James Baldwin, an African American who lives in Southeast Washington, describes himself as a rabid Democrat who always supported his party’s mayoral nominee, whether it was Marion Barry or Anthony A. Williams or Vincent C. Gray.
Not this year.
Baldwin, 90, once the director of the city’s Office of Human Rights, plans to vote for Carol Schwartz, the former Republican now running as an independent. Schwartz, he said, has “more experience” than the Democratic candidate, Muriel E. Bowser, a two-term D.C. Council member for Ward 4.
A short drive from Baldwin’s home, Barbara Morgan, 75, a veteran Democratic activist and civic leader in Ward 7, has campaigned for Barry, Williams and Gray. Now, in front of her brick house, she has a sign promoting the candidacy of council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who she said “has the ability to administer the budget and relate to those of us from all walks of life and color.”
Referring to Bowser, Morgan said, “I personally don’t feel she’s ready to run this city.”
As the only African American Democrat in the District’s mayoral race, Bowser is counting on resounding support from black voters, who account for nearly half the city’s population. Just last week, President Obama, the country’s highest-ranking Democrat and preeminent black politician, endorsed her campaign.
Yet as the race hurtles into its final days, interviews with Democratic activists, community leaders and voters suggest that the city’s African American electorate is far more fragmented than in previous elections, when it largely coalesced around a single candidate.
With polls suggesting a tightened race, the consequences of that splintering could be crucial, particularly for Bowser, who is also vying with Catania and Schwartz for white votes.
Barry, for example, counted on overwhelming margins among blacks to offset whatever he lacked in white areas. But Democrats say Bowser’s fortunes are less assured, in part because she remains unknown to many voters outside her ward, at the northern tip of the city.
A second obstacle is her close ties to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who lost his 2010 reelection campaign largely because black voters turned against him.
The divisions within the African American community were evident at a raucous candidates forum Thursday in Ward 8. While Bowser won a straw poll by a decisive margin, hecklers interrupted her, as well as Catania and Schwartz.
“This is the only race I’ve seen in 30 to 40 years in which the Democratic nominee is not an automatic,” said Kevin Chavous, an African American former Ward 7 council member who twice ran for mayor.
Black voters “have to know you and trust you,” Chavous said. “There needs to be a symbiotic relationship.” He described Bowser as a reserved candidate “who hasn’t shown who she is.”
“I just don’t think she has seized it,” he said.
A number of factors are driving voters’ uncertainty, not the least of which is that this is the District’s most competitive general election since home rule. Unlike in past races, more than one viable candidate is competing for black support.
Catania, a 17-year lawmaker who is a white former Republican, has won citywide elections and has developed ties to the black community through his work on health and education issues.
Schwartz, too, is known to black voters. She has served on the school board and council and has run for mayor four times as a Republican. In her last mayoral race, in 2002, she garnered her highest percentages of votes in Wards 7 and 8, neighborhoods on the city’s eastern edge that form a hub of the African American community.
Equally important, perhaps, is that Schwartz evokes for older voters an era when African American control of the city was firm. She is a familiar voice for voters who fear the District’s evolution into a younger, whiter, more affluent city — and who associate Bowser with that change.
Isaac Fulwood Jr., the District’s former police chief and an African American who resides in Ward 7, said his wife is supporting Bowser. But he described himself as flummoxed by the choices. Catania, he said, “is a decent guy with no personality.”
“Politics is touchy-feely,” Fulwood said. “People have to have a sense that they can talk to you.”
Yet, in that regard, he said, Bowser is no better off.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about Bowser. You’d think she’d be the overwhelming favorite as the Democrat,” he said. “I don’t know what she stands for. I’ve been to a couple of things where she’s the speaker, and it was like a textbook speech that had nothing to do with anything.”
“We don’t have a candidate we can identify with overwhelmingly,” he said. “When Marion was running, you went around the community and there was no uncertainty. He’s our guy. You don’t have that now.”
In his four victorious campaigns for mayor, Barry got no less than 56 percent of the vote in the general election, much of the support from black voters. In 1982, he got more than 80 percent of the vote.
Williams won two general elections with at least 60 percent. On his way to taking the mayor’s race in 2006, Fenty won more than 50 percent of Wards 7 and 8. Four years later, Gray captured more than 80 percent in those wards. In April, even as he lost, Gray won nearly 60 percent in Wards 7 and 8. What has changed in the past four years is the level of turnout in black precincts, falling by nearly half in Wards 7 and 8 during April’s Democratic primary.
Driving the decline were scandals that led to prison convictions for two council incumbents and forced the resignation of a third. Federal investigators, too, have been probing Gray’s 2010 campaign since shortly after he took office.
“The question is, will folks turn out on Election Day?” said David Smith, president of the Deanwood Citizens Association in Ward 7. “There have been candidates who have made promises, and we thought they would make a difference. Quite frankly, there’s minimal progress.”
The Rev. Anthony Motley, a Ward 8 activist who is undecided, said a candidate’s race may now be less of a factor for voters frustrated that years of black political leadership have not brought more tangible improvements to their neighborhoods.
“In the past, it’s all been about race. But now people are looking beyond that,” Motley said. “In the past, the Democratic nominee has taken east of the river for granted. I don’t think they should do it this time.”
Catania has emerged as an option for those experiencing disaffection, picking up an endorsement, for example, of Paul and Barbara Savage, prominent Ward 7 Democrats who helped start the draft movement to push Williams to run for mayor in 1998. Schwartz has emerged as such an alternative as well, particularly for older African Americans. The fact that she twice challenged Barry, when he was mayor, does not dampen their interest.
“Carol is the better choice as far as having ties to the community and knowing the residents,” Larry Evans, 40-year-old social worker, said as he shopped at the Safeway on Alabama Avenue SE. “It far outweighs you popping up here and saying you want to be mayor when you don’t know this side of the city.”
Still, Catania’s and Schwartz’s prospects are challenged in a city in which Democrats have long ruled local politics. In Wards 7 and 8, Democrats account for 85 percent of all registered voters.
“Eventually, most of the Democratic activists will come on board and support Muriel Bowser because she’s the Democrat,” said Phillip Pannell, former president of the Ward 8 Democrats. “There’s no doubt that, percentage-wise, she’ll win Ward 8 with a landslide. The question is, how much snow is in that landslide?”
For Albert McKinney, 79, a retired baker who is black, the party brand trumps whatever concerns he has about the candidate. “I will vote for her because she’s a Democrat,” he said as he walked into a Safeway in the Ward 7 neighborhood of Deanwood, “not because of anything she has shown me.”
A few miles away, in Ward 8’s Bellevue neighborhood, Mae Price, 58, a retired administrative assistant, posted a “Muriel” sign in her front yard, on a block where more than a few “Catania” signs could be found.
For Price, gender is paramount.
“My top line is we need a woman,” Price said. “The men have been doing it for a long time, and they didn’t get it right. Let’s give the woman a chance.”
If Democratic dominance gives Bowser a natural advantage over Catania and Schwartz, it doesn’t assure that all Democrats will vote. Turnout among Democrats who are only lukewarm about their nominee is an additional challenge for her.
Bowser defeated Gray in the April 1 primary after a contentious campaign that still looms over the current race.
To those still mourning Gray’s loss, Bowser won the primary because of what they consider an unfair and prolonged investigation into the mayor’s 2010 campaign. No charges have been filed against Gray, who has not endorsed a successor. (The mayor still has in front of his house two yard signs from the primary touting his reelection.)
“We’re dealing with the remnants of bitterness from the primary,” Pannell said. “It’s very personal, and some people are still dealing with hurt feelings.”
Patricia Malloy, a Democratic activist and community leader at Ward 7’s Lincoln Heights housing project, predicted that her neighbors will skip the election.
“The person I wanted was Vince Gray, and I’m going to continue to be a Vince Gray person,” she said, declining to discuss her views of Bowser. Then she added, “If I decide to vote, it will be for David Catania.”
Morgan, the Ward 7 activist and former president of the D.C. Federation of Civic Associations, also was a staunch Gray supporter. Her opposition to Bowser, she said, is partly rooted in the candidate’s past connection to Fenty, who is viewed by many blacks as having catered to whites as mayor.
“She came out and instead of getting her own colors, she used his colors,” Morgan said, referring to Bowser’s green and yellow campaign posters, the same as what Fenty used. “So what does that say to us? I don’t think she’s her own person.”
Morgan has disagreed with Catania on issues, such as when she testified against same-sex-marriage legislation that he sponsored. Now she sometimes wears a “Catania for Mayor” T-shirt when she shops at the supermarket.
“ ‘Oh, no! Not you!’ ” she recalls someone saying to her.
“It’s really tough for a lot of people,” Morgan said of the election. “It’s tough from the standpoint of: ‘I’m a Democrat. I have to support the party.’ There are others saying, ‘I’m not ready to turn the city over to a white person.’
“And there are people who just don’t know what to do.”