With "Uncle Earl" allegations looming large, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser defeated incumbent Mayor Vincent Gray and six challengers to win the Democratic nomination for the District's top political post.
Suggestions that Gray could be indicted in office on corruption charges stemming from his 2010 campaign surged support behind Bowser’s bid, and Gray conceded the race shortly after midnight on Wednesday morning.
Bowser took the stage in a Southeast D.C. charter school wearing a big smile and her signature green and gold campaign colors to thank supporters around 11:20 p.m. With 89 percent of precincts reporting, Bowser was ahead 44-34 percent.
She called the vote a "resounding affirmation of the values we share."
"The outcome of this election is also an affirtmation that the status quo is not good enough for us," Bowser said. "We know that we could do better." The upstart candidate, who has represented Ward 4 on the D.C. Council since 2007, won on the promise that she would bring a “fresh start” to the mayor’s office in a city sick of hearing about scandal.
Though opponents called her inexperienced and Gray’s campaign charged that she was not ready to lead, Bowser, 41, hammered away on corruption and focused on constituent services -- the latter a trademark of former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, for whom Bowser once campaigned. When asked about her legislative record, Bowser always pointed to an ethics reform bill as her biggest accomplishment.
Despite sunny, 60-degree weather that campaigns had hoped would encourage voters to visit their polling precincts, turnout was low. During the city’s last mayoral primary in September 2010, more than 134,000 registered Democrats voted. The early April primary date for 2014, a change implemented to better align the election timeframe with federal law, may be to blame.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, who represents residents of Capitol Hill, finished with about 12 percent of the vote – about the level of support forecasted by recent polls. Wells was far behind Bowser and Gray in the Washington Post’s final survey, but he predicted on the eve of the election that the data didn’t capture his popularity with a new generation of social media-savvy supporters.
"You've laid the marker down," he told supporters gathered inside the Top of the Hill lounge on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast. "You put me near the top; you made me a major candidate in D.C." he continued, talking with pride about his pledge not to accept corporate campaign contributions. "All of us believe that we can have a government that we're proud of that answers to the residents of D.C."
Despite his 23-year tenure on the D.C. Council, only 5 percent of voters supported Ward 2's Jack Evans in his bid for mayor. Evans often offered his record as a lawmaker as proof that he would be better equipped to lead the city than Wells or Bowser, who were elected in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Evans touted himself, and Gray, as the two candidates to lead a city government with more than 33,000 employees and an $8 billion budget.
Evans was followed by Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal and at-large D.C. Councilmember Vincent Orange. Candidates Reta Jo Lewis and Carlos Allen each tallied nominal support.
Gray entered the race late, amidst speculation that he might not run for re-election because of an ongoing federal investigation into his 2010 mayoral campaign. Though he struck a remorseful tone for supporters at his official campaign kick-off event in January, Gray declined to go into detail about what exactly happened four years ago.
Those questions were harder to dodge when businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson -- a man who, according to federal prosecutors, requested he be called "Uncle Earl" -- pled guilty to conspiracy charges related to Gray's campaign. During the March 10 hearing, prosecutors painted a detailed picture of how Thompson pumped more than $660,000 in illegal donations into the Gray campaign. They alleged Gray was in on the scheme and at one point handed Thompson a one-page budget requesting $425,000 to fund get-out-the-vote efforts.
Gray forcefully denied any knowledge of the shadow campaign, and called Thompson a "greedy man trying to save himself," but the allegations came to define the race. Bowser gained momentum and positioned herself as a “fresh start” for the city and Wells continued to harp on the need to bring ethics back to D.C. government.
In the final debate of the campaign, "Uncle Earl" loomed large and Gray continued to deny any wrongdoing. He has not been charged, but his lawyer has acknowledged that he expects the mayor to be indicted. Gray has indicated he is prepared to stand trial and will remain in the city's top political post while fighting the charges.
If 40 years of District political trends hold true, the Democratic nominee will likely be elected mayor in November as has happened in every election since the city was granted home rule.
D.C. Councilmember David Catania announced days after Thompson was indicted that he would launch an independent bid for mayor in the general election. The former Republican is aiming to become the first D.C. mayor in modern political history with no Democratic Party affiliation.
Catania's campaign has been reminding voters that the conversation will change on April 2.