D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gives the 2018 State of the District address on March 15. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gives the 2018 State of the District address on March 15. (Brigette White/The Washington Informer)

D.C. Council member Robert White will not run for mayor and, as of now, neither will fellow Council member and former Mayor Vincent Gray.

White told a local newspaper that he wouldn’t run because he has a 18-month-old daughter at home. Through his spokesperson Mtokufa Ngwenya, White blew off a Washington Informer request for comment about the race.

As for Gray, he simply didn’t file the paperwork. He said many have asked, if not urged, him to run — particularly, since the recent D.C. Public Schools controversy.

Gray admits pondering the thought ever since his triumphant return to D.C. politics in 2017 after being exonerated in a probe that derailed his mayoral re-election campaign in 2014.

“I’ve certainly been considering it,” Gray said. “I get asked all of the time.”

Without a foe like White and a formidable opponent like Gray, who says he still may consider a general election campaign, it appears Mayor Muriel Bowser will have a cakewalk to re-election — at least, a primary election victory.

Bowser may have opponents, but they are political unknowns: James Butler of Northeast; Quincy Carter of Southeast; Victoria Gordon of Southwest; Ernest E. Johnson of Northwest; Art Lloyd of Northeast; Fidelis Malachi Pietrocina of Northwest; Jeremiah D. Stanback of Northeast; and Northwest resident and college student Michael Christian Woods.

Still, scholars have long argued that citizens lose when there are no serious or high-profile challengers for an incumbent.

In a 2012 dissertation, “Primary Elections and the Quality of Elected Officials,” Shigeo Hirano of Columbia University said there are three types of constituencies — safely Democratic, safely Republican, and balanced — distinguished by the distribution of voter partisan attachments, and two types of candidates — high-quality and low-quality.

Hirano said the main objective was to elect as many high-quality politicians in office as possible.

Hirano considered the following: an open-seat race in a safely Democratic constituency; an open-seat race in a competitive constituency; a race with a Democratic incumbent running in a safely Democratic constituency; and a race with a Democratic incumbent running in a competitive constituency.

“In case 1, we care mainly about the Democratic primary, because this party’s nominee is very likely to win in the general election,” Hirano said. “So we want at least one high-quality candidate to run in the Democratic primary, and we want the Democratic primary voters to choose one of the high-quality candidates as their party’s nominee. As long as this occurs, we do not care what very much about the Republican primary. The same logic applies in a safely Republican constituency, with the party labels switched.

“In case 2, we care about both party’s primaries,” he said. “However, we only really need one party to produce a high-quality nominee. Since the constituency is balanced, if one party nominates a high-quality candidate and the other party nominates a low-quality candidate, then the party with the high-quality candidate is very likely to win in the general election.

“In case 3, if the Democratic incumbent is high-quality then we do not really need a primary in either party,” Hirano said. “If the Democratic incumbent is low-quality, then we want at least one high-quality challenger to run in the Democratic primary, and we want the Democratic primary voters to choose one of the high-quality challengers — not the incumbent — as their party’s nominee. Again, we do not care very much about what happens in the Republican primary.”

In a previous essay, Jessica Trounstine, an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, wrote that it’s a well-established fact that incumbents win re-election at high rates.

However, scholars continue to debate the degree to which incumbents are advantaged because of selection, responsiveness, or institutional insulation, Trounstine said. Research has suffered from causality problems at the state and federal levels, and at the local level little research exists.

“If incumbents win re-election because they are the best candidates and/or because they are responsive their constituents then the rise in the incumbency advantage can only be considered a good thing,” she said.

However, in her essay, Trounstine provided evidence that this may not be the right conclusion to draw about local elections.

“I have shown that city council members are much more likely to run and win after they have served a single term in office. This suggests that incumbents do not win re-election simply because they started out as the best candidates,” she said.

Next, Trounstine said she found that certain exogenous institutions can increase the probability of re-election and there’s a tremendous amount of political science evidence that incumbents gain experience over time, that they work hard to learn what their constituents want and to take actions in office that faithfully represent their voters.

However, she noted, some political environments undoubtedly encourage these behaviors more than others.

“I have suggested that we can — theoretically — measure the contestability of any electoral arena,” Trounstine said. “By determining the degree to which constituents can learn about the activities of their government and about available alternatives, and the degree to which voting is made less costly we can determine how likely officials are to use responsiveness as a strategy for re-election.

“The mailing of sample ballots, the presence of a local newspaper, and smaller populations all have the potential to increase constituent information while the mailing of polling place locations, holding concurrent elections, and establishing registration deadlines closer to election day increase the probability of voting,” she said. “In the presence of institutions that increase information and turnout fewer incumbents run for re-election and fewer win. I have argued that this is because these institutions increase contestability of the political arena; they create more knowledgeable and less predictable electorates. In such environments incumbents should only be able to win re-election by faithfully representing their constituents.”

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Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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