Mayoral candidates Robert White, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Trayon White participate the DC Mayoral debate at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University.
Mayoral candidates Robert White, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Trayon White participate the D.C. Mayoral debate at Gaston Hall at Georgetown University. Credit: Nathan Posner/Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Mail-in voting has started, and D.C.’s all-important Democratic primary is just weeks away on June 21. (Early voting begins June 10 at more than 30 locations across the District.) In a perfect world, you’d have read each and every one of City Paper’s riveting stories on the top races on the ballot throughout this election season, but in case you haven’t, we’ve tried to sum up everything you need to know about each one, as well as the wildest and weirdest tales from the campaign trail. Check back each day this week for a story on another race.

Maybe it’s COVID, maybe it’s the candidates, maybe it’s something else entirely, but D.C.’s 2022 mayoral race, the first competitive mayoral election in eight years, has lacked the fireworks of past contests.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who charged into the race on the same day, have every reason to present as strong contenders for the top job, and (to varying degrees) they’ve mounted energetic campaigns against Mayor Muriel Bowser over the past few months. But many in D.C. politics have confessed to feeling a sense of inevitability about the whole endeavor, even those fervently backing one of Bowser’s challengers.

There is, perhaps, good reason for that sense of ennui. Bowser has a good many advantages that have long made her seem nearly unbeatable: She has plenty of campaign cash (cultivated from connections made via many years in local office), plenty of name recognition thanks to frequent appearances on the national stage, and a record of managing the city and its finances that looks good enough from afar (if you don’t spend too much time focusing on the details).

That being said, she has clear vulnerabilities. The same Washington Post poll that showed her with a strong lead over her rivals also showed concerns about violent crime and housing affordability rising steadily, too. If people are angry enough about these issues, wouldn’t they take that out on the sitting mayor?

Bowser has managed to avoid major federal investigations or personal foibles like some of her predecessors, but many of her appointees and close confidantes have been tied up in scandals of one sort or another over the years. They haven’t rated highly enough to, say, get the Post editorial board on the war path against her and damage her reputation, but she’s still endured her fair share of negative headlines.

Herein lies Robert White’s case for why he can pull off an upset. He claims his strong fundraising proves he’s the better of Bowser’s two major challengers (he once claimed to Loose Lips that “it is going to be very difficult for Bowser to win” based on his number of campaign contributions) and he’s been arguing, frequently, that voters are ready for change only he can deliver.

He has tried to differentiate himself on policy matters from Bowser, generally staking out positions to her left on issues ranging from development to crime prevention. The at-large lawmaker has perhaps been strongest in his willingness to cut against Bowser’s calls for more police, arguing that the mayor has spent years pouring money into the police force without results to show for it. He’s been a bit less successful with his jobs guarantee proposal (which he has since tried to walk back a bit in the face of Bowser’s criticism) and his attacks on the school system’s performance. However valid his critiques of mayoral control may be, his lack of a clear message on the subject has given Bowser an opening to slam him as a flip-flopper, which she has done frequently on debate stages.

And there is no denying that Trayon White’s presence in the race complicates things. He’s running on a similar message to that of Robert White, telling voters the mayor is out of touch and overly reliant on police, yet he has taken a few more conservative positions (like a need for cops in schools) that overlap with Bowser.

The Ward 8 councilmember probably doesn’t have the money to build a citywide organization to win the race outright, but he could make it impossible for Robert White to get over the hump. The latter’s campaign has repeatedly insisted that it doesn’t see Trayon White as a threat to its chances, but the fact that Robert White’s team worked so hard to boot Trayon White from the ballot should tell you all you need to know. It’s never easy for a challenger to make a clear argument for change amid a crowded field (especially when the two candidates share the same last name).

Maybe the most charitable reading of Robert White’s chances goes like this: Trayon White will grab votes in wards 7 and 8, many from voters who might not have participated in the election at all if he wasn’t on the ballot. Neither Bowser nor Robert White were really all that strong east of the Anacostia in their last competitive races (in 2014 and 2016, respectively), so the real contest will be elsewhere. If Robert White can make a case to voters about the mayor’s incompetence on handling major issues, maybe he can overcome the advantages of incumbency, particularly if turnout ends up growing now that every voter is getting a mail-in ballot.

But that seems like a difficult path against a candidate like Bowser, who has, as her supporters are keen to point out, never lost a D.C. election. In a race nearly devoid of public polling, you can’t count out an upset, but a Bowser loss would certainly be a surprise.

Oh, and let’s spare a moment for the final candidate on the ballot, James Butler, just so he doesn’t sue us for inclusion here. The former advisory neighborhood commissioner got a surprisingly high percentage of the vote when he challenged Bowser in 2018 (though that was most likely a result of her lack of any serious challengers on the ballot) and his campaign has largely been marked by his complaints that he hasn’t gotten enough attention. When reporters did finally give him a look, they found he was courting support from right-wing media and was disbarred over complaints about fraud and negligence during his time as a lawyer.

Other stories you might have missed

Bowser’s Regret, And Other Takeaways From Last Night’s Mayoral Debate

Bowser’s Fallen Short of Her Promises to End Homelessness. But Her New Budget Gives Advocates Hope

Bowser Relies Heavily on City Employees As She Looks to Get Back on the Ballot

Trayon White Managed to Score Public Financing for His Mayoral Campaign, But Irregularities Remain

Candidate fast facts

Muriel Bowser

Title: Mayor, former Ward 4 councilmember

Age: 49

Neighborhood: Colonial Village

Key endorsements: Washington Post editorial board, Metro Washington Labor Council AFL-CIO, 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU), UNITE HERE Local 23, UNITE HERE Local 25, Democrats for Education Reform, D.C. Association of Realtors

Most interesting questionnaire answer: Bowser told the Post she opposed increasing density in some parts of the city, including changes to single-family zoning, despite her stated desire for more affordable housing. Nearly every other candidate the Post surveyed said they’d support it.

Robert White

Title: At-large councilmember

Age: 40

Neighborhood: Shepherd Park

Key endorsements: Attorney General Karl Racine, Washington Teachers Union, AFSCME D.C. Council 20, AFGE Local 1975, D.C. for Democracy, National Organization for Women D.C. Chapter

Most interesting questionnaire answer: White told D.C. for Democracy he still isn’t on board with ranked-choice voting, one of his most substantial breaks with the city’s progressive wing.

Trayon White

Title: Ward 8 councilmember, former State Board of Education representative

Age: 38

Neighborhood: Bellevue

Key endorsements: N/A

Most interesting questionnaire answer: White told Axios “my basketball game is on point,” quite the achievement for one of D.C.’s shortest politicians.

James Butler

Title: Former Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner

Age: 46

Neighborhood: Carver/Langston

Key endorsements: N/A

Most interesting questionnaire answer: Butler told the Washington Area Bicyclist Association that he supports extending the streetcar from its planned terminus in Ward 7 all the way to K Street, an idea even most streetcar backers have given up on.