UPDATED: April 1, 2014 11:40 p.m.
WASHINGTON (WNEW/AP) — The embattled mayor of the nation’s capital was trailing his top challenger in initial returns from the city’s Democratic primary on Tuesday, with many voters saying the city needed a fresh start amid a federal investigation of the mayor’s 2010 campaign.
With 38 percent of precincts reporting, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser had 44 percent of the vote to 34 percent for Mayor Vincent Gray. Bowser has argued that the mayor is distracted by the possibility of criminal charges against him.
The Democratic mayoral primary has historically decided the mayoral race in the heavily Democratic city, although a credible challenger awaits the primary winner in November.
Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in 2010 by tapping into dissatisfaction among African-American residents. But a series of guilty pleas in federal court have revealed that top aides to the mayor broke the law to help him get elected. Three weeks ago, prosecutors said Gray knew about an illegal, $668,000 slush fund that aided his get-out-the-vote efforts.
Gray has not been charged and insists he did nothing wrong. His attorney has said he is preparing for a possible indictment.
“It’s too much. We’ve gone through scandals before in D.C., and we don’t need any more,” said Rufus Okunubi, 68, a cab driver who backed Gray in 2010, but voted for Bowser this time.
As the results trickled in late Tuesday, Bowser thanked her supporters gathered at a charter school in southeast Washington, but she stopped short of declaring victory. Gray supporters at a downtown hotel were subdued, pacing with cocktails and eating bites from a buffet spread.
Many Gray supporters view U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen’s office with suspicion and said it was unfair for prosecutors to accuse the mayor of wrongdoing without charging him with a crime.
“I’m disappointed of course about the election in 2010, but I’m also disappointed with that U.S. Attorney for taking so long to do what he’s going to do,” said Sandra Humphrey, who voted for Gray.
Some Bowser voters, meanwhile, said they backed her primarily because they felt she had the best chance to beat Gray. Joan Gladden, 65, said she voted for Gray in 2010 and would have stuck with him if not for the allegations of corruption.
“Do we have any honest politicians left?” she said.
Gray, 71, led nonprofit organizations and the city’s Department of Human Services before he was elected to the D.C. Council in 2004. As mayor, he’s known as a pragmatic, detail-oriented technocrat and sound manager of the city’s robust finances. The district has enjoyed a surging population, a booming real estate market and relatively low violent crime.
Bowser, 41, worked for the local government in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and served as an elected neighborhood commissioner in the district before election to the council in 2007. She’s a protege of Fenty, whose former council seat she won with his support.
Her opponents say Bowser lacks experience to be mayor, saying her legislative record is skimpy. Her most significant accomplishment on the council was the creation of an independent ethics board able to punish officials for violations. The board has found wrongdoing by three members of the 13-person council.
Turnout appeared light at precincts citywide Tuesday afternoon, and many observers have blamed the unusually early April primary for dampening voter enthusiasm and making campaigning difficult. Others blamed the candidates for failing to inspire. The candidates also included councilmembers Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, either of whom would have become the city’s first white mayor if elected.
“I voted for Bowser. I held my nose,” said Eugene Gill, 52, a retired city worker. “All of them are terrible.”
November’s general election promises to be unusually interesting, with independent Councilmember David Catania challenging the primary winner. Catania, a former Republican who has championed progressive causes since leaving the party in 2004, spent the day shaking voters’ hands at several precincts.
“No one wants to vote today,” he said. “It’s a little bit disheartening to see the light turnout. It’s a function of people losing faith in the system.”
Gray’s chances appeared to hinge on whether he could turn out his still-enthusiastic core supporters. Former mayor Marion Barry spent the day campaigning for Gray in the poor, majority-black ward he represents on the council, where he remains beloved despite his 1990 arrest for smoking crack cocaine and other scandals.
Kirk Clay, 42, who’s self-employed, said the mayor’s performance outweighed his concerns about the 2010 campaign.
“I just received a brand-new trash can yesterday. It reminded me that this guy is doing stuff,” Clay said. “People kept promising the scandal was going to change my mind. It never happened.”
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