D.C. mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser has good vision for city, but could she deliver?

Robert McCartney
Columnist March 8

As a prospective District mayor, up-and-coming candidate Muriel Bowser (D) offers voters two major strengths and one significant weakness.

On the plus side, the Ward 4 D.C. Council member speaks clearly and passionately in outlining the right vision for the city’s future. She advocates good overall goals, such as improving middle schools, pushing for a new round of economic development and protecting longtime residents threatened by gentrification.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

In addition, unlike Mayor Vince Gray (D), the man she’s trying to displace, federal prosecutors haven’t connected any of her past campaigns to criminal wrongdoing.

On the negative side, however, serious questions remain about Bowser’s capacity to lead and effectively manage the city. She hasn’t been a forceful presence in seven years on the council. In discussing policy, she prefers to describe broad, hazy objectives rather than delve into specifics.

Bowser is running a strong campaign. She seems to have positioned herself as the candidate with the best chance of defeating Gray in the April 1 Democratic primary.

But it’s not clear she’d do as well running the District government.

“Muriel doesn’t have an impressive record in the introduction of legislation or the use of the council to solve important public-policy issues,” DCWatch Executive Director Dorothy Brizill said.

Brizill, a longtime government watchdog, was one of a half-dozen people I interviewed who have observed Bowser’s work on the council and described it as lackluster. The others spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid offending a potential mayor.

“Muriel doesn’t work well with her council colleagues,” Brizill said. “Many of them consider her a lightweight.” Bowser rejected the criticism and said it was motivated largely by her comparatively young age, 41. In an hour-long interview Thursday, she stressed she had worked with other council members in delivering her signature achievement, a 2012 law creating the city’s ethics board.

“You don’t get a big ethics reform bill passed that challenges business as usual on the council without having support,” Bowser said. “People say I have a thin record. It’s kind of a proxy for saying, ‘She’s young.’ ”

She also noted that similar criticisms were leveled at her mentor, Adrian Fenty, when he ran for mayor, and won, in 2006.

The uncertainty over Bowser creates a dilemma for primary voters who don’t trust Gray because of the dirty tricks and illicit spending in the 2010 “shadow campaign.” Do they gamble that Bowser would grow in the job, or at least surround herself with good administrators and advisers?

Or do they take a chance on one of Gray’s other Democratic challengers, such as council members Tommy Wells (Ward 6) or Jack Evans (Ward 2)? Both are farther behind Gray than Bowser in the most recent public poll.

In the interview and Bowser’s appearances at campaign forums, I have been impressed with her strategy for leading the District into an important transitional period as its population swells.

“The government has to break new ground to get ready for a growing D.C., 200,000 more people in the next 25 years,” Bowser said. “If we’re going to be ready for that, we have to have focused leadership, we have to hold our officials accountable and we have to be able to attract the best and brightest.”

Good stuff. But Bowser offered little detail about how she’d deliver.

For instance, Bowser hedged on whether she’d retain Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. She praised Henderson as “a good chancellor with great ideas.” But Bowser said she’d decide about keeping Henderson only after talking with the chancellor about how she would “accelerate investments, leadership and plans for each section of the city.”

Bowser also was fuzzy about how to overhaul the city’s middle schools, a vital project for the many parents wondering whether to stay in the city once their children leave elementary school. “It may mean investments in buildings,” Bowser said. “It certainly means making sure we have the right leadership in teachers in those buildings, and [the right] offerings.”

She said all the right things about promoting economic development while investing more city dollars in affordable housing so residents aren’t priced out of their homes. Again, however, generalities were the rule on some questions.

In discussing how to ensure that available housing money was being put to best use, she said: “Do we have the right people pushing those dollars out? And do we need to come up with some other ways to push the money out?”

Bowser has fine goals, but could she implement them? Democratic voters looking to oust Gray must decide.

At least we’re not worried she might be indicted.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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