“It’s me — I’m Bowser’s biggest challenge,” Stanback, 32, promised on a recent afternoon as he collected signatures in Tenleytown. He ticked off ideas for the city that include turning RFK Stadium into a “world class” mall and D.C. General into a “world renowned” pet hospital.
“Good luck,” a woman told him, signing his petition and scurrying away.
“I’ll need it,” Stanback replied cheerfully, a “Captain America” pin affixed to his jacket lapel.
With less than two weeks before the deadline for submitting signatures to compete in the Democratic primary, Bowser does not have what pundits like to refer to as a “credible” opponent — shorthand for candidates whose chances of winning are somewhere north of zilch.
Yet, depending on whether they qualify for the ballot, there are plenty of potential candidates who fancy themselves mayoral material. The flock includes a George Washington University sophomore; a part-time courier; an IT manager; a real estate broker; a disbarred lawyer; and a former U.S. marshal once convicted of manslaughter.
What they lack in funding, they more than compensate with an abundance of verbiage.
“The schools are awful — we need to tear them down because of the rodents, insects, water bugs and bad pipes,” said Victoria Gordon, 68, of Southwest Washington, explaining her third attempt to land on the ballot. “Why are our children listening to foul music? Why do they wear clothes with holes in them? What’s going on?”
The absence of a formidable challenger to Bowser is drawing notice at a time when she is contending with jarring revelations about her administration. Last month, she fired her schools chancellor for skirting the city’s competitive lottery to enroll his daughter in a popular high school.
But some of those issues emerged only recently, just before the March 21 deadline for getting on the Democratic primary ballot.
“We have a mayor who looked unbeatable, and all of a sudden issues popped up that made her look vulnerable,” said Julius Hobson, a former school board member and a veteran of Democratic politics. “But mayors are hard to knock off. If you want to challenge an incumbent, you have to start a year out.”
No one emerged in part because potential candidates were waiting for D.C. Council member and former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) to decide whether he would seek a rematch with Bowser, who defeated him in 2014. Gray has not indicated whether he will run.
Another obstacle to competition, said Hobson, is that “fewer quality people are interested. These campaigns have become negative. It’s not so much, ‘Vote for me’ but, ‘That person over there is a bad person who is in cahoots with the devil.’ People don’t want to put themselves through that.”
Ben Nadler, 28, a courtesy clerk at a Giant supermarket, initially thought he was ready for city hall. He said he envisioned a mayoral campaign as a test of whether he could eventually run for U.S. president.
But after picking up a sheath of nominating petitions, and calculating the labor required to collect the signatures, Nadler said he soon found his ambition waning.
“I decided it would be too much responsibility,” he said. For now, he plans to stick with groceries.
Michael C. Woods, 19, a Texan attending GWU, says the political stage is a natural place for him to shine. “I’ve been told I’m very personable — that’s a plus,” Woods said. “People tell me, ‘If you can run for mayor, I can run, too!’ ”
Last week, Woods put on a blue suit and tie and showed up with his petitions at a candidates’ forum. He waited a couple of hours before the host, an entertainer and activist known as Rayceen, summoned him to deliver his spiel.
“My future is D.C.!” Woods proclaimed.
“He looks like a young Barack!” Rayceen crowed to the crowd, a comparison to the 44th president that made Woods beam. After his turn, he headed back to his dorm to study.
Untested, unknown and unorthodox candidates — otherwise referred to as “fringe” — have long been a staple of American politics. At the national level, their ranks have included a man who identifies himself as “Caesar Saint Augustine de Buonaparte Emporer of the United States of Turtle Island.”
On the 2016 candidate form he filed with the Federal Election Commission, Caesar listed as his affiliation the “Absolute Dictator Party.”
At the local level, more than a few D.C. mayoral campaigns have included a candidate identifying herself as Faith, a one-time Broadway actress who campaigned with a bugle and promised to turn the city into an art colony.
Faith, now 94 and in poor health, according to her husband, won’t be on the ballot this year, the first time since 2010. But Manley Collins, 41, a messenger who lives near the Mount Vernon triangle, is hoping to collect enough signatures to put his name before the voters.
The slogan at the top of his campaign’s website is “Fresh Face, Same Place: The Campaign with No Money.”
“The elements of the universe had aligned and this is the right time to give D.C. fresh leadership,” Collins said, explaining the genesis of his candidacy.
James Butler, a former lawyer, also has his own campaign website, though it makes no mention of him having “consented to disbarment” in 2009 while contending with allegations of fraud and neglect, according to court records.
The D.C. Bar Clients’ Security Fund paid out more than $650,000 to clients “harmed” by Butler’s practice, the court records show. A D.C. Court of Appeals board rejected his application for reinstatement in 2016.
Butler, who serves on an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Northeast, acknowledged in an interview that he made errors in the past. But he added that many of the allegations were the result of his having been “duped” by an employee.
“I failed to manage properly, I failed to supervise correctly, and I learned a lot from those things going forward,” he said.
These days he is focused on his campaign, which is emphasizing the need for tighter rent regulations to protect District residents from being displaced. “The city needs to focus on putting people first,” he said. “Bowser must go.”
Arthur Lloyd, 67, a former U.S. marshal, is another candidate with what can only be described as burdensome baggage. In 2005, Lloyd was convicted of manslaughter after shooting and killing another man during an off-duty traffic dispute.
Lloyd spent a decade in prison, though he still proclaims his innocence.
At the moment, however, he is immersing himself in his campaign.
“None of the important issues have been brought up, and I guess I’m going to have to bring them up,” he said, though he’s not as certain he will collect signatures in time to qualify for the Democratic ballot.
Jeremiah Stanback is confident that he will meet the deadline.
Asked how he would compete with a mayor who has raised $2 million for the race, Stanback waved off any concern.
“Once I’m on the ballot, the money will flow to me,” he predicted as he hunted for signatures in Tenleytown, unfazed by strangers ignoring his greetings.
Just then, a police officer walked by.
“I’ll be your boss in eight months,” Stanback promised him, giggling at the thought.