WASHINGTON — On Nov. 4, District of Columbia residents will elect the seventh mayor in the city’s history — at least, a few of them will.
Seeking to lead a local government that’s been tainted by corruption and still operates under the thumb of Congress, the candidates for the city’s highest office will have to confront not just each other but widespread voter apathy.
In the April Democratic primary, which saw scandal-plagued Mayor Vincent Gray lose his bid for a second term, just 27 percent of registered Democrats bothered to cast ballots — the lowest turnout for a mayoral primary in more than 30 years. Twelve percent of the city’s registered Democrats cast ballots for the winner, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
The general election pits Bowser against two independents — Councilmember David Catania and former councilmember Carol Schwartz — and two minor-party candidates. The Democratic nominee has never lost a mayoral election in the District, where three of four registered voters are Democrats. Still, it could be the city’s closest general election in 20 years, given Catania’s long record of success in citywide races.
It takes more than a competitive race, though, to drive people to the polls. Veteran local pollster Ron Faucheux, the president of Clarus Research Group, said the election lacks a defining issue or personality. Bowser is more cautious than the brash Catania, but neither candidate deviates too far from the District’s liberal orthodoxy.
“The only way a personality contest motivates voters is if they have deeply held feelings for or against the personalities, which you don’t really have. If Marion Barry was running for mayor, you’d have that. When Adrian Fenty was running for re-election, you had that,” Faucheux said.
Brad Fitch, 24, who works in customer service at a grocery store, said he hadn’t heard much about the race. He said voters have been turned off by the scandals surrounding Gray and other local leaders and by the limited autonomy of the local government.
“A lot of people have gotten leery and feeling like their vote doesn’t mean anything,” said Fitch, who said he plans to vote for Schwartz. He said he voted for Gray in 2010, “unfortunately.”
Gray is the subject of a long-running federal investigation into corruption during his 2010 campaign. Five people who worked on the campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, including a multimillionaire businessman who told prosecutors he conspired with Gray to set up an off-the-books slush fund aiding the campaign. Gray has denied wrongdoing.
Also, since 2011, three current or former councilmembers have pleaded guilty to felonies, and two are serving prison time.
“I call it the ‘yuck factor,'” said Chuck Thies, who managed Gray’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. “People get tired of hearing about one scandal after the next after the next, and they say, ‘You know what? Yuck. I’m not participating.'”
Thies said he expected that turnout would be low during the general election because Bowser has failed to inspire people and because Catania — who would make history on several fronts if elected as a white, gay former Republican — needs to take a “surgical” approach to targeting his supporters.
Bowser’s supporters say she can bring large numbers to the polls and will show her strength once the campaign begins in earnest. Johnny Allem, who’s been active in local politics for 40 years and is supporting Bowser, said only political insiders pay attention to the race before Labor Day.
Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, said the primary turnout statistics are deceptive. Pointing to Bowser’s 12-point margin of victory, he said it was the other candidates who failed to inspire voters.
Since the primary, Bowser has been raising money and meeting with voters in small gatherings to shore up her Democratic base.
“If Democrats vote, Democrats win. Period, end of story,” Bowser said during a fundraiser earlier this summer. Asked during a later interview with The Associated Press whether her path to victory was that simple, she said it was, before adding that she expected to receive support from independents and Republicans.
Catania argues that voters supported Bowser only because they wanted to get rid of Gray.
“People are lukewarm about Muriel Bowser, there’s no question about that,” said Ben Young, Catania’s campaign manager.
Michael Timinski, 58, who’s retired and plans to vote for Bowser out of Democratic loyalty, said it was not the candidates’ fault that no one was paying attention.
“People are overwhelmed. They don’t follow it,” he said.
Here are five more things to know about the election:
1. DEMOCRATIC DOMINANCE: Seventy-six percent of registered voters in the District are Democrats, but even that number doesn’t do justice to the party’s dominance of local politics. Just six percent of registered voters are Republicans, while 17 percent are independents. The Democratic nominee has gone on to win every mayoral election in the city’s history. The current mayor and 11 of the 13 D.C. councilmembers are Democrats. The other two council seats are reserved for members of a non-majority party and are held by left-leaning independents. No Republican has been elected to the council since 2004.
2. INCUMBENT WOES: In April, Mayor Vincent Gray lost the Democratic primary, becoming the District’s second straight one-term mayor. Adrian Fenty served one term before he was ousted in the 2010 primary by Gray. While Fenty’s brusque personality was largely blamed for his ouster, Gray was damaged by scandal. Five people who worked on his 2010 campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, and the outgoing mayor remains the subject of a federal investigation.
3. BOWSER’S RISE: The Democratic mayoral nominee, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, is a protege of the hard-charging Fenty, known for orchestrating a mayoral takeover of the District’s public schools. With his endorsement, she won a crowded race for his former council seat, and her team of advisers and fundraisers includes many Fenty loyalists. They are nicknamed the “Green Team” for the green campaign signs favored by Fenty and Bowser.
4. MONEY RACE: Bowser has raised $2.7 million for her mayoral bid and had more than $1 million left to spend as of Aug. 10. Her closest challenger, independent Councilmember David Catania, has brought in $770,000 and had $460,000 left to spend. No other candidate has raised more than $70,000.
5. POSSIBLE HISTORY: Should Catania upset Bowser, he would become the first white mayor and the first openly gay mayor in the city’s history. He is also a former Republican, although he left the party in 2004 and has since compiled a progressive record on many issues, including gay marriage and access to health care.
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