By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - District of Columbia city council member Muriel Bowser swept to victory over scandal-tainted Mayor Vincent Gray in the U.S. capital's crowded Democratic Party primary early on Wednesday.
Winning the eight-candidate Democratic primary is seen as tantamount to taking the general election in a city that is heavily Democratic. Turnout was low, at 20 percent.
Gray conceded defeat around 12 a.m. EDT (0400 GMT) as election results showed Bowser ahead 44 percent to 33 percent, with 127 of 143 precincts reporting.
"God bless you, and let's go to work," Bowser, a city council member for the past seven years, told cheering supporters.
In the November election, Bowser will face David Catania, an openly gay independent member of the city council who is seen as the strongest challenger. Catania is a former Republican who has backed liberal causes since leaving the party in 2004.
Polls had shown Bowser, who helped manage Adrian Fenty's successful 2006 mayoral campaign, in a tight race with Gray, who presided over an economic boom and surging population in the U.S. capital.
Gray's re-election campaign was dogged by questions stemming from the financing of his 2010 primary victory over Fenty. Three of his former officials have pleaded guilty to federal campaign financing charges.
Gray, the former head of the city's Human Services Department, has denied any wrongdoing.
Bowser, 41, had worked for local government in suburban Montgomery County and was elected to the council in 2007. Her main legislative accomplishment has been creation of an ethics commission, and she was endorsed by the Washington Post.
Bowser had argued that Gray, 71, was distracted by the possibility of being indicted and it was time for a new start. She had raised $1.4 million to Gray's $1.2 million by March 24, the city's Office of Campaign Finance said.
Gray had seen his lead over Bowser vanish since Washington businessman Jeffrey Thompson, a former government contractor, pleaded guilty three weeks ago to violating campaign finance laws.
Federal prosecutors had accused Thompson of aiding Gray through a "shadow campaign" that funneled more than $660,000 through friends and relatives to Gray's 2010 election effort. Gray has denied anything illegal took place.
Thompson's plea bargain was the latest in a long line of District of Columbia scandals that include the 2008 conviction of a tax official for embezzling almost $50 million and Mayor Marion Barry's drug conviction in 1990.
In other races, District of Columbia Council Chairman Phil Mendelson had 81 percent of the vote to 18 percent for challenger Calvin Gurley. Five of 13 city council seats also were being contested.
(Additional reporting by Lacey Johnson; Editing by Scott Malone, Leslie Adler, Paul Simao, Ron Popeski and Clarence Fernandez)