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Bowser: Debates won't decide DC mayoral election

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Photo - Washington Democratic Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser answers questions during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, June 20, 2014. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
Washington Democratic Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser answers questions during an interview with the Associated Press in Washington, June 20, 2014. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic mayoral nominee in the nation's capital said Friday that she won't persuade voters by debating her opponents or detailing her policy differences with them.

Instead, Muriel Bowser said in an interview with Associated Press reporters and editors that voters will support her because she's engaging with them one-on-one and talking about her vision for the District of Columbia. Since she defeated incumbent Vincent Gray in the April 1 primary, she said she's been reaching out to Democrats who backed him or other candidates.

"You think that these debates are how people decide," Bowser said, referring to journalists and political insiders. "Really, they decide when you call them up and you talk to them about what they want for the city and what your vision is."

Bowser tapped into an electorate weary of the scandals surrounding Gray, whose 2010 campaign has been the subject of a long-running federal investigation. Five people associated with the campaign have pleaded guilty to felonies, and while Gray has not been charged with a crime, prosecutors have said he knew about an illegal slush fund that helped him get elected.

Three out of four voters in the city are Democrats, making Bowser the favorite to win in November. Her most formidable challenger thus far is fellow D.C. Councilmember David Catania, an independent. Former councilmember Carol Schwartz, also an independent, recently entered the race. Bowser is black, while Catania and Schwartz are white and former Republicans. In 40 years of self-rule, all District mayors have been African-American Democrats.

Catania, who has championed many progressive causes since leaving the GOP, believes his record stacks up favorably against Bowser's. Her campaign has mostly ignored him, agreeing to debates only after the ballot is finalized in September.

She stuck to that strategy during Friday's hour-long interview, never referring to Catania by name and only criticizing him by implication.

"I don't know who's going to be in the race, actually," she said, "so I'm not sure why you're asking me about one person."

Ben Young, Catania's campaign manager, said Bowser was doing voters a disservice by assuming that policy differences would not decide the race.

"I think she's right that debating is not going to win her this election," he said.

Bowser, 41, is a protege of former mayor Adrian Fenty, whom Gray defeated in 2010. Fenty's signature accomplishment was a mayoral takeover of the school system, and his schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, implemented a rigorous teacher-evaluation system that has led to hundreds of educators being fired for poor performance.

Bowser announced this month that she would retain Rhee's successor, Kaya Henderson. Catania, who chairs the council's education committee and has aggressively courted support from public school parents, has not committed to keeping her.

"I think the voters who are concerned about going backwards with schools, they should be concerned about that," she said.

Bowser said she wants the city to be a national leader in education, one of many areas in which she feels the next mayor can enhance Washington's reputation. Previous administrations have been dogged by bureaucratic dysfunction, fiscal instability and corruption.

"We have been getting our services in order, our fiscal house in order, our ethical house in order, and now, in so many ways, we're moving in the right direction. So our mayor, the next mayor will be able to focus on, how do we really assert ourselves?" she said. "How do we attract attention for the right reasons?"

Bowser called for Gray's resignation in 2012, as the crimes committed by his campaign aides were aired in court. During the primary campaign, she portrayed him as unfit for office, and their relationship has been awkward since her victory. The mayor has yet to endorse her. She said she'd welcome his endorsement and urged him to set their past differences aside.

"When you do this for a living, you accept what the voters' verdict is and you move on," she said. "That's how I would expect to act if it were me in the other situation, and that's how I think people expect the leader of the party to act as well."

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols .

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