Last week’s Democratic primary results brought big news for D.C. Council challengers running against Mayor Muriel Bowser’s incumbents. Resurgent ex-Mayor Vince Gray, now the presumptive Ward 7 councilmember after beating incumbent Yvette Alexander by nearly 30 percent of the vote, was met at his campaign party by supporters chanting his name.
In Ward 8, challenger Trayon White and his campaign volunteers spilled out of his election party on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. They celebrated beating incumbent LaRuby May, despite being outraised by nearly 800 percent. After congratulating White, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman speculated that voters’ ouster of Bowser-backed incumbents would make the Council more “dynamic.”
The mood was much different among the political operatives, campaign contributors, and city government staffers that make up Bowser’s Green Team. Three of the mayor’s allies had just lost, badly hurting the mayor’s bloc in next year’s Council session and emboldening potential mayoral rivals waiting for 2018. The one Bowser-endorsed candidate who fended off a challenger for his seat, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, ran in what’s supposed to be the heart of the mayor’s support, but still couldn’t crack more than 50 percent of the vote.
A week later, members of the Green Team find themselves doing an autopsy on the primary disaster. Some, including major Green Team booster Bill Lightfoot, say each loss was on the candidates themselves, not Bowser. The mayor can’t be expected to carry candidates across the finish line, in Lighfoot’s telling, because District politics just doesn’t work like that.
“Politicians do not have coattails in this city,” Lightfoot says.
Bowser Chief of Staff John Falcicchio agrees, saying last week’s races were decided by the candidates themselves.
Still, unhappy Green Teamers who spoke to LL on background for fear of crossing Bowser or her close advisors have described a mood of fear and recrimination, as they wonder whether Bowser’s administration could have avoided such a rebuke at the ballot box.
Lightfoot, a Green Team patriarch and former at-large councilmember, provides the party line. In his telling, he saw the losses coming from a ways away. At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange’s loss to challenger Robert White was doomed by what he calls “the city’s new demographics.” In other, less minced words: more young white people who have moved to the city.
In Ward 8, Lightfoot says White just out-organized May. Nothing Bowser could do about that! And as for Alexander?
“Yvette wasn’t going to beat Vince,” Lightfoot says. “There was no way.”
The winning candidates in those races didn’t run against Bowser—at least not officially. She wasn’t on their campaign literature, but it was easy to see Bowser’s influence reflected in talk from Robert White and Trayon White about the need for “independent” councilmembers.
Gray, who has the biggest reason to hold a grudge against Bowser after the 2014 mayoral race, has predictably declined opportunities to needle her. On Thursday, they’ll both appear at the Democratic unity breakfast—an intriguing prospect, since he almost snubbed her at the same breakfast after his defeat in 2014.
Ironically, the race that most worries some Bowser supporters is also the only one they won: Ward 4.
The results in Wards 7 and 8 can be explained away as the mayor’s machine facing a unique opponent in former Mayor Gray or the exceptionally popular White. Orange lost citywide, but he was never an original part of Bowser’s coalition, and faced what was supposed to be a divided field of challengers.
In Ward 4, though, mayoral protege Todd tried to keep Bowser’s old seat after winning it in a special election last year. Todd wasn’t facing a former mayor—he was facing Leon Andrews, a nonprofit staffer who had already lost to him in last year’s special election.
Todd outraised Andrews by nearly $200,000, with most of Andrews’ money coming from his own bank account. On election night, though, Todd only beat him by a margin of less than nine percent in Bowser’s home ward.
Unhappy Green Teamers LL spoke with this week fretted over the results. If a Bowser favorite can pull less than a 10-percent margin over a replacement-level candidate, what does that mean for anyone else allied with her on the Council? Or for her own mayoral hopes?
“There’s no doubt the race was closer than what people had expected,” Lightfoot concedes.
That’s little comfort to the people who have supported Bowser. Instead, while the mayor’s losing candidates serve out what’s left of their lame-duck terms, the mayoral supporters are left to consider what could be driving voters’ discontent.
There’s Bowser’s plan to close D.C. General, dissected at the Council after a series of damaging news stories showed that Bowser’s oddly structured plan would pay off big for her campaign donors. Then there’s the homicide rate—as of LL’s writing, just one homicide short year-to-year from 2015’s unusually high toll.
Then, there’s the specter hanging over Bowser’s administration: Adrian Fenty, the mentor who lost his 2010 mayoral re-election bid after alienating nearly every constituency in the city. For some Bowser supporters LL talked with, including one who described the tight inner circle around the mayor as “insular,” it’s starting to look a lot like 2010.
Still, the District is two years away from seeing whether the new primary results predict the end of Bowser’s mayoral hopes or are just an anomaly. Political consultant Bo Shuff, who ran Bowser’s successful 2014 mayoral campaign, sums up the Green Team’s official approach to last week’s disappointing results.
“It is what it is,” Shuff says.