Opinions

The early line on the D.C. mayor’s race

In just under a year, the 2014 Democratic primary will determine the party’s nominee to be the next D.C. mayor, with the winner all but certain to go on to victory in November. One hopeful has already thrown her hat into the ring, and others are poised to join her. It’s a perfect moment for a little hot-stove sizing-up of the field.

First, the paramount question: Will the incumbent, embattled Mayor Vincent C. Gray, run for a second term?

Right now, you can’t rule him out. In fact, if you observe him up close at news conferences and other public events, he gives no indication at all that he views himself as a lame duck.

There’s a big question beyond Gray’s control, however: What will U.S. Attorney Ron Machen do?

Machen has been investigating the mayor’s 2010 campaign almost since Gray’s first day in office, and he holds all the cards. An indictment — or even just the lingering possibility of one — has to weigh heavily in Gray’s deliberations. And if he were to leave office early for whatever reason and set up a special election — which would include Republicans and independents — then all bets are off.

If not Gray, then who? My take on the top three candidates:

Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser. Bowser announced her candidacy in front of her parents’ home in Ward 5, where she was raised. You could do a lot worse than having those two vote-rich wards for a base of support.

Also, as the city undergoes rapid gentrification, one must frankly acknowledge the importance of race in D.C. politics. Since the advent of home rule, the city has never had a mayor who wasn’t black. As an African American woman, Bowser can expect to have strong appeal for black residents who don’t like the way their neighborhoods are changing around them and aren’t in the mood just yet to adopt a post-racial mind-set.

Already, Bowser is playing up that she is a native Washingtonian. In her announcement speech, she portrayed herself as a protector of those who have stayed in the city through good times and bad. She said that she would make sure “they have a seat at the table.” Expect that theme to play well.

But Bowser isn’t a perfect candidate. Her legislative record on the D.C. Council is thin, and her association with former mayor Adrian M. Fenty won’t be forgotten by those who soured on him three years ago. She does not possess the rhetorical fire of Sharon Pratt, the skill at working a room of Marion Barry or the wonkish command and subtle wit of Tony Williams. Above all, she projects an image as respectable and middle of the road. Is that enough?

Ward 6 Council member Tommy Wells. Wells has formed an exploratory committee, and most observers think he will make his campaign official. His focus is ethics and corruption. Given still-fresh memories of the indictment and conviction of two former council members and the ongoing investigation of the mayor, Wells has wisely cultivated an image as Mr. Clean. He has a modest legislative record and has received attention for his use of legislative oversight. His recent questioning of the effectiveness of fire department leadership is a case in point.

Wells, who is white, is popular with liberals and good-government activists, but that’s probably not enough to win a citywide election. He is not charismatic. Can he attract a following beyond his core constituencies? I would be most surprised if Wells’s candidacy goes anywhere.

Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans. Evans is the longest-serving member of the council, where he is the longtime chairman of the influential Finance and Revenue Committee. And if neatness counted, Evans would be president. Just go see his council office.

Evans is widely admired for his grasp of legislative issues and his command of urban financial minutia. He has also demonstrated acumen in raising large sums of money for his council races, as well as for his run for mayor in 1998. If he runs, fundraising won’t be a problem. But that could be a double-edged sword: Most of his money will come from big developers and the downtown business community. Would he be perceived, perhaps fatally, as the rich guy’s candidate?

Evans’s message would be that he’s a manager who can run the city efficiently, and that race (he is white) shouldn’t be an issue. But has his life experience (a degree from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, longtime residence in tony Georgetown) left him out of touch? Would his showing among African Americans be so awful that there is no way he can win?

It’s early, and the field could always be shaken up by a surprise entrant. Gray, Bowser, Wells and Evans all have vulnerabilities. Given widespread frustration with the council’s problems, would an outsider have a built-in advantage? Two possibilities: If Bowser falters, African American support could coalesce around former city administrator Robert Bobb. And Attorney General Eric Holder was close to announcing in 1998. Could he be tempted again?

Finally, where is the D.C. Michael Bloomberg? Is there a deep-pocketed person out there who is having a midlife crisis and would like to save the city? I’m supposed to know this stuff. I’ve racked my brain and nobody comes to mind. Maybe someone is out there, waiting to surface.

The writer is political analyst for WTTG-TV (Fox Channel 5).

 
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