D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s effort to tip the scales in the District’s sole competitive council race was an unprecedented gamble in a city whose mayors have avoided campaigning against other incumbents — and it failed.
On Wednesday Bowser had to confront the limits of her own power and influence, as well as a council that may have learned the opposite lesson from Tuesday’s election than what she intended: She can be crossed without consequence.
Without serious opposition in her own re-election effort, Bowser had campaigned hard for Dionne Reeder, who was challenging D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large). But Silverman easily withstood the assault, including a late influx of cash for Reeder from Bowser’s donor network, and won by a double-digit margin.
The full ramifications of those results will be seen in the months and years ahead, as Bowser attends to the city’s business with a council that has already shown its willingness to buck her wishes. Some were already predicting that she could expect a newly invigorated legislative body as she moves into her second term.
“What last night’s results showed was that voters respect the council as an independent institution,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who unseated a Bowser ally in 2016 and is up for re-election in two years. “I don’t think the council fears the mayor, nor do I think we should.”
Bowser said Wednesday that she had a “great relationship” with the council and rejected the idea that she might have diminished influence at city hall.
“My approach to all the members of the council is the same,” she said. “I have an open door, we talk about policies and really there’s not a lot of disagreement between the things we believe and what the council believes.”
Bowser has struggled at times to advance her agenda through the council, where left-leaning lawmakers who reflect the city’s changing political makeup have gained power in recent years. The District’s marquee policy initiative of the past two years, a law that guarantees generous paid family leave to all private-sector workers, passed despite her opposition. Silverman was one of the law’s champions.
The mayor’s plan to close and replace the District’s central shelter for homeless families — fulfilling a 2014 campaign promise — was overhauled by the council against her will, leading to an acrid exchange in which she called Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) “a f------ liar” within earshot of reporters at the John A. Wilson Building.
Former D.C. Council member Sekou Biddle said most elected officials in D.C. – which, despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, does not have a strong party structure – are already fairly independent, forming alliances as the politics of each issue demands.
However, he added that Bowser’s unsuccessful intervention in the race could allay any qualms on the council that crossing the mayor could endanger their re-election.
“If anybody had any concerns that taking a strong stand against the mayor might be politically challenging for them, this provides some evidence that maybe they don’t need to be as concerned,” he said.
A more immediate problem is whether Bowser and Silverman can mend their relationship as they move into the next four years, Biddle said.
That could be difficult, he said, given the tone of the At Large Council race, in which Reeder and her campaign portrayed Silverman as an outsider who was insensitive to the needs of D.C.’s African American residents.
“I don’t think we’re in a situation where they can just pretend it didn’t happen and move forward,” he said. “People have said things that were both difficult to say and difficult to hear, and now they’ve got to chart the course forward.”
Silverman said in an interview Wednesday that she and Bowser were scheduling a time to talk face-to-face. Among other things, she hoped to discuss her concerns about the divisive tone of the campaign, and to figure out a way to work with the mayor to implement the paid family leave law, she said.
But Silverman also said she took away a clear mandate from the election results and conversations she had with District residents on the campaign trail.
“I spoke to many voters — both at the polls and at meet-and-greets throughout the campaign — who want the council to be more assertive, to question the mayor more,” she said. “Not to be an irritant or an adversary, but to make sure we’re spending their taxpayer dollars in the most effective and efficient manner, and strategic manner, possible.”
Tuesday was not the first time Bowser has struggled to buoy political allies. In 2016 three of four council members aligned with her lost their re-election bids in spite of her support. The fourth, Democrat Brandon T. Todd, won Bowser’s old council seat in Ward 4.
Even in Ward 4, the mayor could do little to aid Reeder this election cycle. Silverman beat Reeder in the ward by nearly 12 points, a margin in line with her overall victory. Citywide, Silverman received 26.6 percent of the vote and Reeder 14.4 percent. Incumbent Democrat Anita Bonds won the second of two available At Large seats, with 44.3 percent of the vote.
Some voters said Tuesday that the mayor’s involvement in the council race had backfired. Catherine O’Brien, a Justice Department employee who was voting at Eastern Market, said Bowser’s efforts “kind of energized” her to support Silverman — and to refrain from casting a vote in the mayor’s race.
Against nominal competition, Bowser got 76.2 percent of the vote to become the first mayor to win a second term since 2002.
Yet she received fewer votes than other citywide elected officials, including Attorney General Karl Racine (D), Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and even “shadow” Sen. Michael D. Brown, an activist elected to agitate for D.C. statehood. The results indicate that a substantial number of voters were unwilling to back Bowser.
Some warned against seeing Reeder’s loss as a gauge of the mayor’s political stature.
“Nobody has coattails in the District,” said Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has served on the council for nearly three decades and in recent years has often supported Bowser’s priorities. “District voters are very independent minded, and they vote the way they’re going to vote, and they are not going to follow the lead of other politicians.”
Bill Lightfoot, the mayor’s campaign chairman, said that the mayor managed to send a message to her opponents even if Reeder ultimately came up short.
He said Bowser’s involvement turned what had looked like a glide path for Silverman into a competitive race. “Dionne Reeder was not a viable candidate until the mayor got in the race. She had almost no money, no name recognition,” Lightfoot said. “At the end of the day, she came in third in a citywide election, and people did know her name, and it’s because of what the mayor did.”
The takeaway, Lightfoot said, should be clear to those who worked against the mayor’s policies: Come election time, “you are going to have a very difficult fight.”