WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser faced a formidable fight for a third term, challenged in Tuesday’s Democratic primary by two council members in a race dominated by crime and public safety issues.
During Bowser’s tumultuous second term, she clashed with former President Donald Trump and walked a public tightrope between her own police department and a vocal coalition of activists led by Black Lives Matter.
Her challengers include At-large Councilmember Robert White, who harshly criticized Bowser’s response to spiraling violent crime rates, and Councilmember Trayon White, who represents Ward 8, the poorest and most crime-ridden area in the district.
The winner of the Democratic primary is the prohibitive favorite in the November general election in the heavily Democratic city.
Crime and public safety have dominated the mayoral campaign. Homicides have risen for four years straight, and the 2021 murder count of 227 was the highest mark since 2003. In January, a candidate for the D.C. Council, Nate Fleming, was carjacked at gunpoint.
On Sunday night, gunfire erupted at a street concert 2 miles from the White House, killing a 15-year-old boy and wounding three others, including a police officer.
The Washington, D.C., campaign broadly reflects a wider dynamic playing out in longtime blue stronghold cities, with progressives facing off against Democratic traditionalists over crime.
Bowser, 49, campaigned on her experience and leadership and her history as one of the faces of Washington’s ongoing quest for statehood. She also received good marks for her handling of the pandemic, generally operating in coordination with the D.C. Council.
In the summer of 2020, following mass protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Bowser publicly feuded with Trump after racial justice protesters were forcibly cleared from an area near the White House. Bowser responded by renaming the protest epicenter Black Lives Matter Plaza and commissioning a mural with “Black Lives Matter” painted on a stretch of 16th Street, one block from the White House, in giant yellow letters.
Under pressure from activists calling to defund the police, Bowser largely stood by her police department, fighting public battles with the D.C. Council over the police budget. She quietly replaced an older white police chief with a younger Black successor and has pushed for funding to build Metropolitan Police Department staffing, currently at 3,500, up to 4,000 officers over the next decade.
In April, the D.C. Council’s judiciary committee cut $6 million from Bowser’s $30 million budget proposal to hire more officers, targeting incentives Bowser claimed were vital to attract good candidates. The committee, on which neither of her challengers serves, did approve a $20,000 hiring bonus to help recruit more police officers, something Bowser announced a few days before the primary.
“I’ve never been to a community where they said they didn’t want the police. Never,” Bowser said in a radio debate last month. “We need the police that we need.”
Robert White, 40, has a history of successful insurgent campaigns, having unseated an entrenched incumbent for an at-large Council seat in 2016. He proposed tackling crime through a massive public and private youth jobs program that Bowser derided as unsustainable.
Trayon White, 38, openly invokes the spirit of Marion Barry, the late mayor and council member who remains a controversial but beloved figure among many Washingtonians. A former grassroots community activist, White was a protégé of Barry’s. He has has opposed Bowser’s bids to hire more police officers and favors community violence intervention programs, something he says Bowser was slow to embrace.
In 2018, Trayon White was accused of antisemitism after saying a prominent Jewish family was controlling the weather in Washington.