“I think the best training for being mayor anyone can have is being a ward council member,” Muriel Bowser, the District’s Democratic mayoral nominee, recently told me. “You have to show leadership and deliver on your promises. In order to do that, you have to understand every aspect of government.”
She ticked off various kinds of constituent requests received during her seven years representing Ward 4 on the D.C. Council. Dealing with them, “gives me a perfect view of directors that are working and aren’t and of how resources are getting used [or] getting wasted, and a clear view of what it takes to move an agenda.
“You can extrapolate that to the entire city,” Bowser added.
Applaud her for an interesting response to concerns about her management experience. But does responding to constituent complaints really compare with operating an $11 billion corporation?
Bowser may believe herself to be ready, but some of her supporters I spoke with seemed less certain: “She’s a quick study. If she puts the right people around her, she’ll be okay,” said one person, articulating the sentiment repeated by others.
Does that mean her support is soft, leaving her voter base ripe for poaching? In the April primary, Bowser received only 42,045 votes — 43.38 percent. More than 56 percent of the 96,915 people who voted in the mayor’s race chose another candidate.
Politics is the art of packaging. A politician bundles and polishes so-called accomplishments and presents them as new and unique. The public is guided to those sparkling items while its view of unflattering information is blocked.
Bowser hasn’t mastered that art, but she’s no slouch. She has assiduously managed her image, flaunting a winner’s mien. She has delayed debating her opponents, danced around difficult questions and attempted to sidestep controversies, including the one brewing at Ward 8’s Park Southern Apartments, where two of her key supporters — Phinis Jones and the Rev. Rowena Joyce Scott — have been accused by tenants of malfeasance in operating the facility.
Last week, Bowser fired Tom Lindenfeld, her get-out-the vote political strategist; he allegedly was involved in a questionable campaign financing scheme in 2007 while working for a Pennsylvania politician. Undoubtedly, she wanted to protect herself from a second episode of possibly unethical behavior by a political ally.
Unfazed by bumps in the road, she has held private meetings with potential voters and financial backers, speaking on critical issues: public education, affordable housing and economic development.
She dismissed the mayor’s new school boundary system — without offering an alternative to the crowding at some facilities and under-enrollment at others. To improve the quality of education, she told me she supports “brink schools,” which involves focusing on those schools deemed close to being successful and “pushing them over the top.” She couldn’t explain the “how” of that, sending me to her Web site; nothing was there.
Bowser hasn’t proposed any innovation in public education. She advocates for improved middle schools, endorses early childhood programs and supports more funding for at-risk students — all of which are already being done.
“Everything we do will be focused on how we grow our middle class,” she said, sounding like Marion Barry in 1982; he bloated the government to keep his promise while providing mostly lip service and symbolism to the city’s poor.
“I think poor people aspire to the middle class,” said Bowser, reiterating her pledge to create an initiative east of the Anacostia River, sidestepping the contradiction between that proposal and her failure to hold a public hearing on Park Southern.
The organization representing tenants citywide, TENAC, has blasted her Committee on Economic Development for not moving legislation important to renters. Her chief opponent, D.C. Council member David Catania (I-At Large), has asserted that she has ignored housing issues.
“I think we have achieved a great deal,” Bowser countered, citing her committee’s passage of the Tenants Bill of Rights and approval of legislation introduced by council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) that would regulate condominium associations. Other bills she mentioned, including one that would provide relief to low-income homebuyers who are prohibited from tapping equity in their homes when they sell them, remain in committee.
“We’re working on an omnibus rent control bill,” Bowser added, without providing a timetable.
She held public hearings on “the New Communities Initiative” to renovate public housing. “I’m very focused on what the local relationship is going to be with [the D.C. Housing Authority], given that the federal government has washed its hands. We have 8,000 units, and we have to be sure we are supporting those units.”
If elected, Bowser said she would set a baseline of $100 million in the Housing Production Trust Fund. A constipated bureaucracy — not money — is the obstacle for affordable housing. Low-income tax credits, which could have leveraged tens of millions of dollars for affordable housing preservation and construction, mostly went unused. Bowser’s committee was mum. “I will add more money and we will actually get it out the door,” she insisted.
“This is a strong-mayor town,” Bowser continued. “I have tried in the last seven years to work with the executive to make sure we are appropriating what’s needed and holding it accountable for what we do. I don’t think of tinkering around the edges as something that is appropriate.”
During our conversations, she offered nothing innovative or radical, in my view. It appears that a Bowser administration could be one long tinkering fest.
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