Democratic nominee for mayor and D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser says that if elected in November, she would undo Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s current proposals for redrawing school boundaries, and has asked Gray to slow down the process, essentially to allow the next mayor to decide which schools children would attend.
A spokesman for Gray did not immediately return a request for comment, but the campaign promise by Bowser could reframe one of the most politically sensitive election-year issues for one of D.C.’s most motivated groups of voters: parents of schoolchildren.
Bowser also warned that her coming general election battle with council member David A. Catania, an Independent, would not be a “walk-away” win and in fact might be the “nastiest” mayoral fight the city has ever seen — a swipe at Catania, whom her campaign has accused of sexism in painting her as a puppet of male aides to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
Bowser’s comments were her most extensive public remarks in a political setting in weeks, and appeared to coincide with a return to more deliberate campaigning as Catania has begun to make inroads in appealing to Democrats.
Her focus on the school boundary issue also appeared to be a strategic attempt to stamp out criticism that she has lacked a clearly defined position on Gray’s proposals for the city’s first boundary rewrite since the 1960s. Each of the three competing plans would affect where thousands of students would attend schools, and the most radical option would for the first time eliminate a clear path for elementary, middle or high schools for each student. Admissions citywide would be based on a form of lottery.
Catania, who is running against Bowser as an Independent, and has been an outspoken chair of the council’s education committee, has charged that Bowser’s competing news releases amounted to a flip-flop on the issue and that Bowser may not have understood the mayor’s complicated plan.
Days after her April 1 primary win, Bowser initially listed a type of lottery plan as the first of many “very good ideas” she saw in Gray’s three proposals.
Four days later, Bowser issued a second statement saying she was misunderstood. “Let me be clear about my position: I will only support neighborhood school assignment,” she wrote.
Bowser’s new promise to reject any of Gray’s current plans was made Thursday night before a meeting of Democrats in Ward 3, where thousands of parents have paid for some of the city’s priciest real-estate in part to secure admission to some of D.C.’s most well-performing public schools.
“I want to be real clear about what my position is: My position is that any proposal has to guarantee that a family has a right to go to their neighborhood school, at elementary school, at middle school and at high school. Period,” Bowser said.
She also said that if the most radical options were off the table and the rewrite was only to deal with the decades-old issue of overcrowding in some schools, she didn’t see why the process “needs to be motored through in the next six months.”
“I have to tell you, I have some concerns about that, and I expressed them to Mayor Gray in a recent conversation,” Bowser said. “I don’t think it should be pushed through, and if there cannot be a reasonable way to relook at the current proposals — which I am not satisfied with any of them, not ‘A,’ not ‘B,’ and not ‘C’ – I don’t support any of them the way they have been presented.”
Bowser’s clear rejection of Gray’s proposals could help stamp out criticism from some parents’ groups. It brings Bowser’s views more in line with those of Catania, who first said that if elected he would “press pause” on the whole effort.
But Catania’s campaign Friday cast Bowser’s latest statement as another step in an evolving position on the boundary overhaul.
“She’s making it up as she goes along,” said Catania campaign manager Ben Young. “It’s unclear from one day to the next what her position is or that she understands the complexities of these issues.”
Gray’s office is expected to release a single, revised proposal on the boundary plan in coming weeks, and Bowser said there is a chance it could be “perfectly reasonable” and she might support it. But if it resembles any of the current three, she cautioned, “that will be up to the next mayor ... I would not implement them.”
Beyond the boundary issue, Bowser also made a swipe at a flier distributed by Catania in heavily African American wards east of the Anacostia River as “sexist,” for painting Bowser as a puppet of the inner circle of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty.
“We are not going to let anyone tell lies about us, we’re not going to go into sexist rhetoric that I’m sure some of you have already been exposed to, and we are going to conduct this election on the high ground,” Bowser said.
Bo Shuff, Bowser’s campaign manager, said the flier amplified a sexist thread that ran through the primary, when Bowser beat five men and another woman for the party’s nomination.
“Gray tried to make the same argument about the council member’s ties to Fenty so that subtly was there in the primary,” Shuff said. The flier is not overtly sexist, he said, “but it is direct ... that she doesn’t stand on her own, and that she is a puppet of someone else. Those sorts of comparisons tend to happen more often with female candidates than male candidates.”
Young, of Catania’s campaign, blasted the idea: “That charge is as empty as her record on issues that affect women,” he said. “If she wants to have a debate on who in their time on the council has put together a record on important issues, we’d be happy to have that debate any day of the week – but she won’t debate.”
Bowser has declined repeated invitations to appear alongside Catania and said she doesn’t plan to debate him until the fall. Still, her tone on Catania as credible candidate shifted Thursday. She asked the audience three times to make sure they turn out to vote.
“I’m asking you to come out on Nov. 4 — and every date between now and then — to help us seal the deal,” she said. ““You are going to hear a lot of ‘it-looks-like-this-race-is-shaping-up-to-be-one-of-the-nastiest-that-you-will-ever-see,’ but I have to ask you to not let that kind of rhetoric deter your enthusiasm. ... Go out and tell everybody that this is not a walk-away election.”