November 22, 2013

Could 2014 be the year a non-Democrat is elected mayor of the District of Columbia?

Forecasting political outcomes is iffy business. But a combination of events, including a changed election calendar and an underwhelming field of Democratic candidates, raises the possibility that 39 consecutive years of Democratic mayoral control could come to an end in November 2014.

Since home rule began in January 1975, all of the city’s elected mayors have been members of the Democratic Party. With more than 70 percent of D.C. voters registered as Democrats, Democratic victories in our nation’s capital virtually come with the territory. There’s also the fact that the Republican Party, with the exception of Carol Schwartz’s mayoral bids, has offered basically only pro forma candidates.

So why shouldn’t next year’s election be a gimme for the Democratic mayoral nominee?

Enter the 2014 election calendar.

D.C. primaries have always been in September. That is, until 2011 — when the schedule was changed to comply with a federal law requiring local governments to allow sufficient time between primary and general elections for overseas voters to cast absentee ballots.

Next year’s primary is April 1, a full seven months before the Nov. 4 general election. Critics of the schedule change have complained that it will force primary candidates to campaign during the winter. Poor babies!

Here’s another take: The two months between the September primary and the November general election always favored the Democratic primary winner, who glided into the brief stretch with a tested and experienced campaign team and a mobilized party base.

Next year, however, the Democratic nominee will emerge from the April primary not knowing who the independent challengers may be in the general election. Independent candidates for mayor don’t have to even pick up nominating petitions until June 13. They have until Aug. 6 to collect signatures from 3,000 or 1.5 percent of registered voters — whichever is less. In the meantime, prospective candidates will be able to sit back and watch the Democratic candidates maul one another through the winter and spring.

The schedule change gives potential challengers time to learn the Democratic candidates’ strengths, weaknesses and habits, as well as the opportunity to identify issues and conflicts that might be exploited in the general election.

They also get more time to introduce themselves to the electorate, including those Democratic campaign workers and voters unhappy with their primary’s winner, who most likely will receive less than half the votes in an expected low-turnout election.

Which gets us to another reason next year’s mayoral race is not a sure thing for Democrats: the field itself.

Currently, 10 Democratic candidates are listed with the D.C. Board of Elections. Four are D.C. Council members — Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Vincent Orange (At Large) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6). The general public would not be familiar with the rest of the field. Unless lesser-known candidates raise their game in debates, campaign advertising and the like, they will remain at a disadvantage.

That said, Bowser, Evans, Orange and Wells aren’t exactly barn-burners. Watching paint dry is more exciting. Of course, their supporters don’t see them that way.

None of the council members vying to be mayor has made the case that he or she has what it takes to manage a $12 billion budget, a workforce of more than 30,000, a rapidly changing and demographically diverse city and a federal and local political labyrinth that would make Machiavelli quake.

Through committee chairmanships, each council-member candidate has had oversight authority over a relatively small aspect of D.C. government. None has covered himself or herself in glory.

The campaign trail is where Democratic voters need to flesh out, among other things, Evans’s stewardship over the horribly managed operations of the city’s chief financial officer and tax office, Wells’s oversight of the error-prone Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Orange’s public sanction by the ethics board for misconduct and Bowser’s punt on campaign finance reform legislation while she chaired the oversight committee.

Mayor Vincent Gray, who garnered 21 percent of the prospective vote in a poll Wells commissioned this summer, doesn’t change the equation even if he seeks reelection.

Meanwhile, 2014 looms as an opportune time for an independent mayoral candidate.

Several possibilities include former mayor and Federal City Council chief executive Anthony Williams; John Hill, another Federal City Council chief executive who was also executive director of the D.C. Control Board and was recently named chief financial officer of Detroit; the hard-charging D.C. Council veteran David Catania (I-At Large); Kathy Patterson, the former Ward 3 council member; and Marie Johns, a former deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration and former president of Verizon Washington who made a surprisingly strong mayoral candidate in 2006.

Maybe next year.

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