Voters in the District will take to the polls Tuesday to choose a Democratic nominee for mayor, a process that largely turns on whether residents believe they are better off with an incumbent shrouded in scandal or that the city needs a change in leadership.
The primary election race, much like the first term of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, has been all but overshadowed by an ongoing federal investigation into charges involving a more than $650,000 off-the-books campaign that aided the mayor's 2010 bid.
But with a resilient local economy that weathered a national economic recession, improvements in public school test scores and continuing declines in crime, many Democratic voters appeared ready to look past the scandal and grudgingly offer Mr. Gray a second term in office.
The race was upended this month, though, when federal prosecutors struck a deal with D.C. businessman Jeffrey E. Thompson, who pleaded guilty to funding the illicit scheme on Mr. Gray's behalf. Government attorneys in open court implicated Mr. Gray, referencing the mayor by name and saying he was complicit in the illegal activity.
Mr. Gray, who has accused Thompson of lying about his involvement, has maintained his innocence amid polls that show the renewed attention on the scandal opened a window for his challengers to capitalize on his vulnerability.
Questions about Mr. Gray's integrity were enough to coax seven other Democrats to challenge him for his job. Most promised a mix of clean slates and fresh starts for a city in which three council members in the past four years pleaded guilty to corruption charges unrelated to the investigation into the mayor.
Polls suggest Mr. Gray has the most to fear from D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser — the hand-picked successor of the man Mr. Gray pushed out of office in 2010.
Ms. Bowser has represented Ward 4 on the D.C. Council since 2007, after council member Adrian M. Fenty was elected mayor in 2006.
She once trailed the incumbent by double digits, but surveys conducted since the Thompson guilty plea put Ms. Bowser and Mr. Gray in a dead heat.
Campaign finance reports filed eight days ahead of the election showed Ms. Bowser had outraised Mr. Gray during the cycle, with $1.3 million in donations compared with his $1.2 million. Although she entered the race eight months before the mayor, the numbers are notable.
During a rigorous schedule of often contentious debates — candidates met at forums across the city as many as four times per week — Mr. Gray's attacks on Ms. Bowser have focused on her lack of executive experience.
"This city is phenomenally further along than it was when we came into office," Mr. Gray said during one forum. "I think it's because I brought experience to this effort. I've managed a lot of people."
Ms. Bowser, a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and fifth-generation Washingtonian who worked for the Montgomery County government prior to election, helped oversee revitalization and community relations in downtown Silver Spring.
"I've been in local government for 17 years, on all sides — from the community side, from the legislative side and on the executive side," she said at a debate defending her experience.
Once on the council, Ms. Bowser introduced legislation to curb bullying in schools and to expand free transportation options to students.
Ms. Bowser, 41, has embraced the progressive legacy of Mr. Fenty, whose undoing had less to do with the achievements of his administration than the perception among some voters that he had become aloof, arrogant and disinterested in the job of being mayor.
As chairwoman of the Committee on Government Operations, Ms. Bowser was at the helm of crafting a government ethics bill amid multiple and overlapping federal and local corruption investigations. The bill included the creation of a Board of Ethics and Government Accountability but didn't go far enough for some of her colleagues, who criticized it for failing to address campaign finance issues such as the bundling of corporate contributions through the prevalent use of intertwined limited liability companies.
Ms. Bowser said she wants the District to be a place where longtime residents can remain while embracing growth and development.
"We love the progress in our city. We love the growth and we want to make sure we have the progress and the growth in all eight wards in the District of Columbia," Ms. Bowser said.
If Ms. Bowser loses her bid for mayor, she will be able to return to the council. Not all candidates have that luxury.
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells gave up the Ward 6 seat he has held since 2007 and which is up for election this year.
He often points out that he is the only sitting official in the mayor's race who did not take donations from Thompson's vast network of straw donors.
Eschewing corporate contributions, Mr. Wells has promised clean government and claimed the ethical high ground while campaigning at a financial disadvantage by raising only about $613,000.
"When they give money to these candidates, what do they want in return?" Mr. Wells said of corporate donors. "It's not your interests. They want more money."
Mr. Wells, 57, who grew up near Birmingham, Ala., has used his platform as chairman of the council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to push for reforms in the chronically troubled D.C. fire department and won the endorsements of the police and fire unions.
As a former child welfare worker and school board member, Mr. Wells promotes education and public access to transportation.
The council member has championed an array of liberal priorities to build his citywide appeal, including spearheading the marijuana decriminalization effort adopted by the council this year. He also co-sponsored a "ban the box" bill to end discrimination against criminals who complete their sentences. Both were presented as social justice issues that disproportionately affect the lives of black D.C. residents.
Although his campaign has generated enthusiasm, he has trailed Mr. Gray and Ms. Bowser in polls, and he has struggled to win the support of black voters.
Among the other mayoral candidates is Jack Evans, the longest-serving council member in the city's history.
Mr. Evans, chairman of the council's Committee on Finance and Revenue, represents an area that includes the downtown corridor. He has outraised every other candidate in the race with $1.4 million collected as of March 24.
Mr. Evans has appealed to the same pro-business crowd that supports Mr. Gray, creating head-scratching moments during debates at which the council member attacks his fellow challengers while defending the record of the man he seeks to replace.
Mr. Evans, 60, a lawyer with the high-powered D.C. firm Patton Boggs, is making his second run for mayor after drawing 10 percent of the vote in a losing effort in 1998 — a number consistent with his polling figures in the current race. He has attempted to separate himself from the pack by pointing to the value of his experience.
"It's easy to run a city when things are good," he said at one forum during which he criticized the Fenty administration for spending down the city's reserve funds from $1.5 billion to about $700 million.
"When the last administration got in trouble, they didn't know what to do and they spent down our surplus," Mr. Evans said. "You need someone when things get tough who doesn't panic and do crazy things."
The race also has drawn a handful of candidates with little to no political experience who promise a fresh approach to government.
Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American businessman, runs the successful chain of restaurants, Busboys and Poets.
Mr. Shallal, 59, has run on a platform that includes creating more opportunity for small and locally owned businesses to prosper while dedicating more funding to workforce development, adult literacy and education programs. These messages have resonated with voters but likely not in the numbers required for a win.
Rounding out the field are longtime D.C. council member Vincent B. Orange, 56; musician and promoter Carlos Allen, 43; and former State Department official Reta Jo Lewis, 60.
With little daylight among the candidates on issues, the campaign often has been personality-driven, with the challengers attempting to make a case for new leadership despite the city's prosperity under the 71-year-old Mr. Gray.
The District's reserve funds are at an all-time high of $1.75 billion, while the unemployment rate this month stood at 7.4 percent, down from a high during the recession of 10.4 percent in 2009. Homicides during the Gray administration dropped to half-century lows, to fewer than 100 killings in 2012. Gains in test scores among D.C. students last year outpaced those in virtually every state in the nation.
But the mayor has seemed stung at times by questions over whether his administration or those of past mayors deserve the credit for the city's successes — and for the estimated 1,000 people who move to the city each month.
The gains that have stimulated businesses and revitalized neighborhoods have been Mr. Gray's principle defense against criticism over the Thompson investigation, which included guilty pleas of four other Gray aides and associates in connection with the shadow campaign.
"People want to hear about the future of the District of Columbia. They want to hear about what we are going to do about education, what we are going to do to assure the fiscal stability of the city," Mr. Gray said in the first public debate after Thompson's guilty plea.
Since then, the mayor has doubled down his efforts to secure votes from his base: black voters from the city's poorer wards east of the Anacostia River that were crucial to his 2010 win. The maneuvering, including a prominent endorsement from four-time mayor and D.C. Council member Marion Barry, has left some to question Mr. Gray's commitment to his own "One City" motto that promised to unite the District.
It remains to be seen whether any of the Democrats in the field can capture the imagination of voters and persuade them to fire a chief executive who leads one of the most prosperous cities in the nation.
"We have a plan. It's working," Mr. Gray says in a video snippet used at the end of his campaign commercials. "And that's why I'm proud to be your mayor."
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