Thies: Race and the Race for D.C. Mayor

The Democratic primary for D.C. mayor is heating up, but do not expect to hear an announcement from Mayor Gray anytime soon. Throughout his political career he has annoyed strategists and tormented the media by entering elections late in the game. Gray has run three times for three different offices and won all three. His timing may frustrate watchers, but it has worked perfectly.

Interestingly, Gray has never faced reelection. Next year would be his first such bid.

Later this week, D.C. Council member Jack Evans will enter the race for mayor. Evans joins Council members Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells as declared candidates seeking the District’s top post.

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Given the recent series of citywide elections, all of which were decided by an electorate split along racial lines, the arrival of Evans to the contest creates an interesting dynamic.

Evans, Bowser and Wells are on a trajectory to divvy up the white vote.

Bowser seeks to assemble a Fenty-like coalition, which is incomplete without a significant white bloc.

Evans’s base is Ward 2; Georgetown, Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle and other largely white neighborhoods.

Wells’s base is Ward 6; Capitol Hill, Southwest, Eastern Market and other largely white neighborhoods.

Evans and Wells represent neighborhoods with black residents, but neither has won an election versus a viable black opponent or, perhaps more daunting, a black incumbent.

In 2014, white citywide mayoral candidates will be hard-pressed to garner black votes. Look no further than the recent special election for At-Large Council. Anita Bonds message could easily be summed up as “Vote for me, I’m black.” In fact she uttered nearly those very words during a radio debate: “I am an African American, black candidate, and I am proud of having that as my issue,” said Bonds.

I don’t even know what that means, but it worked. Whites primarily split their votes between three white candidates; blacks unified and backed Bonds in overwhelming numbers.

Which brings us back to the 2014 field of mayoral contestants and the incumbent.

Gray has to be liking the current dynamic. So far, the only candidate in the race who could peel away some of his base is Bowser, who represents Ward 4. She won handily there in 2007, 2008 and 2012. Ward 4 is a vote-rich battleground.

Bowser, however, is not well known outside her ward and in many of the low- and middle-income black neighborhoods where Gray ran up significant vote totals in 2010.

Meanwhile, the presence of Evans, Wells and Bowser will almost certainly guarantee that whites will not vote as a bloc, as they did for Fenty in 2010.

As such, for Evans, Wells and Bowser the immediate task must be to winnow the field. While it may appear to be too early in the race to be thinking along such lines, now is the time to undo an opponent. A candidate that is allowed to linger in the race may cross the finish line as an also-ran, but his or her tally could include votes that are the difference between first and second place.

For Gray, reelection is by no means assured, but the road map for getting there is becoming clearer. Of course, he has to play to win, and only Gray knows if and when he plans to get in the game.

Stay tuned.

Chuck Thies is a political, communications and advocacy consultant. From 1998 to 2010 his portfolio included District of Columbia politics. Chuck has worked on national projects and internationally in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, China and Mexico. If you are daring, follow him on Twitter: @ChuckThies.

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