D.C. voters, weary of the shadow of corruption and federal investigation that clouded the administration of Vincent C. Gray seemingly from his first day in office, rejected the mayor’s bid for a second term, choosing instead a two-term council member and political protege of the man he ousted four years ago.
Muriel Bowser defeated Mr. Gray in Tuesday’s Democratic primary in a race marked by light turnout. The mayor conceded the race shortly after midnight, in part because of lengthy delays in results being posted by the city’s Board of Elections.
With 127 of 143 precincts reporting, Mr. Gray trailed Ms. Bowser 44 percent to 33 percent. He addressed a thinning crowd that included supporters, city officials and council members at his election watch party around midnight, admitting that Ms. Bowser was able to attract more voters and congratulating her on a win. But he quickly turned to highlight successes of his own administration, vowing to continue working to further those goals over the next nine months that he remains in office.
“I think the amount of work we have done over the last 3¼ years has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Mr. Gray said, pointing to development in the city and expansion of early-childhood education.
“I think you all know me well enough to know that if I am going to be in this job for another nine months I am going to work extremely hard,” Mr. Gray said. “This will not be an experience where we will sort of just drift into the end of this administration.”
For her part, an ebullient Ms. Bowser reiterated promises to her supporters of a fresh start that included rejecting a culture of corruption and claiming the moral authority to lead.
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“Today signifies a resounding affirmation of the values we share. The outcome of this election is also an affirmation that the status quo is not good enough. We know we can do better and we know we need a fresh start.”
Tuesday’s developments seemed unthinkable four years ago, when Mr. Gray decisively defeated the city’s progressive young mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, who himself was turned out by voters after one term.
Under the 71-year-old mayor, the District’s reserve funds are at an all-time high, the unemployment rate rebounded from the recession, homicides dropped to half-century lows, and test scores among D.C. students last year outpaced those in virtually every state in the nation.
But voters could not forgive Mr. Gray for four years of scandal.
Shortly after taking office, Mr. Gray’s term became tangled in allegations of misconduct after a minor mayoral candidate said he had been paid by the Gray campaign and offered a six-figure city job to stay in the race and attack Mr. Fenty.
The accusations sparked a federal investigation that a year later resulted in a raid on the home of a wealthy businessman and prolific political donor who financed a $668,000 off-the-books campaign for Mr. Gray. In the time since, five campaign aides and associates of Mr. Gray have pleaded guilty in connection with the conspiracy — including the man at the center of the scheme, Jeffrey E. Thompson, who said the mayor was complicit.
No charges have been filed against Mr. Gray, and he has maintained his innocence and pledged to stay in office even if criminally charged.
Asked after his concession remarks if he thought U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. might have tried to influence the race with his investigation, Mr. Gray simply said, “I don’t know.”
The blistering allegations weighed heavily on the minds of many voters who came out during Tuesday’s election and proved too much for the mayor to overcome.
“We want a bunch of clean people running our affairs, so the fact that not only Mayor Gray but various other people in the system have been accused and in some cases convicted of wrongdoing, it’s not right,” said Hal Wackman, 72, of Southeast, as he voted at Eastern Market on Tuesday. “I’d like to see it get cleaned up so I’m supporting people that I think have high ethical standards, as well as competence.”
Among a crowded field of candidates, voters coalesced around Ms. Bowser, who at 41 years old is the youngest of the challengers and has represented Ward 4 on the D.C. Council since 2006, when she was endorsed by Mr. Fenty to fill the seat he vacated upon becoming mayor.
A former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member and fifth-generation Washingtonian, Ms. Bowser worked for the Montgomery County government prior to her election to the council, helping to oversee revitalization and community relations in downtown Silver Spring.
On the council and on the campaign trail, she 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.
Ms. Bowser’s most notable achievement was the crafting of a government ethics reform bill passed in 2011 in the midst of a series of federal investigations that resulted in guilty pleas on corruption charges from three council members.
“It’s time for another lady mayor,” said Alfredia Bryant, a 59-year-old retiree, after voting for Ms. Bowser at the Perry Street Preparatory Public Charter School in Northeast. Ms. Bowser earned Ms. Bryant’s support because of her plan to increase affordable housing stock in the District.
“I haven’t really seen him address that issue,” she said, referring to Mr. Gray.
The mayor came into office with a mantra of “One City” and a promise to include his base of black voters from poorer neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River in the city’s prosperity.
He came to elected office late, winning a council seat from Ward 7 in 2004 at age 61 after a career largely spent in human services.
Two years later, he won a citywide race for council chairman and earned praise for his sound management and his ability to build consensus.
As voters tired of Mr. Fenty amid a perception that he had become aloof, arrogant and disinterested in the job of being mayor, Mr. Gray emerged as the most likely candidate to take on the incumbent.
But in announcing his run late in the cycle, Mr. Gray spotted Mr. Fenty an enormous fundraising advantage and lacked the national name-recognition of his opponent, who could draw on donors outside the city for money.
Even during the 2010 campaign Mr. Gray was criticized for having few signature initiatives and a light agenda and for running solely on the fact that a vote for him was a vote against Mr. Fenty. Still, he won that primary by 10 points, 54 percent to 44 percent, against Mr. Fenty and faced no serious opposition in the general election.
Unlike with past Democratic primaries, Ms. Bowser’s win isn’t a clear path to the mayor’s office. While general elections in the heavily Democratic District in the past have been a foregone conclusion, she now faces what promises to be a vigorous challenge in the November general elections from D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent who has declared for the race.
Ms. Bowser in her remarks made an appeal to win back Democrats who supported others in what turned out to be a primary campaign that turned largely on personality because so little daylight separated the candidates.
“We had a lot of people with us today and a lot of our friends were with other candidates,” she said. “And it’s our job to let them know that I’ll be their mayor, too.”