Jaffe Report: Will Mayor Bowser Run Unopposed in 2018?

Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

And then there were two -- or perhaps only one.

Rather than challenging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Karl Racine has decided to run for re-election to a second term, according to sources involved in his campaign. He’s scheduled to make a formal announcement as early as Friday.

"Karl believes he has more work to do as attorney general on the local and national level," one source told NBC4.

That leaves Vince Gray as the only credible opponent standing in the way of Bowser’s second term. The former mayor and Ward 7 councilmember has been contemplating a revenge race since Bowser dethroned him in 2014.

Gray has been cagey about whether he would mount a challenge; he could not be reached for comment.

Bowser has been gearing up for a second term since she knocked off Gray in the Democratic primary and beat former council member David Catania in the general election. Sources in Bowser’s political camp expect her to open her campaign committee within the next two weeks, for certain by the end of the month.

The decisive Democratic primary is scheduled for next June, which gives potential candidates less than ten months to organize a campaign and raise the $1 million it would take to mount a credible challenge. Since the District has a vestigial Republican Party and Independents don’t stand much of a chance, November’s general election is a formality.

Vince Gray still sees red when he recalls how Bowser unseated him in the last election. He’s convinced that he would have cruised to a second term had federal prosecutors not implicated him in their investigation into 2010 campaign finance corruption by his close associates.

Gray maintained his innocence and he was never charged, but prosecutors alleged that he was directly involved in a scheme that funneled $650,000 in dirty money into his 2010 campaign.

In considering whether to take on Bowser, Gray has to convince voters he’s beyond the corruption scandal, raise a seven-figure war chest and carve out a path to victory without Ward 3, where the majority of white voters still associate him with the dirty campaign.

"He’s leaning against it," a veteran council member said. 

If Gray chooses to take on Bowser, their race would most likely take on a negative tinge. Gray could smear her with a number of ethical lapses, none of which have gotten much traction thus far. They include charges of favoritism in bestowing contracts and an inspector general’s report that showed her appointees were given special treatment in placing their children in favored schools.

"It would be negative from the start," says a veteran D.C. political consultant. "A knock–down, drag–out, kick-in-teeth fight.”

As grim as that sounds, if Vince Gray decides not to run, Muriel Bowser is likely to run unopposed. No other challenger with enough name recognition, political experience or gumption for the fray is standing in the wings.

"There’s not one soul, not one person out there," another councilmember said. "Not even a crazy person."

Bowser is hardly invincible. Polling has shown her support is wide, but it’s neither deep nor strong. She backed four candidates in the last council elections. Three lost and the fourth squeaked into office. Her home base in Ward 4 is in play.

Her campaign aides say her message to motivate voters will be "continuity." Since the District is "winning," crime is lower and public schools are improving, they should stay the course and keep Bowser at the helm.

"That’s the unthinking incumbent’s response," in the words of another District political consultant. "Most people are interested in the future, not the past."

Anyone interested in democracy would prefer the incumbent mayor compete for a second term in a robust campaign against a credible challenger. For starters, Bowser should be forced to defend her record on affordable housing, homelessness, public schools and development deals.

Without a challenge, Lord Acton’s admonition applies: "Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Calling on aspiring urban leaders: businessmen, activists, entrepreneurs, entertainers. Who wants to be mayor of Washington, D.C.?

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