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As D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson gives Mayor Muriel Bowser all sorts of headaches, the situation is an ironic reminder of the mayor’s political fortune—the lack of a realistic challenger in an election year.
Consider how different this latest schools fiasco might develop if she were in a competitive race to retain her seat. “If Mayor Bowser was facing a credible opponent in the June primary, she may not be so quick to stand by her chancellor right now,” musedTheWashington Post’s Paul Schwartzman on Twitter.
To what does Bowser owe her luck?
The bankruptcy of the old D.C. political class has a lot to do with it.
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If Bowser sails into another term, it will be in part thanks to her administration avoiding a blockbuster scandal. Her last approval rating, taken in late June 2017 by TheWashington Post, stood at 67 percent.
But it will also be in large thanks to a washing-out of a political generation that left a vacuum of talent. Once promising names included Kwame Brown, Michael A. Brown, Harry Thomas Jr., and other figures—pols City Paper once dubbed D.C.’s “legacy legislators,” all of whom crashed in one disgraceful scandal after another.
Vince Gray, who is midway through his term as Ward 7 councilmember and the most likely mayoral challenger at this point, is also tainted by his past ethics scandals. Take it from his former campaign manager, Chuck Thies: “The great challenge that a Gray campaign confronts is that Bowser will simply dig up dirt from the past and turn it into a mud slinging contest.”
Thies, one of Gray’s closest advisers, says the former mayor hasn’t decided yet on running for mayor. But Gray is aware of the timeline, he says, with nominating petitions for the Democratic primary due March 21.
Also in Bowser’s favor is the state of the D.C. Council, a young body with half-a-dozen fresh faced members. Several councilmembers may be considering future mayoral runs, but they would prefer to bide their time for another term. Lately at the Wilson Building, Robert White has smiled off questions from reporters—mostly from our very own Tom Sherwood—that he’ll run for mayor. Attorney General Karl Racine, White’s former mentor, deferred and is instead campaigning for a second term in his position, but mayoral talk about him may resume in four years.
A progressive wave, fueled by the city’s shifting demographics, over recent election cycles has given D.C. the most liberal council in recent memory. It has also resulted in a new young class of politicians that remain either too young or too timid to flex their political muscles in a mayoral race.
“They have not yet matured in the public’s mind to be able to handle the job of the mayor,” says Bill Lightfoot, Green Team veteran and chair of Bowser’s reelection campaign. Lightfoot, talking from Jamaica where he is on vacation, believes Bowser’s management of the city has cleared the field. “If you do a good job, then people have no reason to defeat the incumbent.”
Yet some observers say Bowser is in a weak spot heading into reelection, with mini-scandals racking up in recent months. “She’s now vulnerable,” Thies says. A Wilson Building wag says the chancellor cutting the schools lottery process “has really shaken up white voters.”
With the negative press—including an FBI investigation into DCPS over graduation rates—“the attack ads really write themselves,” says Walter Deleon, a political consultant and President of D.C. College Democrats. “Not having contested elections is rather dangerous, because we deserve to have those sorts of conversation [about policy].”
In the meantime, Bowser is set to take advantage of a D.C. political class that died young.