The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Trayon White Sr., D.C. mayoral campaign is a test of grass-roots outreach

Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) gives an elbow-bump greeting while helping to hand out food at Martha's Table in Washington in April. White has launched a bid for D.C. mayor. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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With just under 50 minutes to go until the start of a D.C. mayoral candidate forum, Trayon White Sr. was six miles away, busy collecting signatures outside a Safeway in the Southwest Waterfront neighborhood.

White, the D.C. Council member representing Ward 8, has spent the past eight weeks mobilizing a team of volunteers outside of supermarkets, Metro stations and other highly trafficked corridors around the city to gather the small-dollar donations and signatures he needs to secure a spot on the Democratic mayoral primary ballot in June.

With the forum nearly set to begin, however, it was still unclear whether he planned to attend. “Most likely, most likely; depends if there’s pressing priorities,” White responded when a reporter asked if he was going to the March 5 event, hosted by the Ward 7 Democrats. He added: “My priority is these signatures. You don’t get these signatures, you can have all the priorities you want. … It’s supposed to start in 20 minutes, we’ll see how it goes.”

White made it to the stage that afternoon at St. Luke Catholic Church in Southeast Washington, flanked by a full slate of candidates that included two of his major opponents in the race: council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is seeking a third term. With his characteristic fervor, Trayon White discussed an array of issues ranging from rising crime to marginalized residents who are being priced out of the city.

Democratic challengers seek traction in race to unseat D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser

But his coyness around whether he would even appear at a forum is illustrative of a campaign that has at times been difficult to nail down since its inception, when he announced his mayoral bid in an Instagram comment, a move that caught even his former political adviser off-guard.

And as he worked to galvanize his base ahead of Wednesday’s deadline to make the ballot and qualify for matching funds through the city’s public financing program, some political observers have speculated that Robert White and Trayon White — who are both running to the left of the mayor — could boost Bowser’s chances by splitting a pool of voters seeking a change in the status quo.

“They have some of the same voters. It doesn’t help either one of them to run against each other,” said Ronald L. Moten, a longtime community organizer who has supported Bowser in the past but is currently undecided. “The mayor has an advantage because she’s run a citywide campaign for three cycles now — she knows her base. Trayon knows his base, too, but he needs to broaden it.”

The ‘people’s champ’

Trayon White, who promised to be the “people’s champ” when running for a council seat in the heavily African American Ward 8 six years ago, has no difficulty mobilizing his backers, even though his mayoral campaign appears to be operating with significantly less cash than his main opponents.

Within days of his mayoral announcement in October, he used Instagram to recruit more than 150 supporters to join him at Oxon Run Park. Later, in February, he gathered scores of his supporters at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge for a group photo that was later used to make a campaign video.

When he and his team have been out collecting signatures, residents frequently recognized him and prompted him to pose for pictures. “You’re going to win!” one woman yelled out in Southwest earlier this month as he walked by.

Some of his constituents compare him to Mayor Marion Barry. White is well-known by many in Ward 8 — which contains some of the District’s most historically underserved neighborhoods — for his community activism; the 37-year-old is seen frequently at crime scenes and housing complexes where residents have complained about poor living conditions or other issues, filming the interactions to bring light to their experiences.

As a council member and native of Southeast Washington, he often blends activism and lawmaking, introducing legislation focused on equity and the fair distribution of city resources — though some of his opponents in past council elections have contended that his advocacy may come at the expense of more granular council duties.

In his run for mayor, White has largely relied on social media to spread his populist message, emphasizing the need to remedy the city’s affordable housing shortage, bolster the city’s violence intervention efforts and boost spending on youth programs to keep young people out of trouble.

His word-of-mouth, social media-boosted approach to campaigning has resonated with those it reaches. Stuart Anderson, an activist who managed White’s 2016 council campaign and then ran against him in 2020, said that while many of White’s constituents in Ward 8 are energized by his mayoral bid, others have wondered if he’s trying to expand his base for a future run.

“I don’t believe the current team has done enough work in the other wards that will give Trayon a chance at winning the mayoral seat,” said Anderson, who encouraged White not to run for mayor in hopes he’d stay focused on issues in Ward 8. “West of the [Anacostia] river is where the challenge is. They have to do some spectacular things to get people in those wards.”

A February Washington Post poll found that Trayon White’s support is more geographically concentrated than Bowser’s or Robert White’s. He had 17 percent support citywide, similar to 19 percent for Robert White and well behind Bowser’s 47 percent. And while he received 33 percent support east of the river — compared with Bowser’s 38 percent and Robert White’s 22 percent — he had just 11 percent support across all other wards, compared with 19 percent for Robert White and 50 percent for Bowser.

Chuck Thies, a political strategist who is advising council member Kenyan R. McDuffie, a candidate for D.C. attorney general, argued that with about three months to go until the June 21 primary, Trayon White has rightly focused on solidifying his base while making sure residents with unmet needs are part of the larger mayoral debate.

But his campaign has also had its share of distracting moments, Thies said. White remains the subject of an ongoing “internal inquiry” by the Office of Campaign Finance to determine if he engaged in campaign-related activities before he filed paperwork to officially enter the race. He has been granted extensions for two campaign finance reports so far, including one due earlier this month.

Now is the time for a more focused push citywide, Thies added.

“It may be that his campaign is operating with limited resources, but it’s not too late,” Thies said. “If he can get the other candidates, and people, talking about these issues that affect his residents, he can succeed and boost his capital.”

In the poorest wards in the District, Bowser touts advances as she courts wary electorate

Philip Pannell, another longtime activist in Ward 8 who called Trayon White’s mayoral campaign a “long shot,” added that he could also have trouble attracting voters who remember a 2018 video he posted saying that a snowstorm in D.C. was the result of “Rothschilds controlling the climate” — evoking a Jewish family that has often been the focus of antisemitic conspiracy theories. He has apologized for the remarks.

“If anything, this gives him an opportunity to connect with those voters who might be skeptical of his candidacy due to that unfortunate statement years ago,” Pannell said. “It will be a test of his outreach — a great chance for him to reach new people outside his ward, and I assume that’s what he’s doing.”

Trayon White did not respond to questions about his campaign. His campaign chairman, the Rev. Graylan Hagler, acknowledged the team is still working out some kinks but said skeptics are underestimating their reach. He noted that many of the issues most central to White’s platform affect everyone in the city, including residents who are often left out of policy conversations altogether.

The campaign has been door-knocking in other wards, he said, and working with civic and citizens associations throughout the District to gain traction. The D.C. Board of Elections will make a preliminary determination Monday of which candidates are expected to be on the ballot.

“He can speak to a lot of issues in terms of marginalization in Washington D.C., poverty, people being underclass, returning citizens,” Hagler said, adding that critics were stereotyping him by suggesting his campaign can’t resonate in other communities. “One of the issues in drawing the city closer together is to have some commonality that can apply from Ward 8 to Ward 3. I think Trayon can do that.”

‘Real accountability’

Outside the Safeway, Trayon White and Christopher Williams, a community activist, struck up a conversation about several city issues, including their shared concerns that not enough of the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund is being spent on units for people at the lowest income thresholds.

“That’s why I’m running for mayor: equity, leadership and real accountability,” he said.

“But I’m concerned you and the other White, Robert, are splitting the vote,” Williams responded. Trayon White fired back: “I don’t see it that way. People feel like me and Robert White have the same demographic. I feel like Muriel Bowser and Robert White have the same demographic.”

Derek Hyra, a professor at American University and the author of “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City,” said he also sees an overlap between Trayon White and Robert White, who each have liberal agendas — not to mention the same last name — which could make both of their paths more difficult against the two-term Bowser.

“If you’re going to have someone on the progressive side to challenge Bowser, you’re going to have to consolidate the constituencies that Trayon and Robert have,” Hyra said. “If you split that progressive vote, it makes it even more difficult to go up against Bowser, who has such a good ground game.”

Others have made similar observations. Zach Teutsch, a left-wing activist and Robert White supporter who managed the 2020 campaign of council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), said it may behoove Robert White and Trayon White to assess the landscape in the coming weeks and consider coalescing behind one candidate to beat the incumbent: “I think whoever doesn’t have the momentum should support the one who does,” he said.

Campaign finance filings show Bowser outraising Robert White in D.C. mayoral race

Thies, however, pointed to results from the 2016 at-large Democratic primary election, where Robert White earned the fewest share of his votes east of the Anacostia River compared with other wards.

“To suggest Trayon’s base would automatically be converted to Robert White votes is a misunderstanding of politics and that base,” Thies said. “Trayon’s role in the race is not a hindrance to Robert. It’s as a voice for the people he represents — the unheard.”

In response to those who’ve suggested that Robert White and Trayon White could split the vote against Bowser, Zoe Ades, a spokesperson for Robert White’s campaign, said in a statement that “regardless of who is on the ballot, we are on track to win in June.”

Malik Williams, a spokesperson for Bowser’s campaign, said in a statement that Bowser has been engaging with residents daily “across all eight wards.”

All three campaigns say they have the signatures needed to make the ballot; Trayon White has been pushing in recent days to secure the 1,000 small-dollar donations from D.C. residents he needed by Wednesday to qualify for matching funds.

Hagler, Trayon White’s campaign manager, said he disagreed with the premise about splitting the vote and said the focus right now should be on who has the best ideas.

“We want a robust season of ideas and perspectives because in some ways, that’s what has lacked for us in terms of these elections,” Hagler said. “Whatever gets settled beyond that, in terms of where voters will lean, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”