The first test of the D.C. mayoral primary came in January in the far southern, and least-affluent, corner of the nation’s capital. The Ward 8 Democratic straw poll, by all accounts, was Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s to lose.
Ward 8 had delivered two-thirds of Gray’s margin of victory in 2010, over then-incumbent Adrian M. Fenty, and a Washington Post poll released that week showed Gray with 34 percent support in the area, compared to 10 percent for Council member Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4). Gray’s campaign confidently predicted success.
Then, something surprising happened: When the final tally was announced, Bowser had bested Gray in the heart of his political base, and her rise to the party’s Democratic nomination for mayor had begun.
How Gray’s campaign got the pivotal straw poll so wrong can be traced to a strategy meeting a few nights before the vote. Invited to that meeting was the Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott, former head of the Ward 8 Democrats and president of the nonprofit group that controls the dilapidated Park Southern Apartments.
Scott arrived late, and though Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, had already sketched out the plan, he all but started over the meeting for Scott, he said, because votes from Park Southern were key to the campaign’s blueprint for winning the early test of strength.
On the morning of the straw poll, six buses would be dispatched to housing complexes and senior citizen homes across Ward 8. Each bus would carry free breakfast and run two round trips. The goal for Park Southern and each of the five other large developments was to deliver 50 votes. The result, if successful, would be a crushing 300 vote tally for the incumbent.
Thies says Scott promised to deliver 50 votes and possibly closer to 100.
Scott, who is now at the center of a legal battle with Gray’s administration for defaulting on a $3 million city loan, disputes that. She said she never promised any votes for Gray in the straw poll.
Either way, no votes were delivered. When Gray’s campaign bus pulled up outside Park Southern on the windy Saturday of the straw poll, not one would-be voter boarded. At the other five locations, Gray had trouble too. A little more than a third of the hoped-for number of voters turned out at each location.
But the no-show by residents of Park Southern kept the straw poll from being competitive. Bowser won with 127 votes to Gray’s 94. If Park Southern had been on pace with the other five sites, Gray would have been neck and neck with Bowser.
Scott disputed Thies’s version of events in an interview. She said she attended the meeting as a courtesy and hadn’t yet decided whom to support. Scott said that separate from the campaign, she was in the middle of seeking an audience with Gray over his housing department’s efforts to impose its will on management of Park Southern.
Scott also said Gray’s straw poll effort was disorganized: The meeting was only days before the vote, and fliers announcing the free breakfast and bus ride for the straw poll materialized only a day before the vote, too short notice to turn out senior citizens and others who need lead time to prepare.
Thies, however, said Scott appeared to be playing games with the campaign on the day of the straw poll. When no one boarded the bus, the campaign repeatedly tried calling, but Scott didn’t answer. Thies said that when she was finally reached, Scott told a Gray campaign staffer that she had a family emergency and couldn’t help. Scott then showed up at the straw poll to watch.
Gray’s campaign took out its frustration for the loss on its own east of the Anacostia River coordinator and fired him.
At the time, Bowser’s win was chalked up to her having entered the race first and having developed a better organizational ground game over 10 months of campaigning. The loss for Gray on his home turf also raised questions about whether his support was actually weaker than it appeared because of unease among supporters over a still-unsettled federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
Thies said that he was unaware at the time of his reliance on Scott in the straw poll that Gray’s administration had been pressuring her for months to get current on a city-backed mortgage and was over 36 months in arrears.
The mayor continued to consider Scott a supporter, and his campaign shared planning e-mails with her for months, Thies said, until Gray learned from a newspaper article a week before the election that Scott was helping Bowser with early voting efforts at Park Southern.
Thies said Bowser’s questioning since of the city’s decision to declare Park Southern in default and to remove her from power raises questions about Scott’s allegiance dating back to the straw poll.
“Whenever there is some sort of double dealing and duplicity, there is always some backstory,” Thies said. “We’re learning now that there is a strong possibility that Joyce kept a foot in both camps to cover her bets because her building was on the line.”
Scott said in an interview that she had not decided which candidate to back at the time of the January straw poll and besides, was in no position to push people to vote for Gray. “I can’t make people go vote,” she said.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who is running against Bowser in the mayoral election, issued a campaign statement Monday calling on Bowser to hold a public investigation into Park Southern’s loan default and allegations that money has gone missing under Scott’s tenure as board president of the nonprofit group that controls the building.
Catania on Monday also pounced on the Park Southern connection to another Bowser campaign contributor — Phinis Jones.
Jones previously managed Park Southern for Scott, and when it was declared in default, Scott and the Park Southern’s board, which includes Scott’s daughter, agreed to sell the property to Jones for $3.7 million. That amount would pay off the city debt, potentially limiting further city oversight of the complex.
Gray’s housing department on Friday rejected an amended purchase offer by Jones and said he and Scott would have to submit a new offer and renotify tenants of the planned purchase.
Jones did not return calls Friday seeking comment.
At recent meeting of Park Southern tenants, many said they oppose a purchase by Jones’s Capitol Services Management, which was involved with the running the property as recently as March.
According to city housing officials, CSMI has not turned over nearly $300,000 in rent payments, collected this past spring, to the city-installed property manager, Vesta.
“It’s time to end business as usual in city government, including the culture of cronyism and indifference to the needs of our residents,” Catania said. “Taxpayers and the residents of Park Southern are owed answers to these questions.”
In a statement on Sunday, Bowser dismissed the criticism from Catania:
“I’m disappointed by the irresponsible suggestions of any possible wrongdoing on my part regarding the Park Southern apartments in Ward 8,” Bowser said. “The matter was brought to my attention by two members of the Council, and I properly and appropriately met, through my Council oversight role, with each of the parties involved. . . . I have nothing to hide here.”