In race for D.C. mayor, Bowser has yet to capture the imaginations of black women

Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 17

“Muriel Barry?” someone asked.

“No, Muriel BOWSER,” I said.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

“Who is he?” others wondered.

Sometimes I got this: “Uh-ugh. No. Thank. You. She’s all about the Gold Coast. Uptown.”

As early voting in the April 1 mayoral primary gets underway this week, D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) should be on a roll. She has emerged in the polls as the top council challenger to Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who is fighting for reelection amid devastating allegations by federal prosecutors that he knew about an illegal “shadow” campaign four years ago. And she’s been endorsed (twice) by The Washington Post, further boosting her standing in a crowded field of candidates.

But Bowser has yet to generate much excitement among a key group of D.C. voters: African American women.

In a Washington Post January poll of registered voters, 33 percent of African American women said they supported Gray. Less than half that number — 15 percent — said they were voting for Bowser, while an additional 14 percent said they supported Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large). Those numbers have almost certainly shifted dramatically in the past week, despite Gray’s repeated denials that he did anything wrong.

But as I traveled across the city, speaking to African American women of all ages, occupations and education levels, I found attitudes that still reflected those polling numbers.

Of course, no one should expect black women to flock to Muriel Bowser simply because she’s a black woman. But how is it possible that the daughter of one of D.C.’s first ANC commissioners, a successful, ambitious African American woman born and raised on D.C.’s old-school, door-to-door politics and minted in a progressive, prosperous new city isn’t doing better among women like her?

“I have been somewhat surprised myself,” said Anita Sheldon, president of DC Women in Politics, an advocacy group to promote female candidates. “We are a diverse group of women, and she seems to be polling higher among white and Hispanic women than she is among African American women.”

Two names kept coming up as I talked to African American women about Bowser, and neither of them belonged to her. The first was former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who handpicked Bowser as his successor in Ward 4 and who remains deeply unpopular in many African American neighborhoods, especially east of the Anacostia River.

“She thinks that by putting yellow on her Fenty green sign that makes her different? Nope. She’s Fenty in a dress,” declared one woman at a midweek mayoral forum near U Street.

The other name that bedevils Bowser?

“Let me just say this: Sharon Pratt Kelly. Okay?” said another woman. “We don’t need that again.”

The District’s glass-ceiling-shattering mayor, who ran the city from 1991 to 1995, was widely regarded as a disaster.

Bowser says that, no doubt, women are tough critics.

“I think that women expect a perfect candidate” and “they have the same expectation of themselves,” she said.

But they don’t have that perfect-candidate expectation of men.

Lord knows we’ve had our share of imperfect men in office.

Although Bowser and Kelly have little in common besides XX chromosomes, Kelly’s name gets invoked at political forums, outside churches and in online comments of nearly every story about Bowser’s campaign.

Beyond mayoral ghosts, there is something about Bowser that rubbed some women I talked to the wrong way.

“She doesn’t represent me,” said a home health aide balancing the care of two children and a full-time job. “She’s never been married. Doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t know what life is like for everyday people like us.”

“Passion! I’m not seeing passion and fire in her. I’m just not feeling her,” said another woman who prefers restaurateur Andy Shallal.

“I like her, I like what she’s doing, but she needs to do more, to be stronger, to speak up,” said Brittney Johnson, 27, a guard at one of the Smithsonian museums.

Not every woman could articulate her dissatisfaction with Bowser. “She’s not warm, but it’s not like she’s cold,” said one woman on a sidewalk outside a Baptist church in Southeast Washington on Sunday morning. “She’s just not, I don’t know . . .

Outside another church in Ward 7, where several women were talking to me after services, a man in a dapper striped suit was laughing as we talked. “Y’all women just turn on each other,” he said. “Don’t stick together.”

Maybe. In workplaces and at kitchen tables, women are sometimes harder on other women than they are on men. Or maybe women are considering a lot more than whether a candidate looks like them. Black? Female? How about just good for the city? Perhaps women are demonstrating a more thoughtful evaluation of the candidates on their own merits, rather than their biological resumes.

During a forum moderated by The Post’s Marc Fisher on Sunday night, Bowser reflected on the lessons she learned watching Fenty.

Everyone around Fenty was telling him where his weaknesses were, and he just didn’t listen, he just charged ahead believing he knew best. She hoped that she would learn from that when someone she trusts tells her, “Muriel, stop. Muriel, listen. Muriel, go there.”

Great advice, Muriel. Hear your own words: Stop. Listen. Go out there.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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