D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) enjoys a 67 percent approval rating among District residents heading into her 2018 reelection campaign and is a clear favorite among likely contenders for the mayor’s office, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Despite recent scandals that have jolted the top ranks of her administration, Bowser has seen her popularity climb from 2015, her first year in office, when 58 percent of D.C. residents approved of her job performance.
In a hypothetical three-way Democratic mayoral primary, Bowser captures 50 percent support among registered Democratic voters, trailed by former mayor and current D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) with 27 percent and Attorney General Karl Racine (D) with 10 percent.
The survey shows growing confidence in the city’s crime-fighting policies. Just 13 percent of residents say crime is the District’s top problem, down from 34 percent two years ago. A shortage of affordable housing is now the foremost concern of D.C. residents, with 19 percent saying it should be the city’s top priority.
Bowser’s ratings for handling crime are up sharply, with 53 percent saying she is doing an “excellent” or “good” job compared with 33 percent two years ago. Nearly three-quarters rate the District police positively, up by double digits from 2015.
But Bowser’s popularity is not ironclad. Roughly 6 in 10 residents say she is not effectively combating homelessness in the District, as she promised during her 2014 campaign. And by 48 percent to 31 percent, more residents give Bowser negative vs. positive marks for her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors at city hall.
Support for Bowser, while widespread, is tepid: 20 percent of Washingtonians surveyed said they strongly approved of her mayoral tenure, while 47 percent “somewhat” approved.
That lack of enthusiasm, echoed in follow-up interviews with survey respondents, suggests a public perception of a caretaker mayor who is shepherding the city through booming economic and population growth while doing little — good or bad — to get residents’ attention.
“I have found that she’s doing a good job, but that’s just a general feeling. I don’t have any real specifics,” said Donna Hays, an 81-year-old resident of Sheridan-Kalorama who has lived in the city for 30 years. “I don’t hear any scandals or anything like that, and our trash is picked up, and things seem to be running orderly.”
Rebecca Mondics, 32, a Petworth resident and financial-services consultant, said Bowser was a “nice change” from Gray, whom Bowser defeated in the 2014 election amid a federal investigation into Gray’s campaign finances.
Compared with Gray, Bowser “appears to me to be a bit more trustworthy,” Mondics said. However, she added, “In terms of how the District is changing under Muriel Bowser, I’m not sure I can really identify any specific changes that she’s made.”
The Post poll offers an early look at the potential dynamics of the 2018 mayor’s race, in which Bowser is expected to compete for a second term. If reelected, she would be the first two-term mayor in the nation’s capital since Anthony A. Williams left office a decade ago.
For some of Bowser’s potential challengers, the results are not encouraging.
Gray — whose high-decibel attacks on the mayor since his return to public office as a D.C. Council member last year have fueled speculation that he hungers for a rematch in 2018 — is still struggling to shed negative perceptions that have dogged him since his scandal-plagued 2010 campaign.
During that race, a $653,000 “shadow campaign” conducted on Gray’s behalf by disgraced city contractor Jeffrey E. Thompson led to a federal investigation that netted guilty pleas from six people, including Gray associates. Gray was not charged.
City residents’ impressions of Gray are narrowly positive, with 41 percent rating him favorably and 37 percent unfavorably — little changed from his 41-41 split in early 2014, shortly before he lost his reelection bid. By 57 percent to 24 percent, more registered Democrats say Bowser has higher ethical standards than Gray.
By contrast, a lack of name recognition is the central problem facing Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general, who is also thought to be contemplating a challenge to Bowser.
Seventy-four percent of District residents report having no opinion of Racine, who was elected in 2014. Those with an opinion of Racine have a largely positive impression, with 19 percent favorable and 7 percent unfavorable.
Racine’s failure to capture the attention of voters comes despite his participation in a widely publicized lawsuit, filed last week, that alleges that President Trump’s business ties violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, an anti-corruption provision.
Jared Katzman, 42, a Northwest Washington resident who works in sales and marketing, said the lawsuit was the only thing he knew about Racine but that it would be enough to earn his vote over Bowser — who he said has failed to make much of an impression on him — and Gray.
“I would vote for Racine just because of the lawsuit that he filed against Trump,” Katzman said. “That, in my mind, makes him seem like a pretty good dude. And Gray has a lot of baggage.”
With a year to go before the primary election that will is likely to decide the next mayor in overwhelmingly Democratic Washington, much could change, and Bowser’s lead in the Post poll does not guarantee she will sail smoothly to a second term.
In January 2014, for example, a Post poll showed Gray beating Bowser, his closest challenger in a large Democratic primary field, by 27 percent to 12 percent among likely primary voters. Over the next four months, Bowser overtook the incumbent mayor, winning in April with 43 percent of the vote to Gray’s 33 percent.
In recent months, some of Bowser’s top cabinet officials have been implicated in scandals that are still playing out. City Administrator Rashad M. Young was a central player in an alleged episode of contract steering that was investigated by the D.C. Council and has been forwarded for review to the city’s inspector general.
Meanwhile, a D.C. inspector general’s investigation found that Young and Deputy Mayor Courtney Snowden were given preferential treatment by former D.C. Public Schools chancellor Kaya Henderson, who helped them circumvent the city’s school lottery, placing their children directly into top public schools.
The Post reported last week that Snowden is also the subject of a second, pending inspector general’s investigation into allegations that she used her staff for babysitting and had improper interactions with private companies that included a client of her former lobbying firm.
The school-lottery scandal in particular has made an impression on District residents, with about half of those polled saying they are aware of the investigation. Among them, 26 percent approve and 36 percent disapprove of Bowser’s response, while the rest have no opinion.
To date, the mayor has created requirements that cabinet officials and the chancellor consult the city’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability before getting special school placements. Some 27 percent of District residents polled say such action is enough to prevent favoritism, while 63 percent say the city should go further.
Bowser, whose political roots are in the historically middle-class African American neighborhoods of Northeast Washington and whose winning 2014 coalition included white voters from the District’s affluent Northwest, remains most vulnerable in the poor and predominantly African American Southeast — but even there she enjoys surprising support.
In Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, she narrowly leads Gray by 45 percent to 37 percent among registered Democrats. While the margin is within the poll’s sampling error, it marks a sharp contrast from the 2014 election, in which Gray carried Wards 7 and 8 by 30 points.
Gray does hold a 10-point edge over Bowser among African American Democrats who have lived in the city for at least 20 years, a group that may turn out at higher rates in local elections.
Marian Dunn, 62, who has lived for most of her life in Ward 8, said she plans to vote for Gray if he runs in 2018 because Bowser has done little to create more affordable housing in the District.
“During the campaign, she promised the world, as they all do,” said Dunn, a retired secretary. “But she has yet to do anything for housing in Ward 8 — anything for Ward 8 at all.”
The Washington Post poll was conducted June 15-18 among a random sample of 901 adults living in the District and reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus four percentage points.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.