A generation ago, Joe Bowser, a city worker and neighborhood activist, taught his youngest child about grass-roots politics in the District. More recently, former mayor Adrian M. Fenty showed her how much it had changed.
Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser, 41, likes to say that she is a bridge between old and new Washington: a District native who can connect to longtime residents uncertain about the lightning speed of change in the city, and the heir to Fenty, who embraced the city’s transformation through luxury condos, upscale night life and a more affluent and less rooted new population.
After seven years in D.C. government, Bowser now says she’s ready to run it, bringing a “fresh start” to the mayor’s office for residents weary of scandal. She finds herself in increasingly good position to do so: A recent poll showed her running second to incumbent Vincent C. Gray in the city’s April 1 primary. She has taken pains in recent weeks to present herself as the only candidate in a wide Democratic field who can beat him.
Doubters say she’s not ready. They say Bowser’s legislative record is thin and that she lacks the management experience to wrangle a $10 billion city government or the turbulent politics that led to Fenty’s defeat after a single four-year term. They dismiss her campaign as motivated by a desire to settle scores after Fenty’s loss rather than by a vision to take the city forward.
Yet the Ward 4 council member had more money as of Jan. 31 than anyone else, and she has benefited from influential endorsements from Emily’s List and The Washington Post. Even as polls continue to show a deeply divided electorate, Bowser is betting that, come Election Day, hostility toward Gray will prompt voters to rally behind her.
“Two out of three people don’t want Vince Gray to be reelected,” Bowser told the audience at a recent debate. “And so they’re looking at our campaign very closely.”
Bowser was first to formally enter the mayor’s race, launching her campaign last March on the steps of the red-brick duplex in North Michigan Park where she and her four siblings grew up.
She used the location to highlight her roots in “old” Washington — the city of her now-retired parents, Joe and Joan Bowser. “I learned . . . right here on this block, in this house that our city is second to none,” she said that day.
As a young girl, Bowser joined her father, a D.C. Public Schools facilities manager, gathering ballot petitions and handing out fliers as he campaigned for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission seat he held for 30 years.
“My father’s motto is, if you’re going to be in it, you might as well be running it,” Bowser said recently as she cruised down Georgia Avenue NW.
The Bowsers were raised as observant Catholics, and Muriel, like her siblings, attended parochial schools. After attending Chatham University, a women’s college in Pittsburgh, she worked for State Farm Insurance in Philadelphia, then attended graduate school at American University.
She worked in policy jobs, for a time with the Montgomery County government, helping to manage the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring. She moved back to her home town in 2000, buying a brick duplex much like the one she had grown up in a mile away.
Four years later, when the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner opted against running for reelection, Bowser followed in her father’s footsteps and ran for the seat.
Higher office hadn’t been in the cards for Joe Bowser, who had retired to run unsuccessfully for a D.C. Council seat in 1994 after 40 years in his DCPS job. His daughter, however, found herself unexpectedly on the fast track to a political career after developing a rapport with her neighborhood’s hard-charging council member.
It was an alliance that propelled Bowser to power, then threatened to undermine her.
When Fenty won his resounding victory in the 2006 Democratic mayoral primary, Bowser had virtually no political profile outside her neighborhood of Riggs Park. But her work on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and Fenty’s mayoral campaign endeared her to the presumptive mayor. He endorsed her in the ensuing special council election, giving her an essential leg up among 19 candidates and leading her to victory with 40 percent of the vote.
But on the council, Bowser often found herself isolated. In a number of high-profile disputes, she found herself the only black council member supporting mayoral prerogatives that others saw as insensitive to city employees and longtime residents.
Even today, many of Bowser’s colleagues say they find their relations with her to be respectful but more distant than with their other colleagues.
“Sometimes with Muriel, I just feel like it’s all business,” said colleague Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), a Gray ally who joined the council on the same day as Bowser.
Bowser’s legislative agenda has eschewed cutting-edge policy prescriptions in favor of smaller-bore quality-of-life measures aimed at seniors, homeowners and youths.
Like Fenty, she has put a premium on responding to constituent concerns. But she also shepherded a complex ethics reform bill two years ago. She moved to restrict mortgage foreclosures during the height of the housing crisis and won backing for free Metro rides for youths.
Still, her legislative chops have emerged as a point of critique on the campaign trail. A recent assessment from Jews United for Justice, a progressive activist group, said Bowser “regularly chooses to study issues or withhold her support until it is clear a majority of her colleagues are ready to act.”
Defenders say Bowser’s legislative record is no thinner than Fenty’s when he ran for mayor eight years ago.
Steve Whatley, a business owner and advisory neighborhood commissioner in Shepherd Park, gave Bowser good marks for her responsiveness. But he said he’s torn between supporting her and Gray.
“What they seize on is, they say she’s too young, not seasoned enough,” Whatley said. “I believe there are a lot of good things she’s done for the community, and there are a lot of good things the mayor’s done. It’s so close there’s not a dime’s worth of difference.”
Two recent polls — one from The Washington Post, the other from WRC-TV, WAMU-FM, the Washington Informer and Marist College — show Bowser with the most balanced support across race, geography and other traditional political divides in the city.
Bowser’s supporters say that proves she has the best chance to unite the Democratic voters — two-thirds of them, by the polls’s estimations — who prefer not to reelect Gray. But the surveys show holes in her support — notably among black women — and the opponents closest to her in the polls show no indication that they would be willing to clear the field.
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) has questioned Bowser’s commitment to campaign finance reform, while Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has attacked her economic development record and relative lack of experience.
Not all voters supporting Gray’s other challengers can be convinced to support Bowser. Bob Summersgill, a Cleveland Park advisory neighborhood commissioner, said he is supporting Wells and considers Gray — not Bowser — his second choice.
“She wouldn’t be terrible. She’s good on environment, she’s good on gay rights, she’s okay on ethics,” he said. “But I think that we can do better.”
Bowser is making a big play for votes in the majority-black neighborhoods where Gray racked up huge margins in 2010. In addition to its headquarters on Georgia Avenue, her campaign has opened a second office in a small storefront on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE to better marshal field operations east of the Anacostia River. Polls show Bowser running behind Gray there, but she won a closely watched straw poll of Democratic voters in Ward 8, in the city’s southern corner.
Phil Pannell, a veteran Ward 8 activist who is neutral in the mayor’s race, said he expects Gray to prevail in the east-of-the-river neighborhoods, but he expects Bowser to “hold her own.”
Before a Saturday morning campaign forum on Gray’s home turf in Ward 7, Pannell said he noticed Bowser backers canvassing the neighborhood around the event while the mayor’s supporters huddled in the auditorium waiting for the event to begin.
On a recent Saturday, Bowser went from a morning forum in Southwest to her headquarters to two hours of door-knocking in Anacostia to a sit-down with a group of education activists in Ward 7. She finished back in Ward 4, at a playoff basketball game between Coolidge and Roosevelt high schools, where she breezed in as Gray breezed out.
Her pitches to prospective voters tend to be short on promises and long on questions. During her door-knocking outing, after wrapping up her “fresh start” spiel, she questioned residents about neighborhood problems and priorities.
She also sought to capitalize on her status as the only woman among the top echelon of Democratic candidates. “When girls stick together, we win,” she told one woman.
In the eyes of some voters, Fenty and Bowser are inseparable.
That made Bowser vulnerable as Fenty’s support eroded over the course of his mayoral term, alienating supporters who increasingly found him distant, arrogant and needlessly abrasive. “It ain’t easy being green, is it?” she quipped at a Fenty rally in 2010 — a reference to their shared campaign-sign motif.
For a time after Fenty’s 2010 loss to Gray, there were rumblings that Bowser might be vulnerable to a challenge. But after Gray was quickly embroiled in controversy, including a still-active federal investigation into his campaign, Bowser’s association with Fenty flipped back from liability to asset.
Now, she is trying to capitalize on those ties while simultaneously distancing herself from the controversy Fenty generated during his four tumultuous but productive years in office.
Bowser said she and Fenty share an “impatience for business as usual” and a “chip on our shoulder” about the District’s reputation for inefficiency and corruption. But she said she has learned from her patron’s downfall.
Ron Austin, who held high-level positions in both Fenty’s mayoral administration and Bowser’s council office, said Bowser has a “more relaxed” style.
“With Adrian, it was tense. You went to Adrian with a problem . . . you better have it resolved,” he said. “Muriel feels the same way, but she’s come up with a different way of getting it done.”
Bowser was coy when asked whether Fenty, who is now spending much of his time in Silicon Valley and did not respond to a request for an interview, will campaign for her in the city or publicly endorse her. “He’s busy,” she said. “We’re doing well, don’t you think?”
She insisted that her run for mayor is not motivated by a desire to avenge Fenty’s loss: “I think we’ve gotten beyond it, to be honest with you.” But others question her motives.
Charlene Drew Jarvis represented Ward 4 on the D.C. Council from 1979 through 2000, when she was unseated by Fenty. She is supporting Gray.
“Muriel has been an effective council member, but her mayoral candidacy seems to be infused with anger about Mayor Gray’s win over her mentor,” she said. “A mayor has to have a long-term vision, has to have an affirmative program rather than an angry retort.”
Bowser bristles at being called “angry” — a pet peeve, she said, that ranks with being called “aloof “ and being told she “just doesn’t understand” an issue.
“That drives me nuts,” she said. “That’s not being angry. If I’m angry, it’s a lot of people in the District of Columbia who are angry about that.”
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