Bitter Washington DC mayoral election clouded by corruption claims
• Mayor Vincent Gray faces possible federal indictment
• Muriel Bowser takes slim lead in Democratic primary polls
Dan Roberts in Washington
Sunday 30 March 2014 12.58 EDT
Just days before voters in Washington go to the polls to select their next mayor, the latest corruption scandal to hit the city boiled over in a television studio as Democratic mayoral candidates exchanged angry taunts during their final broadcast debate.
The incumbent, Vincent Gray, faces possible indictment by federal prosecutors over allegations he received $400,000 (£240,000) in illegal campaign contributions from the billionaire city contractor Jeffrey Thompson, who was codenamed “uncle Earl” by the mayor.
Though Gray denies knowledge of their alleged 2010 deal, Thompson's decision earlier this month to plead guilty to a conspiracy to seek commercial favours from the mayor has cast a shadow over Tuesday's all-important Democratic primary, the winner of which will almost certainly win November's general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Judging by the latest polling data, an electorate numbed by a series of scandals – including three corruption prosecutions against members of the city council and prior guilty pleas by three campaign staff in the Thompson investigation – has finally begun to turn against the previously Teflon-coated Gray.
A Washington Post poll released on Tuesday showed rival Democratic candidate Muriel Bowser has overtaken the mayor – who previously drew rock-solid support from poorer African American wards in the east of the city – and is poised to become the second black woman to take charge of Washington DC, after the 1990s mayor Sharon Pratt.
Gray rightly points out that Bowser's lead is still within statistical margins of error, but during heated clashes at Wednesday night's debate all four leading candidates agreed on one thing: the corruption scandal is in danger of eclipsing the many other issues facing the city.
“It's unfortunate the way this race has been characterised: it's 'Vote for Vince Gray or vote for someone against Vince Gray',” said Jack Evans, a leading white candidate, who claims the mayor should be judged innocent until proven guilty. “It should be 'Vote for the best candidate', not 'Get behind someone who can beat the mayor'.”
But Bowser and fellow anti-Gray candidate Tommy Wells are adamant that US attorney Ron Machen is more than justified in advancing his corruption investigation at such a sensitive moment.
“Look at the polls, people know there might be an indictment, they know the mayor deserves a presumption of innocence but still they say they don't trust this mayor,” said Bowser.
“If we are to get beyond this scandal, residents of the District of Columbia say they want a fresh start … [they] have a right to say if they want to nominate somebody who is going to be on trial this summer."
Gray's camp argues that Thompson was encouraged by prosecutors to sign a “sweetheart deal”, in order to avoid a long prison sentence, and claims the contractor's “lies” about the nature of his relationship with the mayor are compounded by politically motivated rhetoric from opponents.
“[They] have a vested interest in trying to say that was has been alleged is correct,” Mayor Gray said during the debate. “They want my job.”
He added: “I didn't do anything. I have said it now 433 times.”
Speaking outside the TV studio before the debate, Bowser's campaign manager, Bo Shuff, denied her team was making an explicit issue of the federal corruption allegations, but accepted that the issue was nonetheless foremost in many voters' minds.
“No matter how it ends up, the District residents don't trust him,” Shuff told the Guardian in an interview.
“The voters of DC want a leader who has a vision for the future, that is getting ready for the growth that we anticipate, planning for big ideas and and big visions and is unencumbered by a cloud of doubt.”
Bowser's campaign has baggage of its own, however, in the shape of the divisive former mayor Adrian Fenty, a mentor of Bowser who was popular among many white voters for his pursuit of aggressive school reform but was ousted by Gray after hitting financial problems that were blamed for exacerbating the city's economic divide.
Though all the major protagonists in the election are African American, the clash between Fenty's heirs and Gray supporters like the former mayor Marion Barry also speaks to bitter racial divide running beneath much of the political power struggles.
Growing economic inequality and rapid gentrification worries many longstanding African American residents of Washington, who are losing not just their electoral majority in the city but, for some, their ability to afford to live inside the District at all.
“This city, as most urban cities, is divided racially and class-wise. I didn’t create it. Vince Gray didn’t create that … but the reality is that Washington has become a city of the haves and have-nots,” said Barry recently. “I think it’s up to white people to be more open-minded. Blacks are more open-minded than they are.”
Gray claims to be more of a unifying figure than his four-term predecessor, who was infamously caught by police smoking crack cocaine, but it is noticeable that almost all his recent campaigning has been focused on poorer African American areas such as Anacostia, where he was launching a new hospital initiative on Wednesday.
The racially segregated wards across the Anacostia river from downtown DC are a world away from the leafy north-west suburbs where Wednesday's TV debate was held. Modernising candidates like Bowser, from more mixed parts of the city, know they need to do more to soften the divide if they are to be elected.
“We approach government with the same impatience and we have to look to the future, not the past,” Bowser said when asked, during the debate, about her similarity to Fenty.
“[But] Adrian was governing at a time where he invested in rising all boats. Certainly we needed that kick start, but now we are at a point in our city when we have to look to see everyone who has been left behind in that process and our prosperity allows us to do that.”
Bowser remains surprisingly unpopular among African American women, and if she is successful in the election an early flashpoint could come over a decision regarding whether to keep Gray's education commissioner, who is viewed as more inclusive than Fenty's was by some, and less aggressively reformist by others.
Few argue DC schools do not need reform, but with the gap in educational attainment between African American and white children doubling over the last seven years, the way in which investment is prioritised remains deeply divisive.
Such debates over inequality have parallels in gentrifying cities around the world, but for many outside Washington the corruption scandals are likely to dominate next week's primary and November's general election.
Gray's last-minute decision to seek re-election despite the ongoing federal investigation – dubbed a “debacle” by rival candidate Tommy Wells – may prove to be the most divisive issue of all.
This article was amended on Sunday 30 March, to correct a factual error.