April 3

Don’t even think about hitting the pause or stop button. D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) has secured the Democratic Party nomination, but the race for mayor is far from over. The next phase of the contest is sure to be tough and interesting.

Libertarian Bruce Majors has entered the ring. But unless another high-profile challenger arrives, the city will be focused on the battle between Bowser and heavyweight independent D.C. Council member David Catania (At Large). In a recent Post poll looking at a possible race between the two, 56 percent of voters supported Bowser and 23 percent supported Catania.

Those numbers require context, however. The survey was taken before Catania has appeared at any candidate forum, before he has sent out any campaign mailers and before he has pitched himself to any political action committee. In other words, the general-election campaign had not yet begun.

“We’ll have seven months to move those numbers,” Catania told me days before the primary election.

“I think David Catania has a real shot at being mayor,” said Ward 6 Democrat and education activist Peter MacPherson, adding, “I don’t know what Muriel Bowser believes.”

Bowser, whose political ambitions received a big lift when former mayor Adrian Fenty handpicked her as his successor on the council, has been in office for seven years. During that time, she has led oversight of parks and recreation, government operations and, more recently, economic development.

In the primary, Bowser deployed a renovated version of the 2006 political machine and infrastructure that ushered Fenty into the mayoral suite. Using that polished engine, she gained a foothold against more experienced politicians while staying on script and dodging tough questions such as whether, if elected, she would keep D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. Bowser never veered from her analysis that the race was between the mayor and herself, creating the predominant assessment of the campaign that helped drive her victory.

With an incumbent under federal investigation for his previous mayoral campaign, ethics and political corruption were the key talking points during the primary. There was only lightweight sparring on matters of public policy and excessive sloganeering.

“They didn’t get to the real issues,” said Tony De Pass, a Ward 1 independent, who said he’s “leaning” toward Catania because “he has done a great job presenting legislation that benefits the entire community, especially poor people.”

U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has said his probe into public corruption in the District isn’t over. Still, Mayor Vincent Gray’s lame-duck status may reduce the ethics-and-corruption refrain, forcing Bowser to provide more specifics about her vision for the city and how she intends to implement it.

“The primary was about who shouldn’t be mayor,” said Catania. “The general election will be about who should be mayor.”

At her news conference Wednesday, Bowser took exception to Catania’s characterization of the primary, asserting that voters have already decided the kind of mayor they want: her. “We’ve already talked about our policies and our ideas,” she said. But MacPherson certainly isn’t the only D.C. resident who doesn’t know Bowser’s platform. Facing Catania, she will be forced to go much deeper and broader than she has in months.

Meanwhile, Bowser forces have begun the assault on Catania, portraying him as a Republican and a surly legislator with bullying tendencies. But his tough and thorough oversight of government agencies has won praise from concerned D.C. residents. Further, a closer examination of his legislative record reveals a politician with a liberal bent.

Besides, said De Pass, “This is not a personality contest. This is serious business.”

In 2002, when there was talk of drafting Catania for a mayoral campaign, I wrote about whether it could succeed. I was surprised then by his widespread support, particularly among African Americans in Wards 7 and 8; he continues to have a strong base in those communities because of his push for improved health-care services, among other things. His appeal has been enhanced by his chairmanship of the council’s Committee on Education and Libraries. And with five citywide victories behind him, Catania will prove formidable in the mayor’s race.

Still, it won’t be easy to beat Bowser. She presented herself as a disciplined campaigner during the primary. She will secure a lot of money. And the absence of ethical issues attached to her strips away concerns some Democrats may have about coalescing behind her. Smartly, she already is working to expand her posse, removing barriers that may have developed during the primary and soothing bruised egos. On election night, she declared former challengers friends and acknowledged Gray’s “lifetime of service.”

“We are Democrats. We will unite,” Bowser continued. The next day, she reached out to independents and Republicans, asking them, “Take a look at our campaign.”

A large number of registered non-Democrats — 27,000 Republicans and 76,000 independents, for example — will join the arena for the November general election. But they may be more disposed to Catania, and they far outnumber the fewer than 36,000 Democrats who voted for Bowser on Tuesday.

Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a host of WPFW-FM’s D.C. politics program and a Ward 8 resident, noted that residents’ depression over corruption in the city, including felony guilty pleas by council members. It won’t escape them that all the wrongdoing thus far has been by Democratic officials. That could provide an opening for an independent or Libertarian.

“People feel better about independent positions of [council member David] Grosso and Catania,” continued Kinlow. “If you look toward the future, independents are a growth industry.”

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com