By the time Vince Gray arrived at Shaw’s Kennedy Recreation Center Tuesday afternoon, the word was out across the city: There weren’t any voters. That left his most devoted supporters to try and drum up some civic participation on their own.
“Would you like to say hello to the mayor?” one Gray hype man said to a man passing by. “Here he is in, the flesh!”
He didn’t get a taker.
For Gray, Tuesday’s election played out like a citywide April Fools’ joke played on him. Everything—especially voter turnout, so high four years ago when he beat Adrian Fenty—seemed off as the mayor traveled the city looking for something to contradict the polls that showed him losing steam to Muriel Bowser. In the end, he didn’t find it.
Gray started the day at La Salle Elementary School—Bowser’s home precinct, in a showy move to try to display some swagger—with everything from rabid supporters to his megaphone-equipped car in place. The voters, though, didn’t cooperate: No one was there yet. Without anyone to make his pitch to, Gray and his supporters marched around the school’s entrance, then headed out.
After another dead precinct in his Ward 7 base, Gray felt relaxed (or bored) enough to go home and grab a hat for campaign political director Steve Glaude. Then it was on to his home precinct at the East River Washington Senior Wellness Center, where fewer than 100 people had voted by the time he arrived. (He’d go on to win 67 percent of the votes cast there, a 20 percent drop from his 2010 pace.)
Gray wasn’t the only member of his re-election team having trouble translating attention into votes. Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry, who’d thrown in with Gray two weeks earlier, cruised precincts in the early afternoon to grab votes in Gray-friendly Ward 8. Instead of finding Gray supporters, though, he spent his time taking pictures with poll workers.
After an appearance at Allen Chapel AME Church, a Barry staffer told me he was headed to campaign for Gray at the Anacostia Library. They went to Popeye’s instead.
That sense of people looking for a reason not to see the obvious outcome ahead was also in the air at Gray’s election party at the Hyatt Regency. Apparently, many Gray supporters had already given up anyway. While partygoers at Gray’s 2010 victory bash had been elbow-to-elbow, the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency never got more than a quarter full.
As early voting counts showing Bowser with a sizable lead started to come in, Gray supporters hung on to hope—and started to explain what looked like an impending loss. Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who endorsed Gray hours after he declared his re-election bid late last year, blamed the unusually early April primary for the low turnout.
In an unusual take on representative government, Alexander said that the city’s economic boom under Gray had left people too complacent to vote for him. “People didn’t realize there was a need to have an election,” Alexander said. Still, she predicted he’d win anyway.
Not every member of Team Gray was as optimistic. Bowser’s lead kept growing; she’d go on to win with 44 percent to Gray’s 32. Lower-ranking Gray staffers, who won’t face the same cushy post-administration options as his cabinet-level officials, rubbed their faces and refreshed the Board of Elections website.
The appearance of an triumphant Bowser towering on the huge TV screens in the mostly empty ballroom made the mood even worse.
At 11:30 p.m., Gray campaign manager Chuck Thies, who’d brashly declared Bowser and the rest of Gray’s rivals mere “Smurfs” weeks earlier, appeared. With the press questioning the vote count’s accuracy, Thies said Gray, who was eating a late dinner elsewhere in the hotel, wouldn’t be making any decisions about conceding yet. “They don’t seem to dovetail with what anyone who’s been tracking this election feels,” Thies said.
By midnight, though, Gray had made up his mind. After high-fiving his remaining supporters on the way to the podium, Gray congratulated Bowser on her win—but stopped short of endorsing her in the general election against Councilmember David Catania.
After describing the timing behind the Jeff Thompson guilty plea that implicated him in 2010 election crimes as “odd,” Gray left with his supporters. Then only Thies and a few diehard campaign workers and staffers remained to turn their ire on U.S. Attorney Ron Machen.
“Are U.S. Attorneys deciding elections?” said mayoral chief of staff Chris Murphy, red-faced. “We shouldn’t vote. Why do we bother voting?”
Gray campaign worker Peter Brooks shoved a woman standing behind Thies forward. He introduced her as a two-time Gray supporter who could testify to reporters about the mayor’s honesty. “He’s a good person,” the surprised woman said, before stepping back.
By then, even the reporters were leaving, so Thies gathered the Gray hardcore to leave, too. It was, he announced, time to finish the campaign’s beers.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery