The Democratic primary has come and gone. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser was the big winner, beating out Mayor Vincent Gray in a hotly contested race. She not only beat Gray, but she beat out 6 other candidates in a crowded field that had low voter turnout. She won 44.24% (35,899 votes) of the vote to Gray’s 32.30% (26,209 votes) and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells came in a distant third with 12.55% (10,181 votes) of the votes cast. Gray will now serve nine months as a lame duck with potential criminal charges hanging over his head, pending from the on-going federal investigation, which is looking into his 2010 mayoral campaign.
With a victory party in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Ward 8, Bowser told a room of supporters, “I accept your nomination,” during her victory speech. Her watch party was held at the Imagine Southeast Public Charter School in Ward 8, a decision she said was part of “keeping [her] first promise to Ward 8.”
Turnout in the primary was lower than in 2010’s contest. Although over 130,000 people voted in the Democratic primary in 2010, only 72,908 had voted in Tuesday’s primary. This year only 25 percent of registered Democrats voted. Final result numbers trickled in slowly, in what election officials blamed on the poor training of election workers in the use of electronic voting machines. After the polls closed, campaign worker waited patiently for the final votes to be tallied.
Over the last few months’ voters in the District have had several chances to choose who would be the best candidate to lead the city and Bowser was their choice. Bowser, 41, worked for the local government in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and has served as the Ward 4 Councilmember since 2007, when she was elected in a special election to fill former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s seat. Before serving as the councilmember she served as an elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC).
Her opponents have said that she lacks the necessary experience to hold the District’s highest seat, citing her thin legislative record. However, her supporters highlight, what they consider her most significant accomplishment on the council, creating the independent ethics board, which is able to punish officials for violations. The board has found wrongdoing by three members of the 13-person council.
Voters have had the opportunity to get to know her not only through mailers and TV ads, but through the various city forums where she spoke about her vision for the city: investing in education, promising economic development and helping create jobs through adult education programming. Among other things in her platform she has promised to focus on the city’s shrinking affordable housing. During her campaign speech she asked her supporters to cheer on her rival candidates and vowed to help unite all Democrats ahead of the November general election.
In the speech where Gray conceded, he spoke about the success of the last three years in his administration. He thanked all the organizations and individuals who endorsed his campaign along with his base of supporters. Gray came to the District’s council in 2004 after serving as the as director of Covenant House, a nonprofit group serving homeless youths. Gray had spent most of his career as a D.C. agency head and an advocate for some of the city’s neediest citizens. However, as mayor, the city’s homeless population has doubled and the shelter’s are overcrowded. Homelessness has become a crisis. His reputation has waned largely due in part to the investigation, while Bowser’s support has continued to surge.
The writing on the wall for the election occurred in early March when federal prosecutors indicted businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who alleges Gray knew about the now-ousted ‘shadow campaign’ that saw $668,000 slush fund that helped him defeat incumbent Adrian Fenty in 2010. Although Gray has consistently denied any knowledge of the money or shadow campaign, the investigation clouded his administration and his reelection campaign. Not to mention, five people involved in his campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies related to the 2010 campaign.
Bowser’s shift in momentum didn’t just come three weeks ago after more news was revealed about Gray’s campaign investigation. It began to swing after the January 18th Ward 8 Democrats straw poll, where she beat Gray. Mostly unknown to voters east of the river, the straw poll put her on the map, helping make her the candidate to beat. She went on to win the Ward 4 Democrats straw poll, which was another big sign. In 2010 Gray slaughtered Adrian Fenty in his home ward’s straw poll, which saw a huge turnout.
Bowser has said that the key strategy in her campaign was making sure voters knew who she was in “all 8 wards” which had become a sub-slogan on her campaign. She launched her campaign March 23, 2013. She was the first person to declare candidacy for the race because she says she knew she would have to work the hardest to win. She knocked on doors in all eight wards across the city for the last 13 months, almost securing her victory through a sound ground game.
According to early reports from poll workers, turnout slowly came in, likely due to the apathy many voters seemed to feel about the candidates. “I voted for Bowser,” said Bobby Wilkens, a northeast resident. “There is really only two choices, Bowser or Gray,” he said.
Much like the 2010 primary, this years race mirrored a split along racial and class lines. Gray drew strong support from black voters who live east of the Anacostia River, winning Wards 5, 7 and 8, as was the case in 2010. Although Gray carried his base, Bowser carried her home Ward 4 and the rest of the city. In 2010 Gray beat Fenty in his home Ward 4. The exit polls show that even amidst the looming investigation, Gray still held onto his African American base. Once vocal Gray supporter, who declined to be identified, said he was backing Gray because he deserved what he called “the benefit of the doubt.”
Bowser drew her strongest support from the city’s more affluent and whiter neighborhoods in the northwest, many of them populated by newcomers lured to Washington by explosive development over the last decade. Jana Curry, 23, a Ward 6 resident, said she identified with a woman candidate and someone who is progressive on the issues that matter to her. “I like Muriel as a candidate and I am ready to get this ‘old guard’ out of office,” she said.
Voting for the day went off without a glitch minus the voting tallies at the end of the night. Questions about the late returns started arising about 9:30 p.m., 90 minutes after polls closed. In other recent elections, officials had posted the results of early voting not long after polling ended on Election Day. But on Tuesday, early voting totals were not released until nearly 10 p.m., and even then results were available for only 83 of the city’s 143 precincts. This year, for the first time, every precinct had at least two electronic machines and many precinct workers did not know how to properly shut down multiple machines, leading to the long delays. A DC Board of Elections and Ethics spokesperson, Tamar Robinson said there was machines in five precincts that had malfunction problems.
Clifford Tatum the board’s Executive Director, said, “Some of our workers have admittedly never touched laptops before.” 43,440 picked paper, while 29,060 used the touch-screen machines. But the electronic machines were much more popular for early voters — 9,586 touch-screen ballots versus 954 on paper — because they were the only option offered at 12 of 13 early-voting sites.
Unlike in years past, where winning the Democratic nomination for mayor meant the winner in November was a foregone conclusion, Bowser is likely to face a challenge from David Catania, an independent council member. Catania launched an independent bid for the office earlier this month, just two days after federal prosecutors said Gray knew about the 2010 shadow campaign. In his announcement, the gay former Republican highlighted “the importance of playing by the rules” and “a strong commitment to fairness.” Bowser has assured her supporters that she will continue to run a tough campaign and predicts victory again in November.