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Muriel Bowser stood in the Old Congress Heights School Tuesday night with confirmation that her power extends all the way to Ward 8. One of her candidates crushed a special election; another looks likely to prevail in a nailbiter race. This is good news for the mayor, right?
“Actually, I think it’s good news for the people of Ward 4 and Ward 8,” Bowser, unable to not be on-message, shot back.
The mayor’s being modest. The addition of two councilmembers who owe their political careers to her should help push the mayor’s agenda at the Wilson Building, from Bowser’s power grab against Attorney General Karl Racine to her tax hikes. Best of all, it puts some fear into councilmembers who might think of opposing her in their own elections.
First, a caveat: While Bowser pick Brandon Todd steamrolled the opponents that stood between him and Bowser’s old Ward 4 seat, Green Team Ward 8 candidate LaRuby May didn’t have the same luck. Like Todd, May leveraged the mayor’s help to outraise her opponents to eye-popping degrees, but she couldn’t use that money to win as resoundingly. Currently, she’s within three percentage points of Trayon White, a street organizer and former State Board of Education member whose campaign had less than 10 percent of May’s budget.
As of Wednesday afternoon, May led White by 152 votes, but with more than 1,000 absentee and special ballots uncounted, that could change by next week. On Tuesday night, a defiant crowd of White supporters spilled outside Big Chair Coffee and Grill while White assured them that he would have more votes in the end. White worried about “fraud” in the vote counting process, while trumpeting his sort-of victory over Bowser’s “machine.” In other words, he’s the last person the mayor wants on the Council.
Still, May’s ahead for now. If she gets on the Council, May will join Todd in a mayoral bloc that lately hasn’t had much luck. Earlier this month, Bowser’s request to approve a controversial jail health care contract went down 6-5 on the rump Council. Add May and Todd next month, and that loss becomes a win if Bowser tries to push it again.
But Todd and May are useful to Bowser beyond the jail contract. Just four months into her new administration, Bowser is already feuding with Karl Racine, the District’s first elected attorney general. In her budget support act, Bowser proposed language that would let her own attorneys, rather than the now-independent attorney general’s office, review city laws for “legal sufficiency.” Bowser’s surrogates say Racine is trying to hobble her office after her overwhelming general election win; Racine says he would never have run if he knew he’d lose these powers.
Racine is pushing some legislation of his own, and has thrown his own support into the Ward 8 race. He backed White at the last minute, based on what a Racine spokesman calls years of knowing him. And that’s not even getting into whether Racine has his own ambitions for higher office in 2018.
So far, the attorney general fight hasn’t gotten much action outside of a hearing organized by Ward 5 Councilmember (and sometimes Bowser roadblock) Kenyan McDuffie. But LL can guess at the vote totals. Bowser’s ascension to the mayoralty and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry’s death removed from the Council two people who supported delaying the attorney general race, and thus could be counted on to back a weakened attorney general. Depending on their loyalty to Bowser, Todd and May’s victories put those votes back in place.
The new councilmembers also mean big things for Bowser’s budget, which includes sales tax and parking tax hikes. Business-enamored Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, usually a reliable vote for whoever occupies the mayoral suite, has raised concerns about the higher rates. Ditto Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who has gotten used to wielding power after nearly a year of lame duck Mayor Vince Gray. With Todd and May, though, their opposition seem a whole lot easier for the mayor to ignore.
Maybe most important of all for the mayor, though, Bowser has shown that she can flex in other Council races. Electing her own heir in Ward 4 is one thing, but potentially installing May in Ward 8, where Bowser lost the 2014 primary to Gray, is a much bigger deal.
Bowser has stocked her administration with potential friendly Council candidates. Former attorney general candidate Edward “Smitty” Smith, who ran a failed but energetic campaign against Racine last year, now runs Bowser’s justice grants administration and would be a plum choice for one of the two at-large spots up for re-election next year. The same goes for Courtney Snowden, the 2014 at-large candidate who’s now a deputy mayor.
With 2016 election dates coming up for four incumbent councilmembers, there’s a compelling reason to start acting a lot nicer towards the new mayor.
Of course, Bowser’s new councilmembers are only guaranteed through next year, when their seats are up for election. And then we get to do this all over again.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Correction: This article originally misstated the sequence of attorney general bills. Racine’s legislation was introduced before Bowser’s budget support act.