Muriel E. Bowser (D), the pragmatic politician who has led the District for eight years, won the Democratic mayoral nomination Tuesday, according to projections from the Associated Press, beating out two left-leaning members of the council on her path to becoming just the second three-term mayor in D.C.’s history.
“Today, I stand in the footsteps of Marion Barry,” Bowser said at an election night celebration, referring to D.C.'s fabled “mayor for life," who served four terms. “Tonight, we choose a future that represents our D.C. values.”
Tuesday’s outcome shows Democrats in the city still favor Bowser’s moderate touch, which has at times led her to clash with an increasingly left-leaning D.C. Council over issues such as paid parental leave for workers and tax increases for wealthy residents. Trayon White and Robert White both ran to Bowser’s left on several key issues, making them the preferred choices of many in the city’s progressive bloc.
In the race for D.C. Council chair, Phil Mendelson won the Democratic nomination over challenger Erin Palmer, according to AP projections. Incumbent council member Brianne K. Nadeau and D.C. State Board of Education representative Zachary Parker were both projected to win in Wards 1 and 5, respectively; Brian Schwalb won the Democratic nomination for D.C. attorney general; and incumbent Anita Bonds beat out three other candidates to retain her at-large seat, according to the AP. Incumbent Eleanor Holmes Norton was projected to win the Democratic primary race for D.C.'s congressional delegate.
In heavily Democratic D.C., the primary typically determines the outcome of November’s election for most races.
The win for Bowser, whose approval rating dipped slightly this year from 2019, according to a February Washington Post poll, also puts an end to speculation that voters might have been ready for a change after nearly a decade with her in charge. The Post poll found a majority of residents approving of Bowser’s job performance — but most respondents said she had not done well in addressing what they saw as the city’s biggest problems: crime and housing costs.
Wendell Felder, the chair of the Ward 7 Democrats, was unequivocal Tuesday when he said he voted for Bowser, though he acknowledges that there is some room for improvement. Felder said he is impressed with Bowser’s leadership, namely how “she has run the city in the midst of a pandemic and how she stood up to President [Donald] Trump.”
“I think that she is a battle-tested leader and what the city needs right now,” Felder said.
Late Tuesday evening, Bowser walked into a packed Franklin Hall in Northwest Washington to the thumping bass of Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke" — a song written about D.C. native Duke Ellington. Campaign workers and volunteers alike swarmed to be the first to congratulate her, chanting, “Four more years!”
Outside, drivers honked their horns in celebration.
“She didn’t take it for granted,” said Cherita Whiting, who works in Bowser’s office and used several of her vacation days to support her boss’s campaign. “I felt like she deserved it all the time, but you don’t know what’s gonna happen until everybody walks in and votes."
Those who supported Robert White and Trayon White said they were seeking a fresh face in the city’s executive office.
Zakiya Williams-Tillman, 31, said it was time for a change after voting for Bowser in her last two campaigns. She credited Bowser for her efforts to build affordable housing units, though she has continued concerns that Bowser hasn’t done enough to prevent longtime residents from being priced out of the city.
“I’ve been here since I was 18,” said Williams-Tillman, who voted for Robert White. “I thought we had hope with her, but I haven’t really liked the work she’s done.”
Robert White, who was widely viewed as the most viable of Bowser’s three opponents, delivered an impassioned concession speech Tuesday night to a crowded hall of supporters. He congratulated Bowser and said he would continue to work with her as a council member.
White did not rule out another run for mayor in the future.
“I say keep hoping. For the folks who know me, y’all know this ain’t the first time I’ve fallen down,” Robert White said, appearing to reference his failed 2014 bid for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council. “I ain’t never stay down.”
Trayon White’s election night watch party in Southeast Washington was quieter than his staff had hoped; as the results came in, Trayon White said he was proud of his campaign, calling his first citywide election “the hardest thing he’s ever done.” He called Bowser to congratulate her and later appeared at her party, where he shook her hand.
Bowser has said she’ll use her third term to help D.C. return to pre-pandemic vibrancy while advancing her initiatives to bring more grocery stores and restaurants to neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where residents have the fewest options for fresh food, as well as implementing recommendations from a new task force aimed at boosting Black homeownership.
To implement her goals, she’ll need to work with a council that appears to be shifting even further away from her centrist brand of politics. Parker in Ward 5 has been embraced by progressive groups, and Nadeau, who has championed liberal causes, fought off a challenge by a moderate candidate to win the Democratic nomination in Ward 1. And in Ward 3, Matthew Frumin, who ran as a progressive, is leading in a crowded race to succeed council member Mary M. Cheh.
Council members Mendelson and Bonds, more centrist incumbents, won against challengers who ran to their left.
Known to many D.C. voters as a steady, albeit private leader, Bowser has largely avoided scandal in her two terms and selectively embraced the national limelight, like when she turned the street outside the Trump White House into “Black Lives Matter Plaza” and addressed the public hours after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol, when information about the incident was still scarce.
Residents have largely praised her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, though some were frustrated by failures that hampered the city’s initial vaccine rollout. She has also fulfilled a campaign promise to tear down the D.C. General homeless shelter and replace it with smaller shelters across the city, while drastically reducing the number of homeless families in the District — though she has acknowledged she must do more to curb homelessness experienced by single adults.
And while housing affordability is a top concern for voters, Bowser has poured in more than $1 billion over her tenure into the city’s primary tool for housing production, aiming to deliver on her vow to build 36,000 new homes in the city by 2025, including 12,000 affordable units. Her opponents, however, have asserted she’s deferred too much to developers, and that new construction has priced some longtime residents out of the city.
Many voters have critiqued Bowser over the years, but enough agreed Tuesday that she was the best candidate to advance the city’s interests, including the ongoing fight for statehood.
“I think she has really grown into the role very well and asserted strong support for District initiatives over those of the federal government,” said attorney Kim Katzenbarger. Katzenbarger said it was important to elect leaders who would push back against “the federal government’s constant erosion” of the District’s endeavors; Republican members of Congress have frequently tried to interfere in city affairs, even threatening to limit D.C.’s ability to govern itself.
Others pointed to Bowser’s leadership over the city’s schools; when Imma Filstrup, 44, moved to D.C. 22 years ago, she didn’t think public schools were going to be an option for her children. But then Bowser took the reins, she said, and the system started to improve in her eyes.
"I remember thinking once people have kids, they move out of D.C. because the school system isn’t good here, and I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Filstrup said, adding that her daughter will go to Eaton Elementary School in two years. A longtime Bowser supporter, Filstrup also said she prefers steady leadership, especially as the city is facing an uptick in violent crime.
“She’s done good enough to trust her to continue,” she added.
Nazmul Ahasan, Gaya Gupta, Vanessa G. Sanchez, Perry Stein, Rachel Weiner and Daniel Wu contributed to this report.