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Harry Jaffe: Two running for D.C. mayor are good -- too good?

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe,D.C. Council,Vincent Gray,Tommy Wells

By Saturday there will be two candidates who plan to run for mayor in 2014. Well, one and a half.

Muriel Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the city council, is scheduled to announce her candidacy. Tommy Wells, Ward 6 council member, has launched an "exploratory committee" to test the waters. From all I can gather, Wells is in, so let's consider the field so far: Bowser, Wells and perhaps one more.

Don't expect an endorsement. It's way too early. But it's getting late. The Democratic primary is just more than a year away, in April 2014. For what it's worth, I like and admire both of these public servants. Each is committed but less nakedly ambitious than most politicians. Each shares the same potential flaw. So what are their prospects?

Mayor Vince Gray could complicate matters. In the midst of his first term, Gray is beginning to hint at his desire to run for a second. He could be floating a potential candidacy just to keep from becoming a lame duck. Gray has run the government well. The city's books are balanced, the population is increasing, the unemployment rate is lower. Homicides are down, as are lines at the DMV.

But Vince Gray is kidding himself if he thinks he can win a second term. U.S. Attorney Ron Machen is still deep into an investigation of Gray's 2010 mayoral campaign. Machen discovered an off-the-books "shadow campaign" that raised upwards of $650,000. Three of Gray's trusted aides have pleaded guilty to federal crimes. Gray's approval ratings are in the tank. There's as much chatter about Gray getting cuffed as there is about him getting re-elected.

Both Ward 2 council member Jack Evans and at-large member David Catania would make attractive candidates, but neither has made a move. Absent a "surprise" candidate from beyond the current crop, we have Bowser and Wells.

Bowser is a true, hometown candidate. Flanked by her parents and brother, she's scheduled to announce her bid Saturday from the Ward 5 home where she grew up. She now represents Ward 4, which Adrian Fenty used to launch his mayoral run. Bowser becomes the repository for voters who supported Fenty's failed re-election and those feeling guilty because they voted for Gray. She can run as ethically clean, since new ethics laws came through her committee.

Wells is even more pure on the ethical side. His ward encompasses the diverse community of Capitol Hill. He's put in years on the school board and city council, so Wells wins on experience. But his candidacy -- "building a livable walkable D.C." -- is too narrow in its appeal.

Bowser has proven she can attract white voters. Can Wells appeal to African-Americans in a city that has never elected a white mayor?

Their shared flaw: Both Bowser and Wells come off as too nice. I have never seen either show the grit or anger that might strike fear into a colleague, a bureaucrat, an opponent. To govern well, one must be able to engender fear.

Perhaps we will see that side on the campaign trail.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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