BY RACHEL WELLFORD March 31, 2014 at 2:31 PM EDT
A cloud of ethics is once again hanging over a race for mayor of the nation’s capitol.
Now, a day before the Democratic primary, which often decides the outcome of Washington, D.C., mayors’ races, that cloud threatens to imperil the hopes of sitting Mayor Vincent Gray. Upstart challenger, Councilwoman Muriel Bowser, 30 years Gray’s junior, has overtaken him in the polls this past week, as she hopes to capitalize on the changing demographics of the city.
Earlier this month new details emerged regarding Mayor Gray’s 2010 election bid and a shadow campaign that helped fund it. Federal prosecutors have alleged that Gray was aware of and participated in the illegal fundraising operation that pumped $660,000 into his campaign.
Although Gray, 71, has denied any involvement, the news has already tainted the mayor’s reputation in the city and given Bowser a bump in the polls. A week after the news broke of Gray’s purported hand in the shadow campaign, a Washington Post poll showed Bowser surging to a 30-27 percent lead over Gray. That’s more than double her support from a previous Washington Post poll in January. Similarly, Bowser jumped to a 28-26 percent lead in an NBC4/Marist poll.
D.C. is no stranger to scandal. During his third term in office, former Mayor Marion Barry was convicted of possession of crack cocaine and served six months in federal prison. Two years after his release, Barry was elected again for his fourth term as mayor.
Barry, who currently serves on the D.C. City Council, endorsed Gray in this race.
“I know Vince Gray is a man of integrity,” Barry said on March 19. “I know that Vince Gray is not about breaking the law. And so I feel comfortable sitting here beside him.”
The issue of race is never too far beneath the surface in this place that was once dubbed a “chocolate city,” but has seen an influx of white residents. Whites now comprise 42 percent of the city’s population, the highest proportion ever. At the same time, gentrification has become a major issue, with new restaurants and trendy neighborhoods popping up in what were once traditionally African-American neighborhoods.
“I think it’s up to white people to be more open-minded,” Barry said during his endorsement of Gray. “Blacks are more open-minded than they are. Simple as that.”
Gray dismissed the comment, telling the New York Times, “I think everybody needs to have an open mind.”
The cast of characters fighting to unseat Gray includes four D.C. councilmembers, a musician/promoter, an attorney and a businessman, but the real race appears to be between Gray and Bowser.
Bowser has tried to build a coalition of white voters in the Northwestern part of the city and black voters elsewhere, along with women and young voters, who have been disaffected by the ethics allegations against Gray. Gray’s base is in the solidly black communities, particularly in Southeast, across the Anacostia River.
Normally, the winner of the Democratic primary is a shoo-in to become mayor because nine out of 10 voters in D.C. are Democrats. But this year, if Gray ekes out the win Tuesday, it could be a little different.
Sixteen-year D.C. councilmember David Catania, a gay former Republican-turned-independent, has filed for the ballot in September. And early polls show it could be a close race between Catania and Gray.
The Post poll found Catania and Gray tied at 41 percent. But Bowser led Catania by a whopping 33 points, 56-23 percent.
Polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.