- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Two D.C. Council members will face off in an unusual contested general election for mayor in November, giving the candidates seven months to try to re-energize voters, who appeared apathetic and turned out in small numbers for Tuesday’s primary election.

The stage was set for the matchup when D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser handily won the Democratic primary with 44 percent of the vote compared with 32 percent for Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

The representative from Ward 4 now will face off against D.C. Council member David A. Catania, at-large independent.

Political observers caution that a bruising battle is likely.

“You cannot just assume because Ms. Bowser is the Democratic nominee that she will have a cakewalk through the November election,” said city politics watchdog and D.C. Watch founder Dorothy Brizill, who has been critical of both candidates.

Ms. Brizill said Mr. Catania has a “terrible temper” and a tendency to micromanage, while Ms. Bowser could be perceived as inexperienced and too close to the city’s unpopular former mayor.

“Both Ms. Bowser and Mr. Catania are what I would call ‘flawed candidates,’” she said.

Ms. Bowser, 41, on Wednesday acknowledged that polls put her ahead of Mr. Catania in the race — though he announced his candidacy only last month — but said she was not discounting the challenge.

Three-quarters of city voters are registered Democrats, but Ms. Bowser made a broad appeal in her post-primary remarks.

“We’re asking for every Democrat and everybody out there, independents, Republicans, to take a good hard look at our campaign, including Mayor Gray’s supporters,” she said. “We take no voters for granted.”

Mr. Catania, 46, is a white, gay, former Republican turned independent whose election would buck the city’s trend of electing only black Democrats as mayor since the inception of home rule in 1974. On Wednesday, he offered congratulations to Ms. Bowser.

“We just witnessed a primary focused on who should not be Mayor,” Mr. Catania said in a press release. “Today, we begin a discussion on who should be Mayor.”

It’s unclear how much the four years of scandal surrounding Mr. Gray contributed to voter apathy, but turnout Tuesday was low. Only 22 percent of registered Democrats, or 83,040 people, took part in the primary, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.

“That does suggest that there is a certain amount of weakness on the part of her candidacy,” said John White, a politics professor at Catholic University of America, noting that the election was mostly a referendum on Mr. Gray.

The mayor’s re-election bid, much like his term in office, was mired in accusations surrounding the federal investigation into a $668,000 off-the-books effort to support his 2010 mayoral campaign. Just weeks ahead of the primary, the businessman at the center of the investigation pleaded guilty. His admission that Mr. Gray was complicit in the scheme proved to much for the incumbent to keep his campaign afloat.

As the Bowser and Catania campaigns heat up, observers say, the candidates will need to lay out specific plans to distinguish themselves.

“I don’t think that she has really laid out for the electorate to see in any significant way what her administration might look like,” Mr. White said of Ms. Bowser. “How they are going to articulate their differences is unknown at this point.”

Ms. Bowser, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, was endorsed by former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. A former Montgomery County government worker and Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, Ms. Bowser faced criticism on the campaign trail over her lack of executive experience.

“Neither candidate has had the experience of actually managing a $13 billion operation,” said former city administrator Robert C. Bobb, referring to the D.C. budget. “It’s a transition from having oversight to actually being the person responsible. It’s a big step up.”

Mr. Catania, a lawyer known for his prosecutorial style and his quick temper, was first elected to the council in 1997 as a Republican. He left the party in 2004 over Republican leaders’ support of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. During his time on the council, he has overseen the health committee and was a staunch advocate of keeping open United Medical Center, the only hospital east of the Anacostia River. His support fueled a high-profile spat with the city’s chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi.

After an appointment last year to oversee the D.C. Council Committee on Education, Mr. Catania made education reform one of his top priorities. He quit his $240,000-a-year executive job at construction firm M.C. Dean to devote more time to the duties.

As the two candidates work to explain their visions for the District, Mr. Bobb said, he hopes the substance of their plans will be the base of their campaigns.

“I hope it’s a hard and vigorous camp on both sides,” Mr. Bobb said. “Whatever their vision is, I hope they have the tenacity to care about that vision and make that happen through the community process and not sell the citizens on a vision for the sake of being elected.”

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