February 20

IF THIS were an ordinary election year in the District of Columbia, we probably would back Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) for reelection. His first term has had solid accomplishments. The city’s finances are robust. Crime is down. Schools are improving. People are moving in. Unemployment is creeping down.

Not all the progress is because of Mr. Gray. He had the good fortune to follow two mayors who put the city on sound footing. Anthony Williams (D) brought professionalism and fiscal responsibility to city government; Adrian M. Fenty (D) tackled the challenge of school reform with unmatched energy. Mr. Gray, to his credit, opted not to change direction; he instead built on those strong foundations.

Nowhere has that been more apparent than in school reform. It was a contentious issue in the 2010 primary fight between Mr. Fenty and Mr. Gray, but since taking office the mayor has been a stalwart supporter of school improvement. He made Kaya Henderson chancellor and Abigail Smith deputy mayor for education. Both had been part of the overhaul of public schools engineered by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, and both have proved to be effective leaders in their own right. Recent D.C. student test scores led the nation in improvement, and enrollment in both traditional and charter public schools is up, a testament to the efficacy of the administration’s approach to education.

But this is no ordinary reelection campaign. The crimes and other troubling circumstances that surround Mr. Gray’s campaign four years ago and his refusal to be forthcoming about those events, to the public or the federal prosecutor, strike us as close to disqualifying. If there were no other plausible candidate, voters might decide they had to ignore the cloud and vote for the incumbent. But the city is fortunate to have viable and attractive candidates contesting the April 1 Democratic primary, in which early voting begins March 17.

The contours of the scandal that marred Mr. Gray’s election and his early days in office are, by now, well-known. There was gadfly mayoral candidate Sulaimon Brown, who said the Gray campaign paid him cash and promised him a job for relentlessly attacking Mr. Fenty during the 2010 primary. Mr. Gray denied that charge, but Mr. Brown ended up with a $110,000-a-year position in the D.C. Department of Health Care Finance before the scandal blew up.

There was, according to U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr., an illegal shadow campaign, allegedly funded with more than $650,000 from a prominent businessman with large city contracts — including one that was sweetened after Mr. Gray was elected. Four people associated with Mr. Gray’s campaign, including three long-time friends, pleaded guilty to campaign-related felonies in a federal investigation that is ongoing.

Mr. Gray has denied any wrongdoing; he has not been charged with a crime. Officials in his administration insist that the contract was changed on the merits and according to law. But Mr. Gray has been unwilling to discuss his activities or knowledge in any detail. He has declined to meet with federal investigators. Only when he decided to seek reelection did he offer any apology, and then he urged the city to move on.

Voters who remain troubled by that record face a wide array of alternatives, some more serious than others. Reta Jo Lewis, a former State Department official, and Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys and Poets, fall in the less-serious category. Their knowledge of city issues is thin. Mr. Shallal’s main focus seems to be to decry the economic forces that have contributed to his business’s success. Even less credible is Carlos Allen, whose main claim to fame was crashing a White House party in 2009.

Four members of the D.C. Council — Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Vincent Orange (At Large) — offer more plausible candidacies. Mr. Wells brings refreshing passion to the subject of government ethics, but his talk of a walkable, livable city is more slogan than course of action for the District. Mr. Orange understands the needs of struggling neighborhoods but has shown questionable judgment, wavering principles and a troubling tendency to demagogue issues.

With 23 years on the council, Mr. Evans is an effective lawmaker who understands how to get things done. He is right to say that his work — both on the dais and behind the scenes — helped restore fiscal responsibility to city government and contributed to economic development projects that revitalized parts of the city, notably the Verizon Center and the baseball stadium. While we have disagreed with Mr. Evans on ethics issues, we have no doubt that he would be a capable manager. We believe, though, that he is lacking in a robust vision that speaks to all the needs of this changing city. He speaks with more passion about what he has accomplished than what he would do.

By contrast, Ms. Bowser has articulated an agenda that balances the need for continued economic growth with an understanding of the stresses growth can bring. We believe she would be a force for continued progress — in economic development, public safety and education — while working to help people and neighborhoods that might otherwise be left behind.

By training and temperament, Ms. Bowser is a student of governance, with a degree in public policy, experience working for Montgomery County government and involvement as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. In seven years on the council, she has been a thoughtful and pragmatic lawmaker who tries to identify problems before formulating solutions. She has supported school reform and understands the urgency of addressing remaining challenges, starting with improving the city’s middle schools. She steered an ethics reform package that many thought would not be approved by a council wary of changes that could upset its prerogatives. The ethics board that resulted is holding officials accountable and raising the bar on government conduct.

Ms. Bowser, a protege of Mr. Fenty, has ably served the needs of a ward that has high expectations of its representatives. She has shown spine in opposing legislation that for all its popularity would do the city harm. She is willing to admit her mistakes, open her mind to new ideas and surround herself with smart, capable staff. All are good traits for an executive, as is her penchant for getting up early and working until the job is done.

She is our choice to lead the city. We urge D.C. voters to select Muriel Bowser when they go to the polls on or before April 1.