WASHINGTON — This year’s election for mayor could end up as the most competitive in the history of the nation’s capital. But that doesn’t mean it’s actually close.
Following a long and uneventful campaign season that failed to engage many voters, Democrat Muriel Bowser appears likely to prevail Tuesday over two well-known independents and three minor candidates.
Three out of four registered voters in the District of Columbia are Democrats; just 6 percent are Republicans. Since District residents were granted home rule 40 years ago, every elected mayor in the nation’s capital has been an African-American Democrat.
Such built-in advantages appear to be too much for Bowser’s opponents to overcome, despite voter concerns about her experience, her cautious record on the D.C. Council and her sometimes vague campaign platform.
“It was a struggle. I went with Bowser,” said early voter Sandra Douglas, 68, an accounting clerk who considered voting for independent David Catania because he’s more experienced. “I’m going to give her a chance.”
Polls have shown Bowser, 42, leading Catania by anywhere from 8 to 17 percentage points.
The winner will replace scandal-plagued Mayor Vincent Gray, who lost to Bowser in the April Democratic primary.
“It’s hard for me to say how much she’s going to beat David Catania by, but we’re pretty confident she’s going to win,” said former mayor Marion Barry, a Bowser supporter.
The only time a non-Democrat came anywhere near the mayor’s office was 20 years ago, when many voters balked at giving a fourth term to Barry after he was caught smoking crack cocaine. Barry won by 14 percentage points over Carol Schwartz, a liberal Republican.
Before then, and since, the general election has been little more than a coronation for the Democratic nominee.
But a traditional September primary was moved to April this year, leaving seven months for competitors to nibble away at Bowser. Catania has won five citywide elections to the D.C. Council, although his at-large seat is reserved for members of a non-majority party.
As a white, gay, former Republican, Catania is seeking make history on many fronts. With the city’s black population having dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to just under 50 percent last year, the prospect of a white mayor is becoming more plausible.
Catania, 46, has sought to portray Bowser as an uninspired, status-quo politician who prevailed in the primary mostly because she wasn’t Gray, whose 2010 campaign is the subject of a long-running federal investigation. Six people who helped Gray get elected have pleaded to felonies.
“I picked her in the primary because she was running against Gray, who is probably going to be indicted,” said Lori Rakoczy, 40, a federal employee who voted early in the general election for Catania. “She doesn’t really take a stand on anything.”
Catania has confronted questions about his temperament and his Republican past. He left the party in 2004 over then-president George W. Bush’s support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Schwartz, 70, is running for mayor for a fifth time, this time as an independent.
Bowser has run as a big-tent Democrat who can appeal to the wealthy, mostly white neighborhoods of upper northwest Washington and the less affluent, majority-black communities east of the Anacostia River. She touts an ethics-reform bill as her signature legislative accomplishment.
The black population in the District has dipped from 70 percent in 1980 to just under 50 percent, leading many to believe that residents will eventually elect a white mayor.
While Bowser has said she would bring a fresh start to the District, she also promises more continuity than Catania. Notably, Bowser said she would retain schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, a pledge that helped her gain The Washington Post’s endorsement. Catania has made no promises about Henderson and is more skeptical of the school-reform polices implemented by Henderson and her predecessor, Michelle Rhee.
On many issues, the differences between Bowser and Catania are more stylistic than substantive. They both want to improve services for the homeless and provide more affordable housing. They both favor investment in transit and bike lanes. They both support a ballot initiative that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, which is expected to pass Tuesday.
Still, their personalities suggest their approach to governing would be different.
“She’s more of a consensus-builder and he’s more of a bomb-thrower,” said Tony Bullock, a federal lobbyist and aide to former mayor Anthony Williams, who expects Bowser to win comfortably. “Maybe people don’t want excitement at this point in the city’s history.”
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