Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this post misspelled the name of D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4).
Considering all the controversy that has followed D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) during his first term, I was marginally surprised when I heard that he planned to run for reelection. It seemed reasonable, given three years of negative press, that the District native and longtime Democratic war horse would simply look back on the successes and move out of the limelight.
Besides, the field is beyond crowded and Gray just turned 71 years old. I’m sure no one would have blamed him for hanging it all up.
But then came the real stunner of his reelection announcement: Gray picked longtime political consultant Chuck Thies as his campaign manager. Yes, THAT Chuck Thies. The one who once hosted a show about local politics on WPFW, and once wrote columns for NBC Washington on the same subject. I’ve called him on quite a few occasions for his thoughts.
To say he’s an outspoken guy would be an understatement. Now defunct TBD.com once called him one of “The 10 Angriest People in D.C.” He once tweeted “A shrewd challenger exploits the weaknesses of the incumbent repeatedly and at every turn.” Once the spokesman for council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) Theis clearly loves politics and the gamesmanship of it all.
He’s always struck me as a relatively honest ‘speak truth to power’ type, with the platform to share his views. Still, Thies joining Gray’s campaign illustrates just how little things have changed in city politics.
For all of its racial and economic demographic change, the District’s internal political system is still hyper-focused on a very small Democratic electorate. A small number of candidates try to build a voter base from those who are predictably sure to go to the polls. And it’s largely viewed as a waste of time and money to take any other approach.
Back when Andy Shallal, owner of Busboys & Poets, made his intentions clear to run for mayor, there was a brief moment in which many thought he might upend this dynamic. Those hopes were dashed when he decided to run as a Democrat: not only did his decision severely reduce the length of his campaign, but also, arguably, his chances to win the primary. Meanwhile, he hired an old D.C. political type, Rock Newman, and started his campaign at Ben’s Chili Bowl. Not exactly outside the box thinking, alas.
Save Reta Jo Lewis, all the other candidates in the Democratic fray, including council members Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Tommy Wells (Ward 6) and Vincent Orange (At-Large), are characters we’re quite familiar with. So, don’t expect anything other than the same old tropes. Indeed, sometimes it feels like everyone who got into this race likely did so because they figured the U.S. Attorney’s office would take out the incumbent. They might still be right.
Nonetheless, seeing a guy like Thies joining Gray’s campaign sends multiple messages. The first, and perhaps most important: Gray really thinks this primary fight is going to be vicious. That’s because Thies, in my experience, is ruthless. Which can be perfect for a campaign manager. You can expect some pretty strong attacks on opponents, based on his history. He’s called former council candidate Elissa Silverman a hypocrite and insinuated that Tommy Wells is a drunk. Interestingly, he has no problem with underage drinking.
It’s also disappointing to see how hard it continues to be to upset the political apple cart in this city. Shallal likely opted to run as a Democrat because, as many political insiders will tell you, the chances of beating an incumbent as an independent in a city wide election are slim. And to see Thies, someone who built an entire personal brand around being anti-establishment analyst, suddenly join forces with a mayor who is still under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s office speaks to how established power structures maintain themselves.
It’ll be a quite a while before anyone can really remove D.C. politics from being anything more than the purview of a few well-heeled and connected Democrats. And for as long as the residents of the city accept the fact that business as usual is a reasonable status quo, we’ll all be fools.
I guess it makes sense that the primary be held on April Fools Day.