D.C. Mayor’s Chief Challenger Emerges

Three in four likely voters in the D.C. mayoral primary think things are generally headed in the right direction, but scandal-ridden Mayor Vincent Gray still could lose renomination.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray attends a session of the Health and Human Services Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors January 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talked to local leaders from across the country about the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and the rollout of the Healthcare.gov Web site.
National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Feb. 28, 2014, 9:06 a.m.

It was five weeks un­til D.C. Demo­crats would be choos­ing their can­did­ate for may­or, and just hours be­fore Wash­ing­ton’s NBC and NPR af­fil­i­ates re­leased a new poll show­ing a volat­ile race. But Chuck Thies, cam­paign man­ager for May­or Vin­cent Gray, wanted to talk about The Wash­ing­ton Post.

“This is just ab­surd,” Thies said Tues­day, cit­ing mul­tiple stor­ies from The Post that he feels down­play the city’s pro­gress un­der Gray and amp­li­fy the scan­dal sur­round­ing Gray’s 2010 cam­paign — not to men­tion the seem­ingly weekly ed­it­or­i­als cast­ing doubt on Gray’s deni­als of wrong­do­ing.

That scan­dal threatens to make Gray a one-term may­or: The WRC-TV/WAMU-FM/Wash­ing­ton De­fend­er/Mar­ist poll re­leased late Tues­day night showed Gray lead­ing coun­cil mem­ber Mur­i­el Bow­ser, 28 per­cent to 20 per­cent, with two oth­er coun­cil mem­bers in the race also earn­ing double-di­git sup­port.

The poll presents some evid­ence that Bow­ser is emer­ging as Gray’s most sig­ni­fic­ant obstacle to re­nom­in­a­tion. While com­par­ing sur­veys from dif­fer­ent poll­sters isn’t al­ways the most sound prac­tice, a Wash­ing­ton Post poll last month showed Bow­ser (12 per­cent) grouped with those two oth­er coun­cil mem­bers, Jack Evans (13 per­cent) and Tommy Wells (12 per­cent), while Gray (27 per­cent) lapped the field.

Bow­ser has “emerged as the only per­son who can beat Vin­cent Gray on April 1,” said her cam­paign man­ager, Bo Shuff.

Both the Mar­ist and Post polls un­der­score that Dis­trict Demo­crats think the city is go­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, but they have lost some meas­ure of faith in Gray after a first term clouded by an in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to an al­leged “shad­ow” cam­paign from four years ago. Fifty-six per­cent of likely primary voters in the new Mar­ist poll ap­prove of the job Gray is do­ing as may­or, and 75 per­cent think the city is headed in the right dir­ec­tion. But a whop­ping 64 per­cent think it’s time to elect someone else the lead the Dis­trict.

The lead­ing can­did­ate for “someone else” in­creas­ingly ap­pears to be Bow­ser, who won Ad­ri­an Fenty’s coun­cil seat after he be­came may­or and has re­as­sembled much of Fenty’s cam­paign in­fra­struc­ture, in­clud­ing her cam­paign chair­man, former coun­cil mem­ber Bill Lightfoot. Signs of Bow­ser’s mo­mentum are be­gin­ning to pop up: She was en­dorsed by The Wash­ing­ton Post last week, and this week Wells launched a cable-TV ad­vert­ise­ment that cri­ti­cizes both Gray and Bow­ser by name for ac­cept­ing dona­tions from busi­ness­man Jef­frey Thompson, who is at the cen­ter of the Gray shad­ow-cam­paign scan­dal.

That The Post didn’t en­dorse Gray wasn’t a sur­prise to his cam­paign, which de­scribed a tense ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion with The Post‘s ed­it­or­i­al board, des­pite the fact that it was off-the-re­cord. “I sat in a Wash­ing­ton Post ed­it­or­i­al board meet­ing with the may­or and listened to ab­surd ques­tions from [Post Ed­it­or­i­al Page Ed­it­or] Fred Hi­att,” Thies said Tues­day. “I don’t even mind break­ing the em­bargo.”

Asked about how this per­ceived un­fair­ness to­ward Gray might af­fect the may­or’s cam­paign, Thies said, “Any­time the ho­met­own news­pa­per has an ob­vi­ous bi­as and is de­part­ing from the facts, it has an im­pact on a pub­lic of­fi­cial.”

“As I say, ‘If Vince Gray cured can­cer, The Wash­ing­ton Post would come out in fa­vor of can­cer,’ ” he ad­ded.

The Gray camp nev­er ex­pec­ted The Post‘s en­dorse­ment, but its hos­til­ity to­ward his cam­paign — real or ima­gined — is em­blem­at­ic of the di­vided D.C. elect­or­ate. The Mar­ist poll showed Gray with an 18-point lead among black voters, who made up slightly more than half the poll’s sample, but the may­or is in fourth place among whites, roughly 40 per­cent of the elect­or­ate.

That dy­nam­ic isn’t new: Gray won less than 30 per­cent of the vote in ma­jor­ity-white Wards 2 and 3 in the city’s north­w­est quad­rant in 2010, and more than 80 per­cent of the vote in over­whelm­ingly black Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacos­tia River.

The Bow­ser play­book: Com­pete for votes among a more di­verse group of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans. “Her ward, Ward 4, is the most rep­res­ent­at­ive of the en­tire city,” said Shuff, tout­ing Bow­ser’s abil­ity to ap­peal to voters across ra­cial and gender lines. “It is a mi­cro­cosm of the city.”

But Bow­ser can’t count on fa­vor­ite-daugh­ter status to boost her in Ward 4: It was Fenty’s geo­graph­ic base, too, but Gray won it eas­ily in 2010.

With a di­vided primary field this time around, the Gray camp doesn’t need to win over voters who didn’t sup­port him in 2010 — an elec­tion he won by 9 points. Of the 45 per­cent of Demo­crats who didn’t vote for Gray, Thies said, “They were nev­er with Vince, and there’s no reas­on they would come back,” es­pe­cially after read­ing the neg­at­ive cov­er­age in The Post.

The primary cam­paign is mov­ing on to its fi­nal month, and both Gray and Bow­ser camps seem pre­pared to run a con­ven­tion­al, ground-game cam­paign. In con­ver­sa­tions with both cam­paign man­agers this week, the em­phas­is was on dir­ect-mail and door-to-door ap­peals, not the kinds of paid me­dia cam­paigns in oth­er races. New York City’s Bill de Bla­sio may have used a series of ef­fect­ive TV ads to vault his name to the top of the polls last year, but the Gray and Bow­ser camps are en­gaged in more-per­son­al ap­peals.

And both sides are tout­ing their cam­paigns’ abil­it­ies to con­duct that ef­fort. Shuff cited the Bow­ser’s dir­ect-mail, tele­phone and door-to-door cam­paign­ing already un­der­way, while the Gray camp is con­fid­ent they can rep­lic­ate their 2010 vic­tory.

“We have now com­piled the most soph­ist­ic­ated voter data­base ever cre­ated in the his­tory of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.,” Thies as­ser­ted. “Our strategy is to close out this elec­tion over the last five weeks with a con­sist­ent and per­haps over­whelm­ing dir­ect-mail cam­paign. We will con­tact every single one of the voters we are tar­get­ing by tele­phone at least three times.”

If Gray does emerge as the win­ner of the primary, he likely won’t be out of the woods. Coun­cil mem­ber Dav­id Catania, an in­de­pend­ent, is con­sid­er­ing chal­len­ging the may­or — set­ting up a rare com­pet­it­ive gen­er­al elec­tion in the na­tion’s cap­it­al and an­oth­er test of wheth­er voters who are happy with the city’s dir­ec­tion will over­look the scan­dal that has clouded Gray’s may­or­al­ity.

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