No ideal successor to Mayor Vincent Gray in sight

Robert McCartney
Columnist July 18, 2012

Although his 2010 landslide election victory is now tainted, to say the least, it’s worth remembering how Mayor Vincent C. Gray successfully pitched himself to voters in the campaign that ousted incumbent Adrian M. Fenty.

Gray (D) pledged to provide honest, effective leadership that would unite the city. He said he would mostly continue Fenty’s reforms, particularly in education, while paying more heed to African American residents’ concerns that they were being left out of the city’s progress.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Today, as the District starts to ponder who might succeed the scandal-burdened mayor, the ideal candidate would be one who can actually deliver what Gray promised but has fallen drastically short of achieving — mainly on the integrity issue. (If the city is united, it’s primarily in disgust over corruption.)

Unfortunately, looking at the initial field of prospective candidates, nobody’s in a strong position to serve up that full menu of needed leadership. In particular, nobody clearly offers both sufficient experience to run a $9 billion government and the political appeal to bridge the city’s economic and racial divides.

D.C. Council members Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) appear to be the two prospects with the best chances of winning, but each offers only half of what the city needs, according to interviews with more than a dozen political observers, including elected officials and veteran campaign staffers.

Evans, who has said publicly that he plans to run for mayor at the next opportunity, has 21 years on the council and is an expert on finances and economic development. But he begins with a limited electoral base in affluent, mostly white neighborhoods.

To try to expand his appeal, Evans, who is white, began in late spring to make regular appearances at community meetings and other public events in African American neighborhoods.

Bowser, a Fenty protégée, begins with more potential to attract votes across the city. She is a black politician who has been well regarded by white voters. However, she’s been on the council only five years, and even some of her admirers said she needs more experience. Bowser has not yet decided whether to run.

It isn’t clear yet whether the next mayoral race will be a special election after Gray is forced from office, as I expect, or a regular campaign in 2014 as his term ends. Given the city’s changing demographics and the possibility of a large array of candidates, it could require a relatively small plurality, 35 percent or less, to triumph.

“This is the first election cycle in 50 years in the District where there is no dominant racial majority. You’re in this environment where the arithmetic for getting elected is very dicey and comes down to who gets their people out in greatest percentages,” former city administrator Michael C. Rogers said.

Among the other prospects, none of whom is a declared candidate, council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large) has won citywide in the past and has substantial experience as a former Ward 5 council member.

However, Orange, who is black, did poorly in white neighborhoods in his most recent Democratic primary. That was partly because of controversy over his handling of campaign contributions from tarnished donor Jeffrey Thompson, a situation that has yet to be resolved.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who is exploring a mayoral bid, would run on a platform of creating livable, walkable neighborhoods similar to those in his base on Capitol Hill. However, Wells, who is white, seems likely to face the same challenge as Evans in attracting black support, without either the fundraising capacity or lengthy experience to offset that disadvantage.

Rounding out the field is council member Michael Brown (I-At Large). Past controversies over unpaid taxes and his involvement in an Internet gambling proposal would be damaging.

Given the field, many activists are on the lookout for someone unexpected to swoop in and rescue the District.

“It’s really like the perfect chance for an outsider who has money, somebody who is competent, who has been successful in another career,” said a longtime professional political operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn’t want to offend potential clients.

The one D.C. politician with lengthy experience and proven, broad appeal has signaled that he’s not interested in the mayoralty. That is the acting council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who is running in November to become chairman on a permanent basis.

Mendelson’s proclaimed lack of interest in becoming mayor is welcome, because practically everybody agrees that he is too much of a nitpicker and insufficiently strategically minded to be a good executive.

If Gray is forced out early, however, then Mendelson would be elevated to mayor on an acting basis. If he changed his mind and decided to run for the job, then Mendelson’s popularity with voters might make him a formidable candidate.

Given all these uncertainties, the one thing we can say for sure of Gray’s immediate legacy is that it will be one of political turmoil.

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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