After a rollercoaster campaign marred by the specter of a campaign finance scandal, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) unseated incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary, preparing her to face Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) in the Nov. 4 general election for mayor.
Former commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B and local political activist Bowser, 41, attracted voters as a turn from D.C.’s tradition of political corruption and separated herself from a crowded field of challengers that included fellow councilmembers Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Vincent Orange (D-At Large), as well as restaurateur Andy Shallal and U.S. State Department official Reta Jo Lewis.
“People are responding to our message of a fresh start and the promise of a government you can actually be proud of,” Bowser said after a February debate.
Gray was repeatedly hounded by opponents and voters alike who demanded answers stemming from alleged wrongdoing that took place during his 2010 campaign for mayor, including the acceptance of over $600,000 in illegal campaign contributions from businessman Jeffrey Thompson.
Exuding confidence in mayoral forums and debates throughout January and February, Gray seemed content to let challengers fight among themselves, choosing instead to highlight his administration’s accomplishments in education and budgetary management.
“We’ve seen the unemployment rate drop to 8.9 percent, we have the most robust early childhood education program in the nation. This administration has made this city better over the last three-and-a-half years,” Gray said at a January mayoral forum.
Boosted by an aggressive ground campaign and an endorsement from The Washington Post, Bowser began to emerge in mid-February as the clear challenger to Gray.
While Gray maintained a slight lead heading into March, not even his team of D.C. political heavyweights could have anticipated the events of March 14, when U.S. Attorney Ron Machen announced that Thompson had implicated Gray in his guilty plea to conspiracy charges.
Meanwhile, Bowser continued to climb in the polls, pulling dead even in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
April 1 brought a historically low voter turnout of 27 percent, a number not seen since 1974. The day also brought a resounding victory for Bowser, who won 44 percent of the vote to Gray’s 33 percent and carried many precincts Gray had previously won in 2010. Interest in the election among Georgetown students, most of whom are not registered to vote in D.C., was lacking throughout this year. Students interviewed shortly before the primary showed marked disinterest in the race.
“It is hard to be a convincing voting bloc since most students are not registered to vote in D.C.,” Georgetown University Student Association Undersecretary for D.C. Relations Callie Hinerfeld (SFS ’17) said in March.
While the general mayoral election is normally a formality in the heavily Democratic District, Bowser now goes on to face a significant challenge from Catania in the November election.
Catania, a former Republican, would be the first openly gay mayor and first non-Democratic, white mayor to be elected since 1973.
While the general election will not heat up until late summer, the race promises to highlight education policy as well as inequalities across the wards.
“We’re going into the general election with the same strategy, knocking on every door, going across this city to make sure people know our message and know what we’re bringing to the table,” Bowser campaign manager Bo Shuff said.
The general election for mayor will be held along with national elections for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Nov. 4.