The District’s mayor and attorney general and about half of D.C. lawmakers face reelection in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, which also features a contentious ballot initiative that would affect pay for restaurant servers, bartenders and others who make a living from tips.
That District residents are not flocking to the polls this year is not necessarily surprising: Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) faces nominal opposition and is poised to become the first mayor to win two terms since 2006, and most of the other races appear to favor incumbents — although two face credible challengers.
But poor turnout can result in surprises. A strong showing of progressive Democrats combined with low overall turnout could be a factor in the race for D.C. Council chairman — in which incumbent Phil Mendelson (D) faces a challenge from the left by activist Ed Lazere — and Initiative 77, a ballot question which would mandate that employers pay more to tipped workers.
In the overwhelmingly Democratic District, winning the primary is tantamount to victory in the general election — unless an independent challenger emerges in time for the November contest.
Under a blazing sun on Saturday, a cluster of candidates gathered at Fort Circle Park in Northeast Washington to rally volunteers.
“It is true that we have a number of races that people think aren’t contended, aren’t super competitive, but that’s hogwash, isn’t it?” Bowser told the crowd of a few dozen people. “Every race is important. We’re running to continue the progress we’ve made over the last 3½ years.”
Bowser boasted about investments in affordable housing, a declining unemployment rate in Ward 7 and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
“We know that when we produce more units and people earn more money we will have a city where more and more Washingtonians can participate in the prosperity that we are building in our city right now,” she said. “Not only should you go out and vote, you need to call 10 people . . . and tell them go to their polling place on Tuesday.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) reminded the crowd how far the city has come from the days of being branded the murder capital, but he stressed the importance of not leaving natives of the District behind.
He and other incumbents, including Mendelson and D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), said their continued leadership would mean more progress on affordable housing, public education and other issues.
“Washington, D.C., is arguably doing more for affordable housing than any other city in the United States,” Mendelson said. “Does that mean it’s enough? No. There is a crisis. We have to dig our way out of this crisis.”
Mendelson, who is seeking his sixth term on the council and a second full term as chair, is the front-runner against Lazere, the founder of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
Lazere, who was also at Saturday’s rally, said he feels good about his chances. The first-time candidate sees himself as someone who speaks for longtime residents and marginalized groups who feel disconnected from the prosperity touted by many incumbents.
“If we don’t act urgently now, the impacts of gentrification, homelessness and pushing families out of the city could transform the city to the point where we are no longer able to maintain the diversity and D.C.’s rich history as a majority-black city,” Lazere said.
In addition to the Mendelson-Lazere matchup, here’s a rundown of who and what is on the ballot:
Bowser has two nominal challengers, James Butler and Ernest E. Johnson, but has been on a glide path to victory in the primary since March, when former mayor and current council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) — whom Bowser defeated in 2014 — opted out of a rematch. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), who had also been considered a viable challenger, announced in September that he would seek reelection to his current job. He is uncontested.
A Washington Post poll last summer found that Bowser was broadly popular. But she has endured a barrage of scandals since then, most notably in the D.C. school system. Many longtime residents also think the city has done too little to preserve affordable housing and stop the displacement of low- and middle-
income families as housing costs rise.
On the D.C. Council, Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) is running uncontested, while Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and McDuffie are running with large fundraising advantages against candidates that have so far failed to gain traction.
Two other races are more unsettled. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) has three challengers — Kent Boese, Lori Parker and Sheika Reid — aiming to capitalize on what they say is dissatisfaction with her attention to constituent issues.
But Nadeau has outraised and outspent her opponents — in the past three months alone she spent $154,000, more than all three challengers combined — and appears likely to benefit from her opponents splitting the anti-incumbent vote among themselves.
Bonds has been less successful raising money and has spent only marginally more than opponents Jeremiah Lowery and Marcus Goodwin in the home stretch of the campaign. Bonds, a stalwart of Democratic politics in the District and chairwoman of the D.C. Democratic State Committee, could see the vote against her split.
Also on the ballot is Initiative 77, which would require businesses to pay tipped workers a base hourly wage of $15 by 2025.
Those workers are covered by the District’s minimum wage, which is $12.50 and on track to reach $15 by 2020. But employers can count tips toward the total.
A “yes” vote on 77 would require employers to pay the full minimum wage, after a phase-in period, with tips being added on top.
The Restaurant Opportunities Center, the New York-based advocacy group behind the ballot measure, says workers shouldn’t have to rely on tips for their basic income. The restaurant industry and workers campaigning against the initiative say it could drive up prices and force restaurants out of business by driving up labor costs.
The vote’s outcome may not settle the matter. The D.C. Council can void ballot initiatives, and 10 of the council’s 13 members are opposed to the measure.
The District does not have full representation in Congress, but its federal delegation is also on the ballot Tuesday.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is seeking her 15th term as the District’s representative — with limited voting rights — in the House. Norton, a feminist icon and leader in the civil rights movement, faces an underdog challenger in former Obama administration official Kim R. Ford.
The District’s shadow representative and one of its shadow senators — symbolic posts created to advocate full time for D.C. statehood — are also up for election. Incumbent shadow representative Franklin Garcia is running unopposed.
Shadow senator Michael D. Brown, who has been in office since 2007, confronts an energetic challenge from Andria Thomas, who promises to revive the moribund statehood movement through better organizing and strategy.
Thomas has outraised and outspent Brown but faces an unusual challenge: At least some District voters appear to be supporting Brown’s candidacy because they are confusing him with a prominent local politician who shares his first and last name.