WASHINGTON — Muriel Bowser’s decisive victory in the District of Columbia’s Democratic mayoral primary makes her the presumptive favorite to become the city’s eighth mayor, but she can’t expect to breeze through the general election like Democratic nominees have in four decades of mayoral elections.
Bowser, a D.C. councilmember, defeated incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray in Tuesday’s primary, appealing to voters weary of the scandals surrounding Gray’s 2010 campaign, which is under federal investigation.
Bowser, who is black, now looks ahead to the general election in November and faces independent Councilmember David Catania. He is white, openly gay and a former Republican — all of which would be firsts for a mayor of Washington.
Still, it could be the city’s closest general election race since 1994, when Marion Barry won a fourth term following a stint in federal prison after he was caught smoking crack cocaine.
Bowser lined up support Wednesday from local and national Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden called to congratulate her, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was hopeful she would prevail.
“We take no voters for granted. We have an election in November. We’re going to be ready for it,” Bowser said.
Bowser, 41, is a protege of former mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost to Gray in 2010 after a single, hard-charging term during which he overhauled the school system but alienated many African-American residents. Five people involved with Gray’s campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, and while the mayor has not been charged, prosecutors said he knew about an illegal slush fund that helped him get elected.
Before her election to Fenty’s old council seat in 2007, Bowser worked for the local government in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and as an elected neighborhood commissioner. Her most significant legislative accomplishment is the creation of an ethics board with the power to punish elected officials. The board has since found wrongdoing by three members of the 13-person council.
Critics say Bowser’s legislative record is thin, and she has a reputation as a cautious lawmaker who doesn’t take positions on contentious bills until it’s clear they have majority support. One recent example was a bill decriminalizing marijuana, which she ultimately voted for.
“For a lot of people, they don’t really know that, if she were the mayor and had to make hard choices, what those choices would be,” said David Alpert, editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington, a liberal blog.
Catania, 46, says his record stacks up favorably against hers. He has championed progressive causes since leaving the GOP in 2004, including gay marriage, medical marijuana and universal health coverage.
But veteran political watchers say Bowser will be tough to beat.
“Catania would have to show his ability to attract Democrats and African-American voters in significant numbers to be competitive,” said Ron Faucheux of Clarus Research Group, a longtime Washington-based pollster. “I haven’t seen evidence of that.”
The district is 50 percent black, down from 66 percent in 1990, but longtime black residents maintain significant political power. White residents tend to be younger and less rooted in the city.
Turnout for the mayoral primary was among the lowest in the city’s history. With absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted, Bowser received 35,899 votes, which translates to support from 11 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of registered voters.
As Catania sees it, that leaves more than enough votes for him.
“I don’t think the political establishment in this city has ever really offered the residents a chance for a substantive dialogue,” he said. “Whoever wins in the primary, everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”
The city has 337,000 registered Democrats — three out of four registered voters. Independents are the second-largest voting bloc at 76,000.
Tara Wang, a stay-at-home mother and a registered independent, said she felt alienated because she couldn’t vote in the decisive 2010 primary. She plans to vote this year and is undecided.
“I’m much more interested in this than usual,” she said. “It’s kind of exciting.”
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