The embattled mayor of the nation’s capital sought a second term Tuesday, with many voters weighing praise for his performance in office against a federal investigation of his 2010 campaign that has cloaked the incumbent in scandal.
Mayor Vincent Gray faced seven challengers in the city’s Democratic primary, which historically has decided the mayoral election in the overwhelmingly Democratic District of Columbia. Polls have shown him neck-and-neck with his top challenger, D.C. Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who says the city needs a fresh start as the mayor faces possible criminal charges.
More than an hour after the polls closed at 8 p.m. EDT, no results were available, but the D.C. Board of Elections reported that turnout was lighter than expected. Chuck Thies, Gray’s campaign manager, said he expected the election to be close, perhaps decided by 1,000 votes or fewer.
Gray defeated Adrian Fenty in 2010 by tapping into dissatisfaction among African-American residents. But a series of guilty pleas in federal court have revealed that his 2010 bid was awash in criminality. Three weeks ago, federal prosecutors said Gray knew about an illegal, $668,000 slush fund that helped him get elected.
Gray has not been charged and insists he did nothing wrong, but five people involved in his previous campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, and his attorney has said he is preparing for a possible indictment.
Many Gray supporters view U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen’s office with suspicion and said it was unfair for prosecutors to accuse the mayor of wrongdoing without charging him with a crime.
“I’m disappointed of course about the election in 2010, but I’m also disappointed with that U.S. Attorney for taking so long to do what he’s going to do,” said Sandra Humphrey, who voted for Gray.
Some Bowser voters, meanwhile, said they backed her primarily because they felt she had the best chance to beat Gray. Joan Gladden, 65, said she voted for Gray in 2010 and would have stuck with him if not for the allegations of corruption.
“Do we have any honest politicians left?” she said.
Gray, 71, led nonprofit organizations and the city’s Department of Human Services before he was elected to the D.C. Council in 2004. As mayor, he’s known as a pragmatic, detail-oriented technocrat and sound manager of the city’s robust finances. The district has enjoyed a surging population, a booming real estate market and relatively low violent crime.
Bowser, 41, worked for the local government in suburban Montgomery County, Md., and served as an elected neighborhood commissioner in the district before election to the council in 2007. She’s a protege of Fenty, whose former council seat she won with his support.
Her opponents say Bowser lacks experience to be mayor, saying her legislative record is skimpy. Her most significant accomplishment on the council was the creation of an independent ethics board able to punish officials for violations. The board has found wrongdoing by three members of the 13-person council.
Turnout appeared light at precincts citywide Tuesday afternoon, and many observers have blamed the unusually early April primary for dampening voter enthusiasm and making campaigning difficult. Others blamed the candidates for failing to inspire. The candidates also included councilmembers Jack Evans and Tommy Wells, either of whom would become the city’s first white mayor if elected.
“I voted for Bowser. I held my nose,” said Eugene Gill, 52, a retired city worker. “All of them are terrible.”
There’s also the prospect of a competitive general election this year, with independent Councilmember David Catania challenging the primary winner in November. Catania, a former Republican who has championed progressive causes since leaving the party in 2004, spent the day shaking voters’ hands at several precincts.
“No one wants to vote today,” he said. “It’s a little bit disheartening to see the light turnout. It’s a function of people losing faith in the system.”
Gray’s chances appeared to hinge on whether he could turn out his still-enthusiastic core supporters. Former mayor Marion Barry spent the day campaigning for Gray in the poor, majority-black ward he represents on the council, where he remains beloved despite his 1990 arrest for smoking crack cocaine and other scandals.
Kirk Clay, 42, who’s self-employed, said the mayor’s performance outweighed his concerns about the 2010 campaign.
“I just received a brand-new trash can yesterday. It reminded me that this guy is doing stuff,” Clay said. “People kept promising the scandal was going to change my mind. It never happened.”
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
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