Next Tuesday, while the rest of the world is focused on whether the U.S. Senate is going to switch from Democratic control to a Republican majority, the residents of the nation's capital will be watching to see who will be their next mayor. I have said before that there are three things in life which are certain: death, taxes and that the District of Columbia will go Democratic. No place in this country has a higher percentage of Democrats. They comprise 76 percent of the city's registered voters.
Since 1964 — the first time D.C. residents were allowed to vote for president (the 23rd Amendment) — Washington has always voted for the Democratic Party nominee. In 1972, George McGovern won only Massachusetts and D.C. In 1984, Walter Mondale won only Minnesota and D.C.
This time, it's different! In the past, the Democratic primary was in September, but on April 1 of this year the incumbent, Vince Gray, was defeated in the Democratic primary by Councilmember Muriel Bowser.
Gray's entire four-year term has been marred by an ongoing federal investigation by the U.S. attorney of alleged campaign violations in the 2010 election, in which Gray defeated then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Bowser's only prior distinction was that she was the handpicked protege of Fenty. Fenty chose her to be his ward councilmember successor.
Bowser's two four-year terms on the city council have been unremarkable. She is not identified with any issue or cause. Her legislative record is universally described as thin. Suffice it to say that this 42-year-old African-American woman got nominated because she was not the scandal-scarred incumbent, Gray. (Six of his closest campaign aides have been indicted and plead guilty.) She was not Gray. That was enough.
Bowser's mayoral opponent is a former Republican turned independent, David Catania. He has been on the city council for 17 years. He is smart, conscientious and very well-informed. Recently he has made public education his No. 1 cause.
Catania does not fit your typical picture of a D.C. politician. First of all, he is white. The present city council does have six white members out of 13, but there has never been a white mayor in D.C. Only one time in D.C.'s political history has there been a white candidate with a citywide following, and he finished a distant fourth in a five-person field. (That was David A. Clarke in 1990.)
Catania is also openly gay. When asked at a recent campaign debate whom he dressed up as for Halloween when a child, he proudly said "Wonder Woman." Catania has attempted to assemble a diverse coalition of disaffected white Democrats, independents (there are 76,708 of them) and Republicans (27,989). Independents in the past have not participated in great numbers in general elections for mayor because the outcome was determined in the Democratic primary. This is not the case in this election, and Catania is counting on a large number of independents to vote for him. He also hopes to get a significant number of black Democrats who are not enthusiastic about Bowser. If he should win, though, it will be because droves of white Democrats voted for the non-Democratic candidate.
The main problem is that D.C. is a big Democratic town. As of Sept. 30, there are 348,446 registered Democratic voters. I project that about 40 percent will vote on Nov. 4, and voting for anybody but a Democrat will take a major behavior modification.
Catania is not helped by a widespread familiarity with his temperament. He can be both in private and in public ill-mannered and abrupt. A recent Washington Post article included comments by former staff members recalling his sometimes abusive manner.
There is a third candidate in the race — Carol Schwartz. She is a former school board member and councilmember. She is white and a former Republican. This is her fifth try for mayor. One time she did get 42 percent of the vote, running against Barry. My feeling is she cuts into Catania's potential vote.
Bowser is comfortably ahead in the polls, but nervous. She even had to secure an endorsement from the president to bolster her candidacy. (He got 91 percent and 92 percent of the vote when he ran for president.) The Washington Post heartily endorsed Bowser and that should definitely help her with undecided white Democrats.
Bowser is not anything to write home about. She has gained in confidence and performance as the campaign has evolved, but many have called her an empty suit and/or unformed, at best. Hopefully, if elected, she will grow in office.
Plotkin is a political analyst and a contributor to the BBC on American politics.