Headshot of Attorney General Karl Racine
Attorney General Karl Racine Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

We’re 376 days away from the 2022 Democratic primary election. A slew of local pols must reapply for their jobs including the mayor, attorney general, the chairman, and six councilmembers. Not a single challenger has officially emerged, and, reader, Loose Lips is getting impatient. Conventional wisdom says it takes about a year to build and run an effective ward-level campaign—perhaps longer for a citywide race. Factor in early voting and the clock ticks louder.

But LL’s concern could be premature. After a year of lockdown, potential challengers may be hesitant to launch a campaign while some voters are still easing back into a society where handshakes are acceptable. D.C. is also just starting the once-every-decade process of redistricting, which the pandemic significantly delayed. Under normal circumstances, the Council would have voted on new ward and Advisory Neighborhood Commission boundaries this summer, months before the primary; in deeply Democratic D.C., that contest is decisive for most races. But census numbers won’t be available until late September, so the vote on redistricting could get pushed back to December.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Attorney General Karl Racine are the only incumbents who’ve filed campaign paperwork (though Racine has since backed away from seeking a third term). Councilmembers Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Charles Allen (Ward 6), Anita Bonds (At-Large), and Elissa Silverman (At-Large) confirm to LL that they’re planning to run for reelection.

Meanwhile, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie and Mayor Muriel Bowser have been frustratingly silent about their election plans.

LL spent the past few weeks talking with political strategists, those currently in office, and potential challengers about who is safe, who is vulnerable, and who is whispering about making a run. The most interesting action hinges on Racine’s plans, which could set into motion a domino effect for the Ward 5 seat—McDuffie is rumored to have his eye on the AG’s office. Add to the current uncertainty the fact that this is D.C., where multiple terms are hardly guaranteed.

“I think D.C. politics is very flat and in recent years the population has shifted tremendously,” says historian George Derek Musgrove, the co-author of Chocolate City and an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Therefore I don’t think anyone is invincible.”

Bowser has attracted a nominal challenger in comedian Rodney “Red” Grant, but the smart money says she’ll coast to a third term if she wants it. Her approval rating is strong, she has avoided major scandals up to this point in her second term, and her handling of the city’s coronavirus response, though not perfect, won praise from tough critics such as D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson.

Even Chuck Thies, a political strategist and frequent critic of the mayor, has to give her props.

“She took an approach that I respect,” Thies says. “An abundance of caution. She kept the metrics down, she kept the body count low, and when the body count was higher among African Americans, she addressed that and talked about long-standing inequalities in the healthcare system.”

Bowser also benefited politically from her acrimonious relationship with Donald Trump, according to Thies. As the District’s economy ground to a halt and protests over racial injustices and police violence persisted throughout the summer of 2020, Trump was a perfect target.

“Any time there was a problem—not enough vaccine? Protests in the streets? Restaurants closed?—‘Donald Trump did it,’” Thies says.

Until Racine announced in March of 2020 that he planned to run for reelection, he was the odds-on favorite to challenge Bowser. At-Large Councilmember Robert White’s name is also being tossed around. He’s shared his mayoral ambitions in the past and has strategically seized opportunities to jab at Bowser over the past few years. Plus, he just coasted to reelection in 2020 and wouldn’t need to worry about giving up his seat.
White tells LL in a text that a number of constituents have asked him to run, but he hasn’t made any official decision yet.

“I have to be sensitive to how intense a campaign could be for my family coming out of over a year of living in a pandemic,” White writes in a text message.

McDuffie’s name is also on the lips of those speculating about Bowser’s potential challengers and has been for nearly a decade. McDuffie did not respond to LL’s questions about whether he’s thinking about running for an office other than Ward 5. But he says in a text that he’ll “announce his future plans soon enough.”

“The question for McDuffie is ‘How does he define himself relative to Muriel Bowser?’” Musgrove says. “They have roughly the same politics: pro-development, while giving a nod to the progressive wing of the party but not in cahoots with it.”

As for Racine, now even his own reelection bid is in question.

At a forum at the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law in March, the AG said he’s “leaning against” running for a third term, adding that he was being vetted for an appointment to chair the Federal Trade Commission, though that has yet to pan out. He declined to comment on the possible appointment during a press conference in late May about his lawsuit against Amazon.

In an emailed statement, Racine says, “I love my current job and serving D.C. residents, especially by giving a voice to those who don’t always have one. I don’t have anything to announce at this time and am keeping my options open.”

LL will note that returning to the private sector, where the salaries can dwarf those of public employees, might be attractive to a new dad who bought a $2 million home in Palisades in 2019.

If Racine were to challenge Bowser and win, as Musgrove sees it, he would have the opportunity to shape District politics for the next several years.

“The defining characteristic of D.C. politics at this moment in time is flux,” Musgrove says. Bowser’s Green Team doesn’t have the pull it once did. Four former Racine employees are now sitting councilmembers, but as of yet, he hasn’t used those relationships to fuel a political machine.

“It will be interesting to see what becomes the dominant coalition,” Musgrove says. “Right now there isn’t one. Who wins the next mayorship will probably determine how things settle out, or it could lead to more years of stasis.”

If Racine doesn’t run for reelection as AG, McDuffie, who worked as a prosecutor in Prince George’s County and as a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, is the rumored heir apparent. He would likely boast of his legislative record on racial equality and criminal justice reform. Ryan Jones, a 36-year-old lawyer in private practice, announced an official run for AG in April. Jones also serves on the Mayor’s Commission on African American Affairs.

With McDuffie potentially out of the way in Ward 5, the floodgates will fly open.

Former Ward 5 Councilmember and embezzler of taxpayer funds Harry Thomas Jr. isn’t ruling out a run for his old seat. He told LL in March of 2020 that he would not run against McDuffie. Now he says that he’s “looking at the races,” and “keeping my options open.” For the moment, Thomas says he’s focusing on his work helping returning citizens find jobs through his general contracting business, District GC.

Former Ward 5 and At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange is making similar sounds. Orange tells LL via text that “a thorough analysis of all options in the Ward 5 and two at-large races will be examined.”

“By the way,” he adds. “The Independent At-Large race is very appealing and of course, I love [heart emoji] Ward 5.” Orange also texted a picture of a banner from his 2012 victory for an at-large seat. At the bottom, it says: “Never Give Up.”

Orange was one of the 23 candidates who angled for former Councilmember David Grosso’s at-large seat in the 2020 election. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson won with less than 15 percent of the vote. Orange came in behind her, garnering 12 percent of votes.

Other likely bids for the Ward 5 seat could come from Gordon-Andrew Fletcher, current chair of the Ward 5 Democrats, and Zachary Parker, the Ward 5 State Board of Education representative.

Fletcher was born in Jamaica, raised in New York, and moved to D.C. to attend American University. He earned a law degree from Florida A&M University and is currently an adjunct instructor at AU, teaching criminal justice and public policy with a focus on D.C. legislation. Fletcher has yet to make an official announcement about a Council run and says he’s focused for the moment on keeping his chairmanship of the Ward 5 Dems. That election takes place on June 26. He’s running on a slate with John Lucio, Anthony Roberson, Hazel Thomas, Sherry Pate, Juan Torres, and Sean Sullivan.

“I think it’s really important to win reelection in current positions before you even think about anything else,” he says. “Public trust and building a record, all those things matter.”

Parker was elected to the SBOE seat in 2018, and campaigned for progressive budget wonk Ed Lazere, who came in third behind Henderson and Orange in last year’s at-large race. He was unavailable to talk before press time.

Political observers speculate whether Ward 6 Councilmember Allen has the guts to challenge Chairman Mendelson, and they wonder if he has the charisma to become D.C.’s first White mayor. In an interview, Allen says, “There may come a time when [a citywide campaign] is the right move,” but for now he’s focused on his current job and the election in front of him.

“I hate to make any other ward councilmembers feel bad, but I’ve got the best job in the world and represent the best ward in the city,” he says. “My intention is to run for reelection. I love working with my Ward 6 neighbors to keep my city moving.”

Political observers say Allen is probably wise to stay clear of the chairman’s seat while Mendelson is still in it. Mendo polls well throughout D.C., including with voters in Wards 7 and 8, where Allen may struggle. Plus, Allen is likely looking at the beatdown Mendelson gave Lazere in the 2018 primary. Despite Lazere’s strong support from D.C.’s progressive community, Mendelson obliterated him by 27 points.

In Ward 1, Nadeau will be running for her third term after defeating Jim Graham in the 2014 primary. LL has heard relatively little about serious potential challengers.

Ward 3’s Cheh was first elected in 2006 and is running for her fifth term, making her the second longest serving local legislator after Mendelson. LL has heard of at least two potential challengers this time around. Petar Dimtchev, a lawyer at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority who moonlights as a DJ, says he’s thinking about taking another shot. He got the Washington Post’s endorsement when he challenged Cheh as an independent in 2018 but still lost by almost 50 points.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Monika Nemeth of Single Member District 3F06 may also make a run at Cheh. Nemeth is the former president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club (now the Capital Stonewall Democrats) and the first out transgender person to hold elected office in D.C.

Although Nemeth says she’s leaning toward making a run in Ward 3, she hasn’t dismissed the possibility of running for the at-large seat that Bonds holds. D.C. Democratic State Committee Chair Charles Wilson also has his eyes on higher office, but says he won’t run against Bonds.

Community and health activist Ambrose Lane Jr., however, is “seriously considering” a run for Bonds’ seat. Lane founded the D.C. Healthcare Alliance and co-founded the Black Coalition Against COVID. He says he plans to use the public campaign financing program (Bonds says she’ll raise money the traditional way because she does not believe public money should be used for political campaigns), and will focus on racial and
economic equity.

Lane, who is getting advice from Lazere and will challenge Bonds from her left, isn’t willing to say where the two-and-a-half-term incumbent is lacking. Instead he tells LL about several ideas to close the wealth gap: universal basic income, jobs for all programs, and tax increases on D.C.’s wealthiest residents. For example, the proposal to raise income taxes on residents making $250,000 that failed to pass at the Council set the bar too low, Lane says. A more appropriate figure is $400,000, he says.

“My goal is not to disparage Councilmember Bonds,” Lane says. “I have a great deal of respect for her. My campaign is going to be focused on my vision, and where I think the city needs to go. That includes tackling big problems. Number one on that list is eradicating poverty over the course of the next decade.”

This post has been updated to correct where Gordon-Andrew Fletcher attended law school. He received his law degree from Florida A&M University, not American University.