As voters take to the polls today to choose the Democratic nominee for mayor, they will decide between an embattled incumbent fighting for his political career and an upstart Washington, D.C. councilmember determined to portray herself as the person to turn the page on the District’s longstanding tradition of political corruption.

According to a poll published March 21 by Washington City Paper, Mayor Vincent Gray and Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) are head-to-head — each with 27 percent of the vote.

Bowser, a close ally of Gray’s predecessor Adrian Fenty, has adopted the mantle of a youthful, energetic campaign to contrast Gray’s more veteran political style.

“We know that the residents of this city want a fresh start in the mayor’s office. We know that they’re impressed with our vision and energy in terms of getting the city onto the next level,” Bowser said during the televised mayoral debate March 26. “Nobody is gaining steam like we are. We’re very well positioned for a big win on April 1.”

Gray, who has been accused of accepting illegal campaign contributions during his 2010 mayoral campaign, has seen his numbers hold steady — around 30 percent of the Democratic vote in the most recent public polls.

Both candidates have strengthened their campaign finances in the week leading up to the election. According to reports from the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance, Bowser’s campaign has taken in $63,500 in new donations since Monday, including significant donations from local companies Blue Sky Development and McCullough Residential and local developer Chris Donatelli. Gray’s campaign, too, has taken in upwards of $5,000 in donations this past week, the majority of which came from members of Gray’s own cabinet.

Amid criticism of his 2010 finances, Gray has been quick to showcase his administration’s successes regarding fiscal stability and education reform. Since authoring a bill expanding access to public schools six years ago, Gray has seen Washington, D.C. take the lead in the proportion of preschoolers enrolled in public pre-kindergarten.

Meanwhile, Gray has depicted his challengers as people who simply want his job — nothing more.

“The two of them,” Gray said at the March 26 debate, referring to challengers Bowser and Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). “Have a vested interest in trying to present a case that what had been alleged is correct. Ms. Bowser wants my job; Mr. Wells wants my job. That’s it.”

Despite the mayor’s protests, the benefits of being “anybody but Gray” have paid dividends for Bowser, who, until mid-February, had been mired in a field of challengers that included three of her colleagues on the Washington, D.C. Council: Wells, Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large) and Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).

Wells and Evans are the only other candidates who have been able to maintain significant levels of support among the Democratic electorate. The same Washington City Paper poll put Wells’ support at 9 percent and Evans’ at 13 percent, which could have a critical effect on the vote.

For Gray, the thought of an intensely competitive Democratic primary in his re-election bid would have been laughable following his defeat of Fenty in the 2010 primary — 53 percent to 46 percent. However, the scandal surrounding Gray and businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws, has put Gray on the defensive. He has therefore been unable to highlight his administration’s successes, including a decrease in unemployment and continued education reforms.

Gray is serious enough about his perceived challenger that he has enlisted the help of a controversial political figure: Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who was arrested in 1990 and spent six months in jail for cocaine possession.

Barry is still immensely popular among the District’s black population — especially in Ward 8, where Gray achieved huge margins over Fenty in the 2010 primary election.

When he endorsed Gray during a press conference, Barry was not shy about expressing his views on the voting habits of the District’s white population.

“I think it’s up to white people to be more open minded,” Barry said. “Blacks are more open-minded than they are. Simple as that.”

The victor, whoever it will be, will face a significant challenger come November — a rarity in a city where Democratic dominance has gone without a real challenge since the District was first able to elect its own mayor in 1974.

Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large) (SFS ’90, LAW ’94) — a white, gay, Republican-turned-independent candidate — announced his candidacy just two days after Thompson’s guilty plea. Catania is well known in a city that has seen significant demographic shifts in recent years; a younger population coupled with a shrinking black share of the vote could favor Catania, whose main focus has been education reform.

“I would be delighted to put my record against any of those who currently have Democrat by their name, as it relates to Democratic values,” Catania told reporters after filing his candidacy with the D.C. Board of Election March 14. “Labels are fine, but I think the people are looking for a leader who has actually delivered.”

The D.C. Board of Elections is offering various services aimed at increasing voter turnout, including a mobile app designed to help local voters find directions to polling places, register to vote and view the candidate list. Registration is also offered at all polling places, according to the BOE’s website.

For voters in Georgetown’s Precinct 6, including the Burleith-Hillandale neighborhood, voting will take place at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, 3500 R St. NW; polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Same-day registration will be accepted with appropriate identification.

 

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