Tuesday’s Democratic primary had a lot of losers.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander lost her seat by double-digit margins to Vince Gray, the former mayor and her former mentor. Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May, in Marion Barry’s old seat for just a year, was chucked out by rival Trayon White. In the surprise of the night, At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange lost to challenger Robert White by two percent of the vote. Even Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, re-elected again in the mayor’s home ward with her endorsement, couldn’t clear 50 percent of the vote.
But the biggest loser of the night wasn’t on the ballot.
After three of her D.C. Council allies went down Tuesday night, Mayor Muriel Bowser now has to face new councilmembers who won by running against her, newly emboldened Council veterans who aren’t so afraid of her, and a chunk of voters that apparently doesn’t like her very much. Forget whether there are any members left on the Green Team—Bowser now has to consider emboldened challengers waiting to take her on in 2018.
As he watched Gray surge past Alexander by nearly 27 percentage points, Gray campaign treasurer Chuck Thies summed up the night’s results.
“The best person to speak to this is Kermit the Frog,” Thies said. “‘It ain’t easy being green.’”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A year ago, the mayor and her friends plotted to build a war chest for these elections in the form of FreshPAC, a fund of money from developers and allies to bolster her Green Team coalition. But when word got out about the scheme, public perception demanded that it be dropped and the money returned.
A lot of people who talked to LL last night had theories about so many of Bowser’s candidates went down, despite most incumbents having more in their campaign treasuries. Perhaps it was the mayor’s homeless shelter deal, which got chopped up at the Council after it came in way over budget. Or it could be Metro woes, just a few years after Bowser served on the agency’s board.
Someone even floated the idea that it was because Bowser recently cursed out Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, bringing back voter memories of one-term Mayor Adrian Fenty, Bowser’s trash-talking mentor.
This week’s losses can’t be attributed completely to voters’ opinions on Bowser. Any mayoral machine would have trouble stopping Gray in Ward 7, which backed him in his failed re-election campaign two years ago even in the face of a federal investigation. White only lost Ward 8 to May last year by 78 votes, when Bowser’s mayoralty had just started.
Still, White cast his victory as a triumph over the Bowser machine as much as one over May.
“David slayed Goliath,” White told LL. “D.C. is not happy with being for sale.”
Orange spent the years since his last election campaign defending a rat poop–sprinkled food store from health inspectors, then coming up with off-the-wall ideas like an RFK Stadium water park complex and government-funded tiny houses for millennials (who, the election apparently proves, want full-sized houses).
He managed to win over the Bowser-crazed Washington Post editorial board, but couldn’t sway enough of White’s voters, or the 15 percent of the electorate that went with challenger David Garber. Without Garber in the race, White likely would have coasted to a double-digit margin over Orange.
Even if the voters who roundly rejected Bowser’s allies don’t care about the mayor, though, it creates a problem for her on a Council that has become increasingly hostile to her plans.
Arriving at Gray’s victory party, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh looked pleased at the results and eagerly spun the evening as evidence that Bowser’s network of developers and city contractors doesn’t equal victory.
“It does show that simply having the mayor’s support does not guarantee you’ll win,” Cheh says.
In Ward 8’s Congress Heights, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman hugged Trayon White, then asked LL for more time to process the night’s surprising results before commenting on what they mean for Bowser at the Council. Silverman thinks the shake-up will create a more “dynamic” Council, where coalitions are built on issues rather than allegiance or opposition to Bowser.
“I think there’s been a dynamic of ‘Green Team versus everyone else,’” Silverman says.
And then there are the 2018 rumblings. After Gray cast his ballot Tuesday, he declined LL’s request that he promise to serve a full four-year term that would preclude him from running again for mayor.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of other mayoral hopefuls: Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie, District Attorney General Karl Racine (who now has two proteges on the Council in Robert White and Trayon White), and a few surprise candidates no one has thought of yet. Tuesday’s Council results will make Bowser look much weaker in her own job.
After a rough night, Bowser might take some words of wisdom from one attendee at Trayon White’s party—popular ’80s rapper Kurtis Blow: “That’s the breaks.”