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Muriel Bowser Had a Bad Night in the DC Primary

Photograph by Flickr user Ted Eytan.

Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s political mojo got walloped Tuesday in the city’s Democratic primary races for four DC Council seats that saw three of her closest allies sent packing and resurrected the career of her predecessor, Vince Gray, who won the race for his old seat in Ward 7.

Gray, who Bowser trounced in the 2014 Democratic primary for mayor after federal prosecutors said his 2010 campaign had been the beneficiary of a $668,800 “shadow” operation funded by DC businessman Jeffrey “Uncle Earl” Thompson, defeated his former protege, Yvette Alexander by an 17 percentage point spread. The investigation into Gray’s 2010 race was closed last December after Thompson and several of Gray’s former political associates pleaded guilty to playing a role in the scheme, though Gray himself was never charged, clearing a route for his comeback.

Alexander, who represented the District’s eastern end since winning a special election in 2007, after Gray was sworn in as Council chairman, became one of Bowser’s closest allies, but this partnership was evidently not enough. Bowser suffered an even bigger loss in Ward 8, where LaRuby May, a longtime political aide of the mayor’s, was defeated by neighborhood activist Trayon White in a rematch of a special election held in 2015 after Marion Barry’s death. Besides his personal ties to the late mayor-for-life, White also got an assist from Gray’s well-funded campaign, which sponsored robocalls on White’s behalf in the race’s last weekend.

Vincent Orange, another longtime Wilson Building survivor who had also latched onto Bowser’s agenda lost a close three-way race to Robert White, the former director of community outreach for DC Attorney General Karl Racine, 40 to 38 percentage points. (The third candidate, David Garber, got less than 15 percent of the vote.)

Only Brandon Todd, Bowser’s hand-picked successor in Ward 4, survived a wave that dealt a blow to the so-called “Green Team” that stretches back to the administration of former Mayor Adrian Fenty. It was also a bad night for the Washington Post‘s editorial board, which endorsed Orange, Todd, Alexander, and May.

Democratic primaries are effectively the only races that matter in DC, where 76 percent of registered voters belong to the party, though less than 30 percent of registered Democrats voted. Tuesday’s vote also included the last contest in the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating process, with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton blowing out Bernie Sanders 78 percent to 21 percent. (The candidates spent the evening talking out their differences in a meeting at the Capitol Hilton.)

But that paltry turnout may wind up shifting the city’s political balance even further away from the mayor’s office and into the hands of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

Already, Bowser has endured a tough year. Her plan to replace the shameful DC General homeless shelter with modern shelters and transitional housing in all eight wards was upended when the Council, led by Mendelson, replaced the plan’s use of land owned by private developers to land owned by the city. The switch infuriated Bowser, who reportedly lashed out at Mendelson in a profanity-laced tirade.

Gray, who may harbor bitterness from 2014, is unlikely to be very supportive of Bowser’s initiatives, and he will likely have a young ally in Trayon White. And Robert White is close with Racine, who has had his own struggles with the mayor’s office. Shortly after Bowser and Racine took office, the new mayor tried to move some of the oversight responsibilities of the attorney general’s office to her office. Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general, was able to beat back Bowser’s gambit. More enmity rose after Bowser’s allies used a loophole in the city’s campaign-finance laws to create FreshPAC, a political action committee that could raise unlimited funds from wealthy donors in non-election years. While FreshPAC was legal, it was a bad look for Bowser, who had campaigned promising a “fresh start” after the federal investigations that arrested city politics during Gray’s administration.

With Trayon White, Robert White, and Gray headed to the council in 2017, Bowser’s hand could be weakened even further: Robert White will be a good fit in the bloc of wonky progressives led by David Grosso and Kenyan McDuffie, Gray and Trayon White will counter Bowser’s initiatives east of the Anacostia River, and Mendelson will have even more reason to move in different directions than the mayor.

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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.