Three questions to consider as Muriel Bowser prepares to face David Catania in mayoral race


Democratic nominee for D.C. mayor, Councilmember Muriel Bowser speaks to media at the National Press Club on Wednesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Robert McCartney
Columnist April 2

If I were D.C. Council member David Catania (At Large), I might rethink my plans to run for mayor as an independent against the campaign juggernaut that is Team Muriel.

With Tuesday’s landslide victory in the Democratic primary, council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4) proved that she leads the city’s most potent political organization. It lifted her from 12 percent of the support in a January poll to 44 percent of the ballots cast in the election.

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

Sure, she had help from Mayor Vince Gray’s stumbles and U.S. Attorney Ron Machen’s investigation. Turnout was light, and a crowd of other challengers never gained traction.

But Catania knows that ­Bowser will also enjoy considerable assistance in the November general election. Democrats represent about three-quarters of the city’s electorate, and many of them will rally around her out of party loyalty.

As a result, Catania can win only by somehow discrediting Bowser with a large chunk of Democratic voters. His most likely route is to attack her for supposedly having thin expertise in government affairs and a shortage of accomplishments in seven years on the council.

That strategy didn’t work in the Democratic primary for either the mayor — who ran newspaper ads and a Twitter campaign describing Bowser as “not ready” — or council member Jack Evans (Ward 2). But for Catania, there’s little else.

That’s why it’s going to be important (and fascinating) to see how Bowser adapts in the coming months to her newfound status as the city’s prospective next chief executive. With that in mind, consider three questions:

First, will Bowser establish herself as an effective leader of city Democrats, and one likely to have good working relations with the D.C. Council?

She ran against about half the party in the primary, and she considers herself as outside the inner circle. Her relations with other council members are politely described as businesslike.

Second, can she let go of the defensive testiness she sometimes displays when she feels challenged or belittled? Few attributes are more valuable in politics than a thick skin.

Third, can she better clarify how she plans to deliver on some of the big promises she made to D.C. voters?

As I wrote March 9, Bowser has done well at outlining a broad vision for the District in a few talking points: Accelerate school reform. Build the middle class. Promote both commercial construction and affordable housing.

But I faulted her for preferring to set hazy goals rather than delve into specifics.

Judging by Bowser’s public appearances since her victory, she is off to a good start on the first two questions, but there’s no progress on the third.

At her victory party Tuesday evening, Bowser was relaxed, confident and on point. She was careful to praise or thank her primary opponents, including Gray.

Although more wary Wednesday at her first news conference as nominee, Bowser still struck the right notes. She wasn’t quarrelsome and showed flashes of humor, such as when a reporter called her the “presumptive mayor.” She responded, “I like the sound of that.”

Bowser also was appropriately cautious when pressed about how the council should treat Gray now that he’s a lame duck and how she’ll juggle responsibilities as council member, candidate and (many believe) mayor-in-waiting.

After digesting the questions, Bowser said she would behave “carefully.”

On the downside, Bowser was sticking to sound bites when it came to policy.

To correct that, she could start by saying how she plans to prioritize — and pay for — all the promises in her March 11 response to Gray’s state of the District speech.

Bowser described plans to invest in schools, rec centers, libraries, Metro, summer youth programs and affordable housing. Also, she wants to reduce the tax burden on middle-income residents and the elderly.

Voters have a right to know how all that can come together.

Bowser showed Tuesday that she is a maestro of political organizing. She ran a textbook campaign by starting early, raising funds, organizing volunteers and, above all, reaching out to voters face to face.

“I love precinct coverage,” she said while out knocking on voters’ doors before the vote. “I love campaigning. I love working the polls. It’s exciting to me.”

If she becomes mayor, the District need only hope that she’s half as good at governing.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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