Her remarks Saturday and in an interview with The Washington Post indicate that the Ward 4 Democrat is designing her campaign to exploit Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s perceived weaknesses — his deliberate bearing and the federal investigation into his 2010 campaign.
“Will you go the distance with me?” Bowser, 40, asked a cheering crowd of more than 100 people Saturday. “It won’t be easy, but we need a change.”
She did not mention Gray directly but said, “Corruption has robbed us of our focus, our momentum, our need to think big and act swiftly.”
Bowser, a political confidante of former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), becomes the first candidate to officially enter the race, leapfrogging Gray (D), who could announce a reelection bid before late fall when candidates begin circulating ballot petitions for the April Democratic primary. Still more council members could enter the race: Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has formed an exploratory campaign, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has said he plans to run and David A. Catania (I-At Large) is pondering a bid.
Much of her campaign, Bowser said in the interview, will concern how to “manage the growth” the city has experienced in recent years — in particular, how to reconcile the anxieties of longtime residents with the expectations of newer ones. Census figures indicate that the city has reversed decades of population loss in the past five years, leading to pressures on affordable housing and employment.
“You’ll find that a lot of people who have lived here for a long time — white and black — feel like that the growth is pushing them out or causing prices to go up, the senior citizens to get hurt,” she said. “How do we manage it to the point that D.C. is welcoming to people who have lived here for five decades or people who have lived here for five months?”
A name Bowser mentioned only in passing Saturday, but one that will hover over the entire campaign, is Fenty. Bowser’s political patron, he served as Ward 4’s council member before launching a mayoral run from the stoop of his childhood home. After winning in 2006, he endorsed Bowser to replace him on the council and paved the way to victory for her. Since then, Bowser has easily won twice.
Besides being a backer of Fenty’s initiatives, Bowser also adopted some of his trademarks: a focus on constituent services over legislative heft, a shared political team and a campaign color known colloquially as the “Big Green Machine.”
Fenty’s 2010 loss to Gray, after his alienation of broad swaths of the black community, threatened Bowser’s future as a citywide candidate, but two revelations — of illegal activity within Gray’s campaign and a separate $650,000 “shadow campaign” for him — have helped burnish her prospects. Gray has denied any wrongdoing.
With Fenty settled in private life, Bowser is well positioned among potential mayoral candidates to assume his mantle in what could resemble a reprise of 2010. But while Bowser retains strong connections to Fenty — her campaign chairman and treasurer, lawyer Bill Lightfoot and businessman Ben Soto, served in the same positions for Fenty in 2010 — she has been wary about making too explicit a connection.
“I have great respect for the mayor, he’s a friend of mine, and we share a lot of ideals for our city,” she said of Fenty. “But I don’t think people confuse me with him.”
Asked about Bowser’s candidacy, Gray said he “refused to engage” her on campaign issues at this point.
Although Gray, 70, has not said whether he will seek reelection, he has rhetorically laid the groundwork for doing so. He has touted the city’s growth, a spate of economic-development projects and steady progress in some city agencies. His administration has also issued a five-year economic development strategy, a 20-year sustainability plan and a long-term affordable-housing framework.
Privately, Gray has told friends that he would run for reelection based on the progress he said the city has made. The Gray administration and some supporters said he continues to win the confidence of the business community and big-money contributors by delivering good city services. But detractors note that Gray’s grass-roots base — those who would canvass and help get out the vote — is fractured because of the federal probe and resentment that many of the 2010 die-hard volunteers did not get jobs and have been shunned by the administration.
Bowser’s brother, Marvin Bowser, who introduced her Saturday, said afterward that the biggest challenge for her campaign going forward is to get locals who have been “disillusioned” with the Gray administration to publicly voice support for her campaign.
Bowser indicated she would renew one of the central debates of the 2010 race, when Fenty’s insistence to move on city projects “as fast as humanly possible” was derailed by Gray’s pledge to move more deliberately to involve communities and interest groups more thoroughly in decision-making.
“Certainly, we want plans. We’ve had plans created in this District for decades,” she said. “But what people really want is action, urgency and energy behind these ideas.”
Bowser said she also intends to rekindle the debate over education — one that moved from center stage during the Fenty years to a less prominent position among the Gray administration’s priorities. The high-pitched debates that characterized the tenure of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee have been replaced by a less strident tone.
Bowser would not identify a particular policy she would pursue, other than moving more aggressively on schools issues and seeking to “connect the dots” among early childhood education, public and charter schools, the city’s universities and workforce development.
Besides a campaign agenda that appears to be heavier on governing styles than policy prescriptions, Bowser is open to attacks that her résuméand legislative record are thin compared with those of her potential council challengers.
Bowser was a mid-level administrator in Montgomery County government before joining the D.C. Council, where her key legislative accomplishment was pushing an ethics law amid a spate of controversies a year ago. But some critics saw the effort as less than thorough because it did not includechanges in campaign finance laws.
Although Bowser is critical of former council chairman Gray’s deliberation in running the government, she has been deliberate in determining whether to seek the mayor’s seat.
Friends and supporters said the nudges to persuade Bowser to run began in late 2011 and early 2012 as the investigation into the Gray campaign continued. But Bowser relented, telling close friends that she was focused on reelection.
“She said, ‘Never take anything for granted,’ ” said a friend who requested anonymity to speak freely about their private conversations.
Bowser listened to the refrain more intently after she was reelected to the council and embarked on an informal citywide listening tour. She became more visible outside Ward 4, traveling to other neighborhoods, including those east of the Anacostia River.
Businesswoman LaRuby May recalled spotting Bowser in January at an awards brunch in Congress Heights. “She was warmly received,” said May, 37. “I talked to her and told her I would support her.”
Subtle promises of support became more overt and targeted. May invited Bowser this month to the ribbon-cutting of Roundtree Residences, a 91-unit affordable-housing community built through the National Housing Partnership Foundation and the development arm of May’s church, Allen Chapel AME.
“It was absolutely intentional on my part to invite her to give her some exposure to Ward 8,” May said. “This is in line with her philosophy on economic development.”
Eric Magwood served on Gray’s campaign finance committee but has defected to Bowser’s camp. Magwood, 47, said he is discouraged by the investigation into the mayor’s 2010 campaign. “Unfortunately, I was one of the people on the campaign who didn’t know what was going on,” said Magwood, a political consultant whose conversations with Bowser began about five months ago.
Before deciding to enter the race, Bowser said she called a circle of her oldest and closest supporters. One of them was Fenty.
He had one thing to say, Bowser said: “Go for it.”
Annie Gowen contributed to this report.