In the June primary, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser faces a trio of challengers as she seeks a third term. Two of her challengers for the Democratic nomination are sitting DC Councilmembers, including Robert C. White, Jr. and Trayon White, Sr. A third, James Butler, is a former Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC).
Name recognition will play a role in this election, which involves two candidates with the same last name. But in repeated polling voters have said they are concerned with the issues, particularly rising crime, housing and homelessness.
Meet the Candidates:
Robert C. White, Jr. (robertfordc.com): At-Large Councilmember Robert White was first elected in 2016 after an unsuccessful 2014 run. A fifth-generation Washingtonian, White graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and American University Washington College of Law. Prior to becoming a councilmember, he served as Legislative Counsel to DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Currently, White is Chair of the Council Committee on Facilities and Procurement as well as the board chair of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
As councilmember, Robert has supported returning citizens and advocated for minority-owned businesses. An occasional critic of the mayor even prior to the election, White has helped pass laws that imposed higher taxes on the wealthy, established paid parental leave and has advocated for shrinking the city’s spending on police in favor of alternatives.
Trayon White Sr. (no website) Trayon White was first elected to represent Ward 8 in 2016 when he defeated LaRuby May. White lost to May a special election the year before. A Southeast Washington native raised by his grandmother, Trayon White is a graduate of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. He said his fight is to get adequate resources to the places that need it the most, putting people over politics.
A former member of the DC State Board of Education, White has focused his efforts on raising awareness of violence in Ward 8. White has prioritized fighting gun violence, which disproportionately affects areas of the city such as the ward he represents. He uses social media to great advantage, posting constituent meetings and concerns to his followers. However, it proved a disadvantage in March 2018, when White said that Jewish banking family the Rothschilds control the climate while recording a Facebook video.
White has introduced bills to help curb gentrification and co-authored legislation ending the city’s practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid tickets. He recently cast the only opposition vote on a bill that would have required all councilmembers and their staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He said while he was fully vaccinated, he did not want to force a decision on anyone else.
James Butler (www.butler4dc.com): Former Ward 5 commissioner James Butler has a simple message: Everyone else on the ballot has had years to fix the issues they are talking about in the debate —and they haven’t. If the electorate truly wants change, he said, he’s the only candidate that can accomplish it.
He launched his first mayoral bid in the 2018 Democratic primary, coming in second to Bowser with about 10 percent of the vote.
Originally from Ohio, Butler, 46, has lived in the District for about 20 years, first in Columbia Heights and most recently in Trinidad, where he was elected as Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner (ANC) 5D03 in 2016. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science from Kent State University and a law degree from Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. He currently handles civil complaints before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the DC Office of Human Rights.
Butler was disbarred in 2009, after at least 130 of his former clients contacted the DC Bar about fraud and negligence related to his former legal practice. Butler did not dispute the committee’s findings and surrendered his license.
Butler focuses on public safety, arguing DC Police have insufficient officers and resources to deal with crime.
Incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser (murielbowser.com) is a native Washingtonian who was raised in North Michigan Park. She graduated from Elizabeth Seton High School before getting a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Chatham University and a Master’s degree in Public Policy from American University.
Bowser first entered elected office in 2003 as the representative for Riggs Park ANC 4B09, and was elected Ward 4 Councilmember during a 2007 special election, winning re-election in 2008 and 2012. Bowser was appointed to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority board of governors in 2011, holding the position until 2015. She won her first term as mayor in 2014 and was re-elected in 2018.
Bowser helmed the city during the pandemic, seeking to add to the police force and opening homeless shelters not just in low-income areas but across the city, including affluent neighborhoods. In addition, a great deal of construction has taken place throughout her two terms, including multiple real estate projects and the early completion of the Frederick Douglass Bridge.
However, Bowser has had challenging moments during her eight years in office. Bowser appointee Neil Albert, the former chair of DC Housing Authority (DCHA), resigned after reports that he had authorized contracts for a design firm owned by a personal associate. Critics have pointed to accusations of misconduct amongst MPD officers, “squalid conditions” at the DC jail and DC’s troubled crime lab, which lost its accreditation last year.
Public Safety and Justice
Public safety and justice have been front and center during the campaign, as an uptick in violence and crime across the city has left many residents feeling uneasy.
“I may be the only one —and Mr. Butler, perhaps— who is willing to include policing in that comprehensive approach,” said incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser, restating her goal to get MPD up to 4,000 officers and deriding Robert White’s plan to “streamline” police as a screen to defund officers.
Bowser touted the benefits of the cadet program, which DC has funded for the last several years. The program allows the District to hire students and residents, send them to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and the police academy. Bowser has funded incentives to attract and retain officers, a strategy, she said, that will continue to build a stronger and larger police force in the District.
James Butler said his goal is “to be the mayor of the safest city in America.” Butler said increasing the size of the police force is key to accomplishing this. He committed to bringing between 500 and 700 “new, well-trained officers” into the DC Police corps during his first term as Mayor.
“Our police force is overburdened and doing 1.1 million hours of overtime,” Butler said. “I know that those 1.1 million hours of overtime equates to the salaries of 500 more police officers. It amounts to lower response times, it amounts to police officers working when they’re sick.”
Accusing the Mayor in particular of fear mongering, Councilmember Robert White, Jr. said he would enact recommendations made by the District Police Reform Commission in the report issued two years ago and conduct an analysis of how many police are needed in the District, rather than aspiring to any “arbitrary” number.
“I want people in our city to feel safe, but more importantly, I want people in our city to be safe,” Robert said. “That is why my comprehensive plan first focuses on streamlining police resources on public safety so that they can solve crime, so that they can patrol.”
“We deserve more than just the police,” White said, introducing a focus on violence intervention “that meets the scale of the problem.” “We can’t wait to lose more brothers and sisters in our city,”
Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. echoed those concerns, saying neglecting a response crime has led to the 20-year high in crime that DC is currently experiencing.
“I believe that police is a part of reducing crime in Washington, DC,” Trayon said. “We have neglected violent crime in this city for at least six years, with zero money going into violence prevention while this administration ran the initiative that crime was down,’ Trayon said. As a result, there is a 20-year high in crime, Trayon said. “That’s not leadership. That’s reactionary.”
While acknowledging that police should be “part of” incident response, Trayon emphasized the need for the expansion of after school programs and a focus on supporting kids working with both local and federal partners to mitigate and interrupt violence before it happens.
The mayoral race has involved frequent discussion of housing and homelessness.
Bowser spoke about her efforts to combat homelessness and her CARE pilot program, intended to do intense outreach to people in encampments and find them housing.
Bowser expressed frustration with DC Council’s decision to halt her pilot program, which she said aims to clear tent encampments and provide stable and secure housing to unhoused residents of the District.
Robert White said his approach to encampments would diverge significantly from the Mayor’s current strategy by taking “a strong, empathetic and studied approach.”
He argued that the “quick fix, headline stuff isn’t working,” asserting that unhoused residents often don’t seek services due to a lack of trust in government. “If our Mayor spent more time talking to people who lived there and less time talking to developers,” White said, “maybe she would understand that we need not show up with police and bulldozers.” He said the District needs to get the residents vouchers, support the organizations doing the work and get out of the way.
“I have made it a major platform of my time in office to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring,” Bowser said. “The truth is that we had a pilot program to make sure that we could move people out of tents and into housing, and council members voted to stop it. They voted to stop it,” Bowser said. That elicited a response from two councilmembers; DC Council voted down a bill to pause clearings last December.
Trayon White sharply criticized the CARES pilot, calling it a “failed program” and saying that there is not a one size fits all strategy to getting people housed. White said the right strategies need to be implemented with the right people.
White said the District needs to talk to homeless individuals and families about their needs. “We have all these different people that we have shuffled around in all these different programs leaving them in deep despair.”
Butler said the mayor and council members were bickering over issues that they should have solved years go. “They remind me of three blind mice,” the former commissioner said.
Butler said his plan was to go into existing housing stock and have homeless residents themselves build units out into Permanent and Long-Term Supportive Housing, with the District providing wrap-around services such as mental health and addiction support.
Bowser defended her accomplishments in providing new housing and reducing homelessness, referencing the $1 billion invested in the Housing Trust Protection Fund (HPTF) since 2015 and $500 million in this budget for affordable housing. She pointed to studies showing family homelessness has significantly declined during her time in office.
“Most residents understand that spending money and solving problems are different things,” said Robert White. He said he would “stand up to developers” and demand workforce housing for those earning between $50-$90,000 annually. DC needs to protect affordable housing that exists, enforcing the building code in poorly maintained units. Finally, he called for social housing and community land trust as well as converting commercial properties to residential.
Trayon was sharply critical of the deployment of HPTF, saying it has become “a slush fund for developers,” and calling for an investigation into the way those funds were spent. “We can’t figure out where the affordable housing is, quite frankly,” Trayon said.
He said the District needs to re-consider what affordable is so truly affordable housing is available. Trayon expressed frustration with the gentrification that has forced out thousands of black residents from the city.
“We have lost 20,000 black residents in the last 10 years,” White said. “We are being forced out and gentrification is being engineered by the government.”
Butler said if elected, he would take steps on day one to ensure that residents have long-term supportive housing. He said the key to this is not continuing to “rely heavily” on inclusionary zoning through private developers but rather to go into the city’s housing stock and provide “deeply affordable housing” to residents and rent control for newer units. He said there should be a re-examination of the formula DC uses to calculate Area Mean Income that depends on the local data rather than regional income.
Bowser refuted criticism from other candidates and touted the District’s significant investments in affordable housing.
“Unlike the entire region, we have made a strategic investment in building affordable housing,” Bowser said. “When you look at the whole region, we stand head and shoulders above them all.”