Council member Bowser becomes Democratic nominee for D.C. mayor

Council member Bowser becomes Democratic nominee for D.C. mayor

By Paul Schwartzman and Aaron C. Davis, Published: April 1 | Updated: Wednesday, April 2, 12:21 AM

Muriel Bowser, the seven year District council member, won the Democratic nomination for mayor Tuesday, vanquishing incumbent Vincent C. Gray, whose quest for re-election was crippled by a federal investigation into his victorious campaign four years ago.

Bowser, largely unknown to voters beyond her home base of Ward 4 when she began her campaign a year ago, will face David Catania, the Independent council member, in what is to be the District’s first competitive general election in nearly 20 years.

With more than 70,000 votes counted, Bowser led Gray by 44 percent to 32 percent.

As the results trickled in, Bowser, 41, appeared before a crowd of supporters assembled at her campaign party in Ward 8, all but declaring victory and congratulating her supporters. “I know a thing or two about winning a race,” Bowser said. “You go to all eight wards, you talk to a lot of energetic people.”

Around midnight, Gray appeared on stage at a hotel on Capitol Hill, thanking supporters, touting his accomplishments, and conceding defeat. He complained about the date of the April 1 primary, saying he hoped that it is changed because the wintry weather made campaigning difficult.

“It’s hard to be motivated,” he said. “It’s hard and it’s complex.”

Challenging an incumbent wounded by scandal, Bowser sought to assemble a coalition that cut across the city, a strategy adopted by former Mayor Adrian Fenty, Bowser’s political mentor who lost to Gray in 2010.

Gray, 71, whose “One City” campaign slogan evoked the promise of racial unity four years ago, largely confined his campaigning to his political base – the black neighborhoods that supported him in overwhelming numbers four years ago.

But whatever support the mayor received in those wards Tuesday was not enough to overcome Bowser’s broader outreach.

Prior to the results, Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a Gray supporter, told reporters that Bowser was a difficult opponent because she did not rile Gray’s supporters in the way that former Mayor Adrian Fenty had during the 2010 race.

“We don’t have the same kind of anti-Fenty attitude,” he said. “We ought to have the same Muriel Bowser attitude, because she’s a protégé of Adrian Fenty. Fenty is written all over her campaign.”

With turnout low and voters expressing muted enthusiasm for the candidates, Gray and Bowser spent the day sprinting across the city, rallying supporters and struggling to push voters to the polls.

At Shepherd Elementary School in Shepherd Park, both showed up to greet voters as dusk settled over the precinct. The sidewalks were crowded with candidates and their supporters, hugging voters and addressing those casting ballots by name.

“Can you get two more of your friends to vote?” Bowser said. “It’s going to be tight. ”

But voters seemed less than eager to choose in a race that is shaping up to be closer than any mayoral election since 1990.

At THEARC in Southeast Washington, in a part of the city considered a stronghold for Gray, only 143 voters had showed up to cast ballots by 6 p.m. — about 16 percent of the 883 who voted in the same precinct four years ago.

A few miles away at River Terrace Elementary in Ward 7, Gray’s home ward, turnout was also looking low: 390 people had cast votes by 7:15 p.m., just 62 percent of the 628 who showed up in 2010.

For most of his mayoralty, Gray has been wounded by an ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 campaign. Bowser and six other relatively unknown Democratic challengers have struggled to capture voters’ attention.

“There wasn’t anyone I was really enthusiastic about,” said Barbara White, a 77-year-old former editor, who said her vote was still in doubt before she entered a Northwest polling place.

White ended up voting for D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (Ward 6), one of the seven candidates challenging Gray, a field that also included council members Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Vincent B. Orange (At Large), restaurateur Andy Shallal, former state department official Reta Jo Lewis and musician Carlos Allen.

(Live Updates: D.C. Primary Election)

In the District, a Democratic stronghold, mayoral contests typically end with the Democratic primary. This year, however, the Democratic nominee will face council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) in the general election.

Gray led by double digits in polls early in the year, but his ability to keep voters focused on his stewardship of the city’s growing economy was shaken in early March when businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson pleaded guilty to illicit campaign funding, including on behalf of Gray’s 2010 campaign. Gray has denied any wrongdoing in his dealings with Thompson.

“There’s been a lot of dirt dug up on him, but nothing’s been able to stick,” Debra Knight-Harvin, 52, said Tuesday at a polling place in the former Bertie Backus Middle School in Northeast Washington.

A bitter contest since Gray announced he would seek reelection in December, the campaign was rife with tension Tuesday morning as both the mayor and Bowser traveled to the same polling place in Bowser’s ward, where supporters from both sides shouted at each other.

“We’re confident that the residents are frustrated with much of Mayor Gray’s office and they are going to come out to vote,” said Bowser, dressed in a blue suit and a green scarf, as she stood outside LaSalle Elementary School on Riggs Road in Northeast.

Gray, arriving about 20 minutes after Bowser had departed, slipped one of his campaign’s blue T-shirts on over his dress shirt and danced in front of supporters to the song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.

“We’ve gotten people back to work,” Gray told reporters, noting that the unemployment rate had dropped by four percentage points since he took office and saying that he helped guide the opening of new Wal-Marts in the District. “We’ve brought fiscal stability back to the city.”

As the candidates sought to rally supporters, their campaigns dispatched armies of volunteers and paid workers to turn out the vote.

Bowser’s forces assembled at a parking lot near Nationals Park, where dozens of newly hired canvassers — many responding to Craigslist ads that promised $100 for the day — were loaded into more than 50 vans and dispatched to neighborhoods to knock on prospective voters’ doors.

The canvassers planned to make three rounds of stops at homes already visited over the weekend by Bowser campaign workers, hoping to push them to the polls.

Gray’s campaign dispatched nearly two dozen 50-seat buses to transport voters to polls, and it also sent staffers and volunteers to apartment buildings, senior citizen centers, Metro stations and shopping centers.

Asked late Tuesday afternoon how the results would turn out for the mayor, Chuck Thies, his campaign manager, said, “It’s a coin flip.”

Earlier, Gray stood outside St. Timothy Episcopal Church on Alabama Avenue in Southeast Washington, in a precinct where four years ago, a crush of nearly 1,500 voters sided with him by a margin of more than 4-to-1.

The sun was shining, and an SUV with his blue campaign signs sat idling across the street, blaring the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”

There was just one problem. The sidewalk was empty. As in other campaign stops of the day, Gray and his traveling band of supporters far outnumbered voters.

Wells, meanwhile, appeared at Capitol Hill’s historic Eastern Market a little before 10 a.m. to cast his vote.

“We’ll just have to see (the results) at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s a pretty day,” so weather shouldn’t keep anyone away. If turnout is low, he said, it will be because the council kept the primary on April 1 rather than delaying it until June, as he had favored. “It’s the incumbent-protection plan,” he said of the April date.

Shortly after 10:30 a.m., at the usually busy polling place at Shepherd Park Elementary School, voting was sluggish. The school, in one of the highest-voting precincts in high-turnout Ward 4, is typically hopping on Election Day. But it wasn’t so late Tuesday morning, where only a handful of voters moseyed in and out over a half-hour period.

After the morning rush had subsided, only 295 voters had cast ballots at the precinct, which saw 1,822 Democrats vote in 2010. (Another 268 voted there early this year.)

Gray won 63 percent of the vote in this bellwether precinct in 2010, upending incumbent Adrian M. Fenty in his home ward. But many of the voters trickling out of the school’s gymnasium said they were ready to go in another direction.

Phyllis Caudle-Green, 59, said she voted for Gray over Fenty four years ago but was supporting Bowser this time.

Bowser, she said, struck her as “capable and competent” and represented a rare opportunity to put a black woman in the city’s top office. “We’re at a crossroads,” the retired investment banker said. “I just think it’s time to go in a new direction.”

Caudle-Green said she settled on Bowser only in recent weeks, after new corruption allegations were aired against Gray.

“I don’t necessarily think the mayor is guilty,” she said. “I just don’t think we need that distraction.”

But Hugo Word, an 82-year-old former patent examiner, said he was sticking with Gray, because his experience and performance as mayor outweighed the accusations against him. “He knows the system,” Word said. “He’s moving the District forward.”

Phyllis Matthews, 75, who voted at the former Backus Middle School, still favored Gray.

“I don’t care for [Bowser], period,” said the retired worker for the city’s parks and recreation department. “She has an attitude I don’t particularly care for, woman to woman. I would vote for Hillary [Rodham Clinton] without batting an eye, but I would not vote for that lady.”

The corruption allegations against Gray, Matthews said, did not outweigh his long record of service to the city: “I believe Vincent Gray told the truth, and if he didn’t, shame on me.”

Loyalties were split, however, inside one North Michigan Park household.

Sherwood Marable, 67, opted to stick with Gray, while wife, Helena Marable, 60, went with Bowser.

“I want more of the same,” said Sherwood Marable, who retired from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “I like everything Vincent Gray’s been doing.”

His wife said she was looking for a change: “We need a female in the office now, a female viewpoint,” said Helena Marable, who worked for a health insurance company. As far as the corruption allegations, she said: “My feeling is he’s guilty. He’s crooked and there was a cover-up.”

Her husband begged to differ: “To me, they are allegations until they are proven in a court of law. ”

Helena Marable said the mayoral race has been the subject of some marital discord, but she said she expected it to end Tuesday. “That’s why we’re here together,” she said. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll still love each other.”

Emma Brown, Robert Samuels, Susan K. Svrluga, Zach Cohen, Mary Pat Flaherty, Hamil R. Harris, Marc Fisher, Michael E. Ruane and T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.

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