DC voters will head to the polls next year to elect a mayor, and so far there’s just one serious candidate: the office’s current occupant, Muriel Bowser. By now, a range of hungry challengers should be lining up to compete in June’s Democratic primary, which will essentially determine the ultimate winner. (Washington has never had a Republican or Independent mayor.) A lot can happen between now and June, but at this point it looks like Bowser could—surprisingly—end up unopposed.
Why does nobody want a shot at running our city government? Mostly because, as George Mason University political-science professor Toni-Michelle Travis puts it, “Bowser’s not that vulnerable.” Crime is down, revenues are up, public schools are improving, and developers are building across the city. A June Washington Post poll found that Bowser had a formidable 67-percent approval rating and would easily defeat her two likeliest opponents—DC Council member and former mayor Vincent Gray and DC attorney general Karl Racine—in a hypothetical primary.
In September, Racine decided not to run. And while Gray hasn’t yet announced his intentions, many people would believe his candidacy was significantly motivated by revenge after Bowser—aided by politically damaging coverage of a federal investigation into his campaign that never led to charges against Gray—defeated him in 2014.
All of this is good news for Bowser—and bad news for residents who value a democratic process that includes actual choices. It also could be read as an indication that the District’s one-party hegemony has squeezed any meaningful competition out of the political scene.
But things are actually a bit more complicated. Beneath the surface, local politicians are deeply divided on fundamental questions about what kind of city this should be and how best to lead it. As DC grapples with dramatic demographic and economic changes, their pitched battles over income distribution, school reform, tax breaks, criminal justice, and affordable housing aren’t just political bickering. They’re indications of a real tension between centrists and lefties—a debate that the voters should get to decide.
“Do we have a city where only the very rich and poor can survive?” asks at-large council member Elissa Silverman. “Or will we create an inclusive community where working- and middle-class people can raise families and thrive?” Silverman and a bloc of young progressives on the council have championed a range of initiatives, helping pass a $15 minimum wage and family-and-medical-leave benefits for private-sector workers.
Meanwhile, Jack Evans, a 26-year council veteran, represents a more conservative approach. He tends to favor tax cuts over new social programs and reminds people that lavish social spending helped nearly bankrupt the city back when he was first elected. While Silverman and her allies are pushing to enlarge the safety net, Evans is helping organize the business community against the family-leave legislation. “We tend to throw money at programs,” he says, “but we rarely check to make sure they are effective.”
One of Bowser’s primary goals had been to transcend these divisions. She has sided with the business community against the party’s left flank on certain issues while managing to maintain a certain degree of credibility with lower-income voters. The June Post poll shows that her support is unusually broad, running from leafy, wealthy neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park through dynamic and gentrifying areas in the middle of town, and including DC’s black middle-class neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
But Bowser has failed to engender much excitement—she doesn’t appear to have a particular constituency that’s loyal to her as a result of some larger vision for the city. Is she a true uniter or just somebody adept at playing to both sides? Either way, if somebody who did happen to represent an animating idea of Washington’s future decided to run, it would represent a service to DC residents—including those who might disagree with the challenger’s vision.
There aren’t many candidates for that role, due in part to Bowser’s head start in raising funds and the lack of seasoned challengers. But one does come to mind: David Grosso, of the council’s left-leaning bloc. He was born in the District, affording him a measure of credibility. During his four years on the council, he has chaired the education committee and championed progressive causes such as student-loan forgiveness, tax credits for affordable-housing investment, and the decriminalization of sex work. He’s a passionate advocate who would no doubt vigorously press Bowser on a range of significant issues. Better to have those debates take place in the broad-brush language of a campaign—where voters can decide whose side they want to be on—than in the fine print of legislative haggling.
One flaw in this plan: Grosso would almost certainly lose. But by taking on Bowser when nobody else is willing, he would considerably raise his profile, emerging with a citywide brand and a much stronger voice in DC politics. If Bowser decides not to run for a third term, it will leave 2022 wide open. That’s the real opportunity for an ambitious young politician with big ideas and limited name recognition. Turning 2018 into a competitive race wouldn’t just be good for Washington—it just might launch the next generation of transformative DC leadership.
This article appears in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.