Mayoral hopeful David Catania got some potentially horrible news on Monday when former DC Council member and fellow Republican-turned-independent Carol Schwartz announced she, too, will seek the District’s top job.
Schwartz, 70, who served on the Council as a Republican for 12 years in two stints ending in 2009, has run for mayor four times already, coming closest in 1994 when she lost by 14 percentage points to Marion Barry.
In her lengthy announcement, Schwartz, who shed her GOP ties last year, says she is running because she is “concerned” about the city’s growing economic inequality and a recent spate of ethical scandals for its elected officials.
“Any corruption is too much—and DC has gone beyond the pale,” she says.
Catania’s campaign already smells a rat, accusing Muriel Bowser's campaign of planting Schwartz. “They want her to be Sulaimon Schwartz,” says Catania’s campaign manager, Ben Young, referring to Sulaimon Brown, a fringe mayoral candidate in the 2010 Democratic primary who says he was paid by Vince Gray’s campaign to run, and act as an attack dog on then-mayor Adrian Fenty.
Schwartz has been tight with Bowser in the past, and she has a history of conflict with Catania stemming from 2008, when Catania supported Patrick Mara in the Republican primary for her at-large Council seat. After Mara won, Schwartz stayed in as a write-in candidate, and was backed by Bowser. Schwartz also held fundraisers for Bowser during the 2012 election cycle.
“Anyone who covers DC politics can see right through this,” Young says. “She’s been close personal friends since Bowser was first elected. They’re trying to reduce the mayoral election to a joke. This is not a joke.”
Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff, says he won’t comment on Young’s comparison between Schwartz and Brown. In a phone interview, Schwartz shoots down the accusations of coordination with the Bowser campaign.
"I'm running because I'm worried about our city," she says. "Those aren't anyone else's words but mine."
Chuck Thies, who managed Gray’s unsuccessful re-election campaign this year, doesn’t think Schwartz will be that big of a factor. “Schwartz has to make the ballot and spend the summer being somewhere other than Rehoboth,” he tells Washingtonian in an e-mail. “Just having a name on the ballot isn’t enough to garner significant votes.”
The question is how many votes Schwartz would have to garner to be significant, and spoil Catania’s bid.
With David Catania seemingly ready to abandon his seat on the DC Council to run for mayor, it turns a once-secure position into a free-for-all, with former Washington City Paper reporter Elissa Silverman entering the race.
Silverman telegraphed her entry into the race last month when she left her job at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a lefty think tank, and made her intentions official on Monday. It’ll be her second run for the Council, after she came in second in a special election last year to Anita Bonds.
But this run is a bit different. Catania, a Republican-turned-independent, occupies one of the Council’s two at-large seats reserved for members who don’t belong to the majority party. Silverman, a former Democrat, dropped her party affiliation last month, further signaling her intention to go after Catania’s current job.
Although she’s now a registered independent, Silverman’s progressive bona fides appear to be intact: as she did last year, she plans to refuse corporate contributions, a tactic that should endear her to followers of Tommy Wells, the Ward 6 Council member who ran for mayor on a similar plank. Some of Wells’s followers had wanted him to quit the Democratic Party in order to pursue Catania’s at-large seat but Wells, whose term expires at the end of the year, told Greater Greater Washington yesterday his time as a local legislator is done.
“The Council needs an infusion of fresh leadership, and I need to apply my Council experience to new challenges,” Wells said.
Wells standing down gives Silverman an opportunity to consolidate the city’s progressive voters, but the race is still crowded with would-be Council rookies. Besides Silverman, the field also includes Robert White, a former staffer to Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton; Khalid Pitts, the owner of Logan Circle’s Cork Wine Bar; Brian Hart, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan; Eugene Puryear, the Statehood Green Party’s nominee; and the Rev. Graylan Hagler, who led an unsuccessful campaign last year to force Walmart and other large retailers to pay increased minimum wages.
And if the at-large contest isn’t busy enough, it may also get the entry of Yvette Alexander, who represents Ward 7, but expressed interest last month in campaigning citywide.
Since winning the Democratic primary on April 1, Muriel Bowser and her campaign are doing everything they can to convince District residents the race is settled. With over 75 percent of the city’s registered voters, the Democratic Party has always decided DC’s mayoral races, and Bowser figures this year should be no different. Although the campaign schedule is less hectic right now, she continues to raise money, hobnob with party heavies, and barrel toward the general election on November 4.
Previous mayoral primaries took place in September, just two months before the general election, but this year’s schedule left a fat seven months between elections. Add in the candidacy of a non-Democrat who appears credible to voters, and there’s chance that for the first time in 40 years of home rule, the District might have a competitive mayoral race beyond the primary.
David Catania, a Republican-turned-independent who has served on the DC Council since 1998, is trying to give Bowser the toughest general-election contest any Democratic nominee has ever faced. But right now, Catania is the one introducing himself to voters; Bowser barely acknowledges his candidacy.
“There’s nothing to be gained by engaging him,” says Ron Lester, a veteran pollster who worked for Gray during the primary. “You don’t want to give him more credence than he’s due.”
Catania is hardly a political lightweight. Since getting on the Council in 1998 as a Republican in one of the at-large seats reserved for non-Democrats, he’s won four more elections by hefty margins and with considerable fundraising, including more than $480,000 for his 2010 re-election.
And now he is attempting to chip away Democrats who might not want to stick with Bowser after a desultory and sparsely attended primary. He started two weeks ago with an event for parents of public-school students, building off his experience running the Council’s education committee. His campaign stepped up his attacks this week by sending out its first bit of direct mail: a pamphlet targeted at voters east of the Anacostia River, reminding them of Bowser’s ties to former Mayor Adrian Fenty, who is remembered by wards 7 and 8 as being more concerned with the city’s wealthier denizens in Northwest. “Who is pulling Muriel Bowser’s strings?” the mailer asks, depicting Bowser as a string puppet against a green backdrop.
Bowser’s top advisers came from the Fenty gang, with Bill Lightfoot as campaign chairman and Tom Lindenfeld as a senior strategist. Though Bowser stressed visiting every pocket of the city during her year-long primary campaign, holding her victory party in Anacostia, Catania is not unfamiliar to voters east of the river. Before he took over the education committee, Catania ran the Council’s health committee and played a key role in keeping open United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia. But Bowser hasn’t taken the bait yet.
“There’s a process to qualify to run in the mayoral election,” says Bowser’s campaign manager, Bo Shuff. “Once it’s in place, we will stick to it. We will engage with all the candidates who qualify.”
Candidates looking to get in the general election need to submit a nominating petition with at least 3,000 valid signatures by August 6 to the DC Board of Elections, which will then take a month to set the final ballot. If Bowser sticks to her plan, she and Catania won’t engage outside their day jobs on the Council until September 18, when American University hosts a debate.
The District’s defeated mayoral candidates had until May 1 to remove their signs from the city’s yards and sign posts. The seas of Vince Gray blue, Jack Evans red, and Vincent Orange orange are receding. In recent weeks, though, some lawns around town have sprouted new, light-blue banners. However, Bowser's Green Team would prefer it if you didn’t notice them.
Catania’s baby-blue yard signs are popping up, and while they’re not nearly as ubiquitous as Bowser’s green-tinted standards, they are spreading.
Winning a DC mayoral race against any Democratic nominee is a long shot even for someone with Catania’s record, but Bowser’s former opponents aren’t writing him off entirely. The June 10 fundraising deadline will show if he can haul in enough dough to keep up with Bowser, who raked in about $1.4 million for her primary run.
“There is no reason to believe that Catania can’t put together a significant challenge,” says Chuck Thies, who ran Gray’s primary campaign and became Bowser’s loudest critic. “This has potential. This is all unprecedented in the same way an April election was unprecedented.”
Thies says Bowser and Catania don’t need to submit themselves to the mind-numbing amount of debates and forums that the primary candidates went through, but he says it would be good for the city’s political health if they met up at least once before the laziest weeks of summer. Thies worries that Bowser’s “rose-garden campaign,” could undermine the District’s Democratic apparatus.
“If you’re going to be mayor, you are the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party,” he says. “If you assume you’re going to win, you should prepare to lead. She’s not doing that.”
According to a new Washington Post profile, Catania is already swaying some influential Democrats to jump ship, from community leaders like Sirraya Gant, the head of the parent-teacher association at Ward 7’s H.D. Woodson High School, to national party strategist Hilary Rosen. That’s not the work of a fringe candidate who can be easily written off. (Catania’s yard signs are also available with “Democrats for David!” striped across the top.)
“[Bowser] won the primary with such light turnout and won it because she’s not Vince Gray,” says Catania’s campaign manager, Ben Young. “Her advisers are telling her to act like the presumptive mayor.”
Bowser can be in a comfort zone because the raw numbers make her almost presumptive. A poll taken shortly before the primary suggested that in a hypothetical match-up with Catania, she’d come out 30 percentage points ahead. But the five-and-a-half months until November 4 are a long time, and for now, Catania is the only mayoral candidate who appears to be actively chasing votes. Thies, who doesn’t spare his distaste for Bowser, has his own ideas for Catania to point out his rival’s autopilot campaign, especially if she’s going to ignore Catania until the AU debate in mid-September.
“If I were the Catania campaign, I would have someone donning the chicken suit,” Thies says. “I’d wear it.”
One of the questions leading up to DC’s April 1 Democratic primary was whether young, educated, mostly white voters who have poured into the District since 2010 would vote, possibly shifting the city’s political fulcrum. Mostly, they didn’t. But a surprising upset in the race for Ward 1’s DC Council seat showed that even if they don’t turn out to the polls, the millennials can still matter.
On Primary Day, Brianne Nadeau, a young communications adviser for nonprofits, knocked off 68-year-old, four-term council member Jim Graham in the race for the Ward 1 seat, beating him by 18 percentage points. To look at her, Nadeau seems like the face of a new Ward 1, which has seen wealthier white residents streaming into Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant, and the U Street corridor, lured by new apartments, shops, and restaurants. After her win, Nadeau admitted, “I am well aware that as a 33-year-old white woman, my experience in Ward 1 is very different.”
The politics turn out to be more complicated. Nadeau ran an exemplary race, outraised and outspent Graham, and knocked on thousands of doors, wooing the long-term residents who actually stir themselves to vote, as only 11,387 of 40,976 registered Democrats did. She even lifted votes from members of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, an LGBT group that for the first time declined to endorse Graham, who is openly gay. But Graham, who rose to prominence in the 1980s as head of Whitman-Walker Clinic, no longer connected with this core constituency. “Some people may take for granted they’re going to get the support of a specific community,” club president Angela Peoples says.
After a slow start, Graham ran a desultory and sometimes mean-spirited campaign, counting on his once-reliable coalition—which also included older African-Americans and Latinos—to pull him through. “People could see Graham tired out,” says Terry Lynch, who has lived in Mount Pleasant since 1982. “You can’t keep beating that drum.”
It’s true that Ward 1’s demographics have changed as much as Graham’s appeal has—nowhere more than in the Latino neighborhoods he counted on for support. While DC’s Latino population grew faster than its population at large last year, according to the city’s Office on Latino Affairs, it’s declining in Ward 1. “Affordable housing has decreased, and people, especially Latino people, cannot afford to live there anymore,” says Roxana Olivas, director of the Latino-affairs office.
In their place is a political vacuum, as millennials show up for new clubs and brewpubs but not at the polls. Until they do, local elections will be won by fighting not for the gentrifiers but for the older residents who are still hanging on.
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Washingtonian.
With David Catania challenging Muriel Bowser for mayor in the general election, his at-large seat on the DC Council is up for grabs. And the latest person to express their interest is his colleague, Yvette Alexander.
Catania’s seat is one of two at-large positions that DC’s charter sets aside for Council members who don’t belong to the majority party, so in order to run, Alexander would have to ditch her Democratic Party registration and pursue it as an independent. But unlike Catania, whose Council term is expiring at the end of the year, Alexander was just re-elected to her Ward 7 seat in 2012 and has job security through 2016.
“When you’re an elected official, you’re running every day,” Alexander says in a phone interview. “You win an election, but it’s always a campaign.”
Alexander first hinted her interest in Catania’s seat on Tuesday night in a tweet directed at her colleague Tommy Wells, who in the days losing the Democratic mayoral primary, has reportedly thought about dumping his party registration to make an at-large run. The declared field currently includes Khalid Pitts, the owner of Logan Circle’s Cork Wine Bar; Robert White, a former staffer for Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton; and Brian Hart, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Adams Morgan. Also expected to run is former Washington City Paper reporter Elissa Silverman, who is about to leave her current job at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute to prepare her second attempt to win an at-large seat.
So why would Alexander even think about jumping in an already-crowded race that could include Wells and Silverman, who nearly beat Council member Anita Bonds in a 2013 special election?
“It seems like it’s an open opportunity for me,” Alexander says. “I would be able to broaden my scope.”
Alexander says she would like to expand her focus on health care, although as the chairwoman of the Council’s Health Committee, she already has oversight of programs that affect the entire city.
And if she won, it would trigger a special election like the one she won in 2007 after former Ward 7 Council member Vince Gray was elected Council chairman. Gray ruled himself out of any Council races during his press conference today. Alexander was one of Gray’s biggest supporters during the mayoral primary, but she says her chief of staff, Ed Fisher, would be her favorite to take over. But even though special elections take money out of city coffers, Alexander says not to worry about that: a special election to replace her could take place the same time as one to replace Bowser if the Ward 4 Council member beats Catania in the mayoral race.
Alexander she is still mulling it over and will make up her mind by the end of May. Her seat is secure for two more years, so all she has to lose right now is a “D” next to her name.
“I’m really looking at it seriously,” she says.
While absentee ballots are still being counted, the votes cast so far indicate yesterday’s Democratic primary brought voter turnout to new lows. If Muriel Bowser indeed goes on to become the District’s next mayor, she will do so after being coronated by a sliver of the city she hopes to govern.
Bowser’s low vote total may have further implications. Because Democrats make up more than three-quarters of DC’s registered voters, the Democratic primary usually serves as the effective contest for mayor. But with Bowser likely to face off against independent Council member David Catania, the first viable general-election challenger in decades, her flimsy vote total makes her look even less like a sure thing.
The chart above shows voter registration, Democratic Party membership, participation in yesterday’s primary, and votes received by Bowser as a percentage of the District’s population. The people who voted for Bowser represent just 5.5 percent of the people who call this city home.
In 2010, 72,648 voted for Vince Gray to replace Adrian Fenty in a contest that drew the participation of 40 percent of the city’s 336,312 registered Democrats. Gray’s share of the vote represented about 12.1 percent of the city’s population then of 601,000.
The shares of people who choose DC’s mayor have always been slim, but if history holds up and Bowser coasts from the Democratic nomination to a general election win, it will be with the support of only one out of nearly every 20 people.
Vince Gray is blaming his loss in yesterday’s Democratic mayoral primary on the short campaign season. His campaign manager, Chuck Thies, offered a different reason, one that was likely on voters’ minds as they went to the polls.
“One thing changed this election: Ron Machen,” he said about the US attorney for the District, who is investigating businessman’s Jeffrey Thompson’s bankrolling of an illicit shadow campaign on Gray’s behalf in 2010.
After Gray had conceded and left the mostly empty ballroom in the belly of the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, Thies stuck around for a while to talk to lingering reporters and help finish off the party’s supply of beer. While Thies said Gray is an “excellent sportsman” who will spend the next nine months focusing on his duties, he suggested Gray could have gotten the Democratic nomination had not Machen scheduled Thompson’s long-awaited guilty plea for March 10. In that plea, Thompson claimed he’d met with Gray in an aide's apartment to discuss the shadow campaign. Gray denies this.
Although Gray’s job-approval ratings remained relatively strong, polls taken throughout the primary showed that voters did not find him trustworthy, especially after “Stormy Monday,” as Thies calls the day of Thompson’s plea. Between sips of a Sierra Nevada, Thies said there had been an effort to vilify Gray, following up on his earlier claims that Gray was the target of a “coordinated smear campaign” by Machen’s office, Gray’s rivals, and the media covering the primary.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Thies continued to a dwindling clutch of reporters. “Do you think Vince Gray woke up one morning and said, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to become a crook’? This campaign: no controversy; 2010: controversy because some people failed him miserably. These are facts ignored by the journalists who have left.”
Steve Glaude, who took time off from his job as Gray’s director of community affairs to serve as the reelection campaign’s political director, agreed with Thies’s assessment.
“The media never stopped illuminating 2010,” Glaude said. “If they wrote about potholes and mentioned Mayor Gray, they did two or three paragraphs on 2010.”
Glaude believes that if the primary had been held a few weeks later, as Gray lamented in his concession speech, the mayor might have rebounded.
“I do think if we had had 20 to 30 more days, it may have mattered,” Glaude said. “I think the Thompson plea killed us.”
Four hours after polls close, Mayor Vince Gray finally appeared at his election-night party in ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill.
“Let me congratulate Councilmember Muriel Bowser for having won 44 percent of the vote,” he said.
While the sparse crowd is filled mostly with familiar faces from his administration, the first person Gray thanked was Marion Barry, the frail mayor-for-life who has been at the current mayor’s side for the last two weeks of the primary campaign.
Only 81,145 people voted in the mayoral primary, confirming the very low turnout seen across the District all day. Bowser received 35,899 votes, or 44.2 percent, to Gray’s 26,209, or about 32.3 percent. Tommy Wells finished a distant third, with 10,181 votes for 12.6 percent of the vote, while Jack Evans, who raised more money than anyone in the eight-person field, garnered just 4,039 votes for 5 percent. Busboys and Poets restaurateur Andy Shallal netted 2,657 votes for 3.3 percent.
Bowser, celebrating with supporters in Ward 8, was ready to declare victory an hour before the DC Board of Elections delivered the final tallies. “I’ve been a council member for darn near seven years, so I know a thing about running this government,” she said, responding to the Gray campaign’s closing attack that she lacks experience.
After conceding defeat, Gray started reflecting on his record. “I think work we’ve done the past three-and-a-half years has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he said. “If I am going to be in this job another nine months, I am going to work extremely hard.”
But Gray also blames his loss to the early primary.
“I hope that the city will change the date of the primary in the future,” he said. “This is really poor.” Barry concurred.
“This campaign hasn’t created much enthusiasm,” he said. Barry also said that Gray, who focused his campaign almost exclusively east of the Anacostia River in the closing days, could have spent more time campaigning in Bowser’s home turf of Ward 4.
“I told Chuck Thies that,” Barry said, referring to Gray’s campaign manager and self-declared election cop.
As much as Gray and his team want to blame an early-spring primary, Gray was dogged from the start by the federal investigation of his 2010 campaign, which was aided by $668,800 in unreported money from businessman Jeffrey Thompson. Since Thompson’s guilty plea on March 10, Gray has had to deal with allegations that he had first-hand knowledge of the scheme.
"We believe that corruption at city hall is unacceptable," Bowser said in her victory speech. "We should also acknowledge the lifetime of service of Mayor Vincent C. Gray."
Gray closed by acknowledging that DC may still get a competitive general election, with independent Council member David Catania running.
“I guess there will be a campaign upcoming,” he said. He adds that he wants his supporters to “work hard” to elect the next mayor, but he doesn’t say explicitly if that means Bowser.
As much as Gray wanted to focus on the three-plus years he’s been mayor and the months remaining in his term, his appointees were dour about his chances all evening.
“This is a wake,” a Gray appointee was overheard saying. “If this was a winner, this place would be packed.”
The light voting in today DC’s Democratic primary presents Mayor Vince Gray with his best shot for a second term—if he can get his “super voters” to the polls.
By midday on April 1, precincts citywide were reporting extremely low turnout in a close race with council member Muriel Bowser—so low that the winner may well be the candidate who can deliver voters in the final hours.
In other words, the outcome of the primary will come down to mechanics: Can Bowser’s team summon voters in the largely white precincts west of Rock Creek Park, or will Gray be able to “knock and drag” his African-American women—known as super voters—this evening?
With less than four hours to go before polls close, it’s clear that none of the four major candidates in the race stirred passion in voters. Many Washingtonians were against incumbent Gray because of allegations that he knew of corrupt contributions to his 2010 campaign. But the negative mindset rarely motivates voters to veer from their daily routines to get to a voting station.
From Chevy Chase in upper Northwest to Georgetown along the Potomac River to Congress Heights over the hills of Anacostia, precinct captains reported the lowest number of voters they had seen in years.
“Last election we had lines in the morning,” said Derek Santos, precinct captain in Precinct 141, at the Frank Reeves Municipal Center at 14th and U streets, Northwest. “We haven’t had a line all day, but there’s been no lull, either—more like a steady stream.”
By 1:30, 262 people had cast votes there, including special ballots that could be challenged. That’s about half of what poll workers had expected.
An hour later, in Georgetown, mayoral candidate Jack Evans jogged by Christ Episcopal Church at 31st and O streets, Northwest, with his golden retriever. If he had stopped to check the turnout at the church in his home turf of Ward 2, he would have found few voters. During the morning hours when voters are often lined up, one neighbor reported there were more political workers outside on the street than voters inside casting ballots. “Low turnout is good for me,” Evans said later in the day from Ward 7. “If the other candidates don’t get out their voters, that means I have a chance.”
Bowser had worked hard in hopes of turning out high numbers of supporters in the white wards west of Rock Creek Park. But at Precinct 51 at Lafayette Elementary School, turnout was low. The precinct is in Bowser’s Ward 4, but it’s west of the park. She needs strong majorities there to beat Gray.
But even deep in Gray’s territory—in largely African-American precincts east of the Anacostia River—no one seemed to be bothering to vote, according to reports during the day. Gray’s campaign manager, Chuck Thies, had predicted a low turnout. Fewer voters were supposed to give Gray an edge, since polls haves shown his base is more solid than Bowser’s. But if turnout is low across the District, either candidate could squeak out a victory.
Precinct 141 inside the Reeves Center is an ideal testing ground to gauge whether voting patterns have changed in the District. It lies at gentrification central. Condominiums are filling up with new residents along 14th Street. A Trader Joe’s just opened across U Street. But the precinct is home to middle-class African-American families as well as Latinos.
We will have to wait to see how they voted, but one result is already in: On this April 1 Democratic primary for mayor, voters made a joke of it.