Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Challenger upsets mayor in D.C. primary

Muriel Bowser triumphed as allegations about 2010 campaign finances dogged Mayor Vince Gray in the Democratic race

WASHINGTON — Challenger Muriel Bowser emerged victorious in the Democratic mayoral primary Tuesday night, unseating Mayor Vince Gray, whose re-election bid was finally felled by corruption allegations about his campaign four years ago.

With all precincts reporting, Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the City Council, led with 44 percent of the Democratic primary vote. Gray came in with 33 percent. Four other Democratic candidates — Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal and Vincent Orange — received 13 percent, 5 percent, 3 percent and 2 percent of the vote, respectively, according to voting tallies compiled by the D.C. Board of Elections. 

Gray conceded defeat to Bowser shortly after midnight. "I want to thank everybody who's supported us," Gray said. "I think the work we have done over the last three, four years has been nothing short of phenomenal."

The Democratic mayoral primary has historically decided the mayoral race in the heavily Democratic city, although a credible challenger awaits the primary winner in November. Bowser will face off against fellow council member David Catania, a registered independent, in the fall. If past voting patterns hold, Bowser is on track to become the second female mayor of the U.S. capital city.

During the campaign, Bowser benefited from voter doubt about Gray, which centered on his possible involvement in an illegal scheme that funneled more than $650,000 of off-the-books money into his successful 2010 campaign for mayor. In that race, Gray defeated Adrian Fenty by tapping into dissatisfaction among African-American residents.

But since his first days in office, Gray has been the subject of a federal investigation into whether he knew of the scheme.

Three weeks before the primary, businessman and campaign donor Jeff Thompson told prosecutors — while negotiating a plea bargain — that Gray had known about the “shadow campaign” and granted favors to Thompson’s company in exchange for the infusion of illicit cash.

A number of Gray’s personal aides have also been implicated in the scandal. Although he denied any wrongdoing, Gray could not overcome lingering suspicions about his behavior.

Voters who filtered into D.C.’s 143 precincts on Tuesday seemed torn by the decision they had to make about a man who had, by many accounts, bettered their city and lives. 

Keith Wade, a 73-year-old resident of Columbia Heights said he had defected from Gray in 2010 to Bowser because of the scandal, despite Gray boasting a record in office that he admired.

“Personally, I don’t think he’s telling the truth about the slush fund,” he said. “I think he’s done a pretty good job, but you’ve got to have some ethical credibility.”

Others were more forthright in their opposition.

“I feel like he’s a criminal,” said Mari Jackson, 51, a former Gray supporter from Ward 2 who had switched her allegiance to Bowser. “He’s lost my trust. I see all falsehoods.”

According to early reports from poll workers, turnout amounted to a trickle across the District, perhaps due to the apathy many voters seemed to feel about the candidates. 

"I voted for Bowser. I held my nose," said Eugene Gill, 52, a retired city worker. "All of them are terrible."

The mayoral primary appeared to split along racial and class lines. Gray drew strong support from black voters who live east of the Anacostia River in Wards 7 and 8, as was the case in 2010. They said they finally felt there was a mayor in office who was directing resources to their often overlooked and impoverished neighborhoods.

Bowser drew her strongest support from the city’s more affluent and whiter neighborhoods in the northwest, many of them populated by newcomers lured to Washington by explosive development over the last decade.

Sheila Reid, a real estate broker from Ward 1 said longtime African-Americans residents like her becoming an endangered species with the influx of new non-black residents. She said that Gray had set aside money for affordable housing and had made a good faith effort to ensure that all residents — from all wards — were benefitting from the city's economic boom.

“African-Americans are being systemically run out of this city,” she said. “[Gray is] trying to pull people together and do an equitable job for everyone and as a result, he’s being criticized, primarily by whites.”

Reid said it was also difficult not to see racial politics at play in the charges leveled against Gray.

“The African-American community has seen so much of this — people accused and arrested of things irrespective of whether they did it or not,” she said. “He deserves the benefit of the doubt.”

Still, in the end, anti-Gray opponents showed up in numbers at the polls to register their displeasure with a mayor who they believed had not played by the rules.

Some Bowser voters said they backed her over other Gray challengers primarily because they felt she had the best chance to beat him.

Bowser worked for the local government in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and served as an elected neighborhood commissioner in the district before election to the council in 2007.

Her most significant accomplishment on the council was the creation of an independent ethics board able to punish officials for violations. The board has found wrongdoing by three members of the 13-person council.

Joan Gladden, 65, said she voted for Gray in 2010 and would have stuck with him if not for the allegations of corruption.

"Do we have any honest politicians left?" she said.

Gail Conti, 49, a Ward 2 Democratic voter who supported Evans, her city council representative, said it was clear to her that Gray was implicated in the scandal.

“I think it’s absolutely absurd,” she said on Tuesday, mulling the possibility of a mayor who could be federally indicted while in office. “There’s always something murky going on with our elections and I’m tired of it.”

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