News & Politics

Muriel Bowser’s Summer Strategy: Ignore the Competition

Since winning the Democratic mayoral nomination on April 1, Bowser has paid very little attention to independent candidate David Catania.

Photograph of Bowser by Flickr user crystalndavis. Photograph of Catania by Benjamin Freed.

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.”

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.