The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. election is referendum on status quo versus liberal shake-up

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) speaks during the Moms Demand Action rally on June 8 in D.C. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)
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For eight years, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has steered the nation’s capital through booming economic growth, fast-moving gentrification, a viral pandemic, a revolt for racial justice outside a White House hostile to the District’s control of its own police force — and then an insurrection at the heart of the city where those same police officers rushed to rescue the nation’s democratic institutions.

Throughout it all, when the country’s attention turned to the District, calm and careful Bowser was the city’s face.

Now, D.C. voters are deciding whether to make Bowser the only mayor other than Marion Barry, once the legendary “mayor for life,” to be elected three times — or reject her in favor of one of her left-leaning opponents, who say she’s made the city less livable for its longtime residents by failing to blunt rising violent crime and the surging cost of housing.

Bowser as next ‘mayor for life’? She’ll need support of the lukewarm, too.

“It’s a choice between the status quo, which is a more centrist type of Democratic politics, and the progressive wing,” said Derek Hyra, a professor at American University and the author of “Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City.” The District has flourished economically under Bowser’s watch, Hyra noted, but at the same time, “It keeps growing unevenly.”

What’s at stake for D.C. voters in the primary resembles debates among Democrats across the country, analysts say, where more centrist candidates have clashed with leftists over how to best address key issues. The national mood has shifted in the two years since George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police, a time when many Democratic lawmakers promised to explore alternatives to policing or reduce departments’ funding in local budgets. New York City voters in November elected former police chief Eric Adams as their mayor, over the objections of the city’s liberal bloc to his tough-on-crime politics. In famously liberal San Francisco, voters recalled left-leaning school board members.

Along with the mayor’s race, the city’s three competitive ward-level council races and the race for council chair all reflect the District’s version of the moderates-versus-liberals Democratic fights, with council and mayoral candidates staking out positions on police (hiring more versus rethinking their jobs), housing (subsidizing development versus approaches that rely less on private companies) and schools (strict mayoral control versus loosening it) that reflect national divides. And in the heavily Democratic District, the Democratic primary effectively decides the outcome of November’s election for most races.

Bowser, who has long been a moderate Democrat, gained worldwide attention for painting “Black Lives Matter” in huge yellow letters in the street outside the Trump White House after Floyd’s murder — but has never embraced the “defund the police” goals of the movement. A harsh critic of the D.C. Council’s modest reduction in police funding in 2020, Bowser has funneled millions more into policing each of the past two years and has vowed to greatly increase the size of the police force in her next term.

She has courted developers building new housing across the city, spending $1 billion to subsidize the creation of designated-affordable units in those buildings. She also advocates for the city’s current public education structure, which places her firmly in charge of the school system and a large number of charter institutions.

D.C. development has soared under Bowser. So have housing costs.

Two council members are running to her left: Robert C. White Jr., who has held a citywide council seat for six years and whose foremost legislative accomplishment has been granting prison inmates the right to vote in D.C. elections, and Trayon White Sr., a vigorous advocate for the city’s poorest ward, which he represents on the council.

Trayon White and Robert White are skeptical of Bowser’s plan to hire more police officers, and focus their own crime-reduction plans on alternatives like professional violence interrupters. Both have vowed to weaken mayoral control of the school system, giving more oversight power to independent authorities. They have expressed discomfort with Bowser’s friendliness toward developers and have explored alternative housing development strategies, like community land trusts.

D.C. mayor’s budget would expand police ranks amid crime worries

(A fourth candidate, a former neighborhood commissioner and disbarred lawyer named James Butler, won 10 percent of the vote when he challenged Bowser in a much less competitive election in 2018, but he has not gained major endorsements, fundraising or name recognition this year.)

The candidates have staked out varying positions on a host of local issues, some of which don’t fall neatly into the national framework of moderate versus liberal. Robert White supports an upcoming ballot initiative to pay workers the full minimum wage before tips; Trayon White and Bowser oppose it. Bowser and Trayon White want the scandal-plagued Washington Commanders football team back in the District, at a new complex to be built atop the aging RFK Stadium site; Robert White does not. Robert White wants to open more public boarding schools. Trayon White wants to drastically cut fines for traffic infractions.

But for many D.C. voters, kitchen-table issues such as housing costs, education and public safety are the top concerns. Crime and housing topped the list when The Washington Post polled residents about their foremost issues in February, the most recent polling available. Since then, the education-focused group Democrats for Education Reform DC — a branch of a national group that has chapters in seven states and the District — has emerged as by far the biggest outside spender in the election, fueling conversations about DFER’s support for Bowser and council candidate Eric Goulet due to their embrace of mayoral control and charter schools. Bowser’s and Goulet’s opponents, some of whom are against mayoral control and charter schools, have criticized the group’s $1 million in election spending.

Bowser’s vow of better middle schools falls short in poorest D.C. wards

Voters’ desire for more police or a strong hand at the head of the school system could fuel a desire to avoid big changes at the polls.

“If people feel streets aren’t safe, or they’ve seen a change in homelessness or violent crime, even progressive people can elect someone who represents a strategy some view as moderate,” Hyra said. “It’s something at stake in our city and relevant to the rest of the nation.”

Others note voters who see rising crime and costly rent under Bowser are open to exploring a change after eight years.

William Craig, a 36-year-old freelance writer, is among those looking for something new. After he cast his ballot during early voting at the Cleveland Park Library along D.C.'s bustling Connecticut Avenue corridor this week, he said he feels Bowser has made big promises but hasn’t lived up to them — citing, for instance, the fact that homelessness remains an issue even though it was among Bowser’s top campaign priorities before she first took office.

In the eight years since, she has brought the number of people who are homeless to its lowest point in 17 years and has reduced family homelessness by nearly 80 percent, but Craig still says she has fallen short — especially when he sees the homeless encampments that have proliferated even as Bowser has dismantled some.

“I’d like to see more care taken for the homeless. I’d like to see care more available to them. That’s one promise I don’t think that she’s kept. She’s made a lot of statements that have been really bold,” Craig said. When he talked to Robert White, by contrast: “He made me see the future, see the hope for a slightly better future.” White won his vote.

Bowser promised to end homelessness. Here's how it's going.

Bowser’s supporters have praised her for steady leadership during a tumultuous time. “Muriel’s done a good job … I think she’s trying. She’s caring for people. There hasn’t been a lot of big scandals. Overall, I think the city’s in a good position,” said Andrew Russell, 79, a Ward 5 resident. He finds local politics to be a relief from the large-scale wrongdoing he sees in national politics and wants that to continue.

Joanne Craig, 54, voted for Bowser because she felt Bowser is most likely to support the city’s police force, for which Craig has worked for more than 30 years. Craig has been concerned to see national ideas critiquing police enter local politics. “I’m really concerned about how the police department is being treated. It seems like the council, the majority if not all of them, have voted to defund the police.” she said. “Even after all they went through on January 6, they didn’t seem to want to support them.”

Some of Craig’s neighbors east of the Anacostia River, in the city’s poorest sections, feel Bowser has neglected their needs. Theresa Wilkey, a home health aide, voted for her ward’s council member, Trayon White, for mayor, noting his propensity to rush to the scene of violent incidents in the ward. “I know him from the neighborhood. He seems to help out a lot of elderly people in the neighborhood, and a lot of the youth too,” said Wilkey, 65. “If someone gets hurt, he’s always there at the hospital or there at the site trying to lend a hand to everyone.”

Wilkey received her ballot in the mail and dropped it off in a drop box at the Deanwood Library this week. This primary is the first in which the city has mailed a ballot to every registered Democrat, rather than requiring voters to request mail-in ballots. That, too, observers say, might change which sort of Democrats participate in the contest — though no one is quite sure how the extra ballot access might shift the outcome.

“D.C. is super blue. We’re just different shades of blue,” said Charles E. Wilson, chair of the D.C. Democratic Party. “Voters here are deciding if the city’s heading in the right direction under Bowser, or if there needs to be a change in approach — and whether one of her three challengers is the right leader to implement that change.”

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