marion Barry as mayor, he had things for the kids to do. He had buses to take them to Kings Dominion. He showed he cared.”
Ross says she’s not familiar with the other candidates but will vote for “anyone but Gray.”
The mayor won 81 percent of the vote in this precinct four years ago. To win again, he will need a similar margin here — and strong turnout.
But Linda Lilly, 54, waiting for her dialysis, says she’s seen what Gray accomplished and wants nothing more to do with it. “Wal-Marts going up all over — that’s what he’s proud of?” she says. “That’s not for us. That’s for people in Northwest. You see those stores and next they’re going to turn apartments into condos, and then where are we as a race going to live?”
Lilly, who is black, has settled on Bowser because “we can’t have more of Gray — got to be some truth to all this stuff about him, and it’s all going to come out sooner or later.”
When passengers on the van Theophilus Moody drives from a senior center to the shops talk about Gray’s alleged misdeeds, he shoots back: “Show me proof that the mayor’s guilty of something. They talked about Jesus Christ the same way. The only thing they got against him is the word of the gentleman who underhandedly funded his campaign.”
Moody, 65, is concerned about the city’s direction. “In another 10 years, you won’t be able to live in this city if you’re not making $50,000,” he says. “But Gray’s doing a good job, the best he can, not like Fenty, who doesn’t have compassion in his heart.”
Gray, then the council chairman, was elected as the antidote to Fenty, whose attention to dog parks, bike lanes and fancy restaurants became an emblem of the view, mainly among black voters, that he was less concerned about those who were being priced out of their own neighborhoods.
Although Fenty has moved to California and disengaged from D.C. politics, his legacy remains a factor in this campaign. Just as many voters east of the Anacostia River use “Fenty” as code for an affluent takeover of their city, some voters in rapidly morphing areas hold up the ex-mayor as a model of how to manage change.
“I really wish Fenty had stayed in,” says Jenna Pfueller, 35, a photo editor who moved from Capitol Hill to Brookland in Ward 5 a year ago. She reels off a list of services that she says have declined in quality since Gray took office, including the schools (a focus now that she’s the mother of a 9-week-old boy.) She credits Fenty with modernizing school buildings in the District. But given the persistent, even growing, achievement gap between white and black students in the past two years, she concludes that “it all just stalled with Gray.”
Pfueller is leaning toward Tommy Wells, the Ward 6 council member, because “he’s very pro-bikes and very pro-environment. But honestly, it’s going to be anyone but Gray. D.C. doesn’t need more drama.”
Young residents such as Pfueller are the kind of people the Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory sees moving onto her block in Brookland — “what they used to call yuppies,” she says — paying nearly a million dollars for houses that were middle-class homes when she moved in decades ago.
“I could not afford to buy my house now,” says Ivory, 68. “It’s quadrupled in price. It’s all going so fast. We do need growth, but you need to be mindful of people who’ve been here.”
Gray won two-thirds of the vote against Fenty here, but the population has shifted since then. Ivory doesn’t mind all the baby strollers and dogs in the neighborhood now, but she worries when relatives tell her they can’t afford to move into the city.
A good mayor, she says, can bring the city back into balance, and she thinks Gray is trying to do that. Gray “deserves forgiveness,” she says. “And I have to wonder, why has all this about him come out just before the election?”
On the other hand, she likes Bowser’s energy, but “my concern is,” she says, “has she been around enough to know all the ins and outs?”
In Ward 4’s Shepherd Park, which Fenty carried overwhelmingly in his first run but then lost to Gray in 2010, some of Bowser’s constituents dismiss any worry about whether she’s ready for the top job.
“She’s polished, always prepared, even-tempered,” says Eve Lotter, 70, who is watching her grandson at the newly refurbished playground at Shepherd Elementary. That Bowser is Fenty’s protege is a big plus, she says, because in her 25 years of living in Washington, Lotter never saw a better mayor. “What Fenty did was revolutionary,” she says, “touching our lives with wonderful playgrounds, a divine swimming pool, fabulous libraries, turning the schools around.”
Gray has been “all red flags from the get-go,” Lotter says. “Corruption is a form of injustice, and it needs to be cured.”
But Stephen McDow, 37, sees Gray as a “consistent and stable leader.” Intimations of legal action to come against the mayor are “speculation and rumor,” says McDow, a stay-at-home father with two children at Shepherd. “There’s this little thing called innocent until proven guilty. So I don’t have a compelling reason to vote against him.”
Still, McDow calls himself undecided and expects to remain so until the last minute.
Amy Bacon, watching her daughters’ soccer lesson on the Shepherd field, is also stuck. She’s leaning toward Wells because he didn’t take contributions from the once influential contractor Jeffrey Thompson, but she’s considering Gray and Bowser.
“Gray is crooked, but the city hasn’t done badly these last three years,” says Bacon, 51, who runs a real estate business. “I do appreciate the drop in homicides, and Vince even salted my alley after one snow. That never happened before. But he obviously took money in a way he’s not supposed to. It bothers me, but Gray will win anyway — most people just don’t care about corruption.”
In affluent American University Park, where voters in 2010 supported Fenty over Gray by 84 percent to 16 percent, the worries are strikingly similar to those in the District’s low-income areas — concerns about who benefits from the city’s growth and who loses out.
Here in Ward 3, there’s talk not only of Gray, Bowser and Wells but also of Jack Evans, the longtime Ward 2 council member who’s running for mayor even as he praises Gray’s record. There’s also much talk of strategic voting — calculating who is most likely to beat Gray and jumping on that bandwagon.
“When someone crosses that ethical line, they just need to go,” says Maria Creighton, pushing her daughter in a swing at Turtle Park on Van Ness Street NW. “They just need to be punished. There’s no excuse. So I have to figure out who can win against him.”
Beth Mailley, a teacher watching her son at Little League practice, is looking for someone who can build on the accomplishments of former mayor Anthony Williams, “who got us on the right financial footing,” she says. “And Fenty put the money to good use — the schools, the bike lanes, the trash cans. I don’t feel like Gray has messed it up, but this scandal cloud has held him back. There’s a lot of gray area, I guess.”
She laughs at the unintended pun.
“Do I vote for the things that have gone well or hold this against him?” she says. “I have to decide.”