August 21

Has Democratic mayoral nominee Muriel Bowser fallen down the rabbit hole?

She has twice refused an invitation by Ward 4’s advisory neighborhood commissions to participate in a candidates’ forum; the most recent had been scheduled for Sept. 17. Bowser represents the ward on the D.C. Council. She entered District politics through the ANC network in that same community. Further, one of the people organizing that event, Doug Sloan , is her ANC commissioner; they live around the corner from each other.

In other words, Bowser hasn’t rejected any ordinary invitation to a candidates’ forum. She has refused an appeal from some of the folks who helped usher her into politics, from her constituents and one of her neighbors.

Who does that? In more than 25 years covering politics in this city, I don’t remember a politician exhibiting such flagrant disregard for constituents.

Since winning the Democratic primary in April, Bowser has rejected requests from other citizens groups and her chief opponent, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), to meet and debate the issues and challenges facing the District. She declared that her first debate will be Sept. 18 at American University. “She is looking forward to the opportunity to debate all candidates who have qualified for the ballot once the field is set,” campaign spokesman Joaquin McPeek said, adding that the first mayoral debates in other cities, including Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, occurred “a month or less from their respective elections.”

Who cares about them? This is the District. But more to the point, why is the Ward 3-based debate being given prominence? Should Bowser feel some obligation to Ward 4 residents, many of whom brought her to the dance? Should she at least schedule a whirl with them?

Confession: I am a Ward 4 resident but not a registered Democrat. Further, I am no big fan of political forums ad nauseam, which we often see during District campaigns. I was elated when Ward 2 council member Jack Evans (D), who has participated in hundreds of such events throughout his political career, introduced a resolution this year urging the creation of a debate commission that would establish a format and a schedule for citywide debates. Until such a system is in place, we have to live with the current process.

Citizen-organized debates and forums may be perceived as maddening and mundane, but they are critical to a healthy democracy. Bowser’s repeated rejection of invitations to debate thwarts the public discourse and injures the democratic process.

Bowser seems intent on casting residents as Mad Hatters and March Hares, perpetually locked in time, unable to move forward to fully assess her weight as potential mayor. She wants to determine which group of voters will — or will not — have access to her.

Interestingly, she was the legislator who, a few years ago, pushed for an Office of Open Government. Surely she understands that openness includes dialogue with citizens, including allies and opponents. Is this the transparency and engagement residents could expect from a Bowser mayoral administration?

Perhaps she believes that, because she is the Democratic nominee in a city dominated by registered Democrats, she is the heir apparent of the mayor’s office. But the post is neither an inheritance nor an entitlement. Leadership must be earned.

Besides, the results of the Democratic primary suggest that perhaps she is over-estimating the public’s enthusiasm for her candidacy. Remember, tens of thousands of voters stayed home in April. Citywide, only 27 percent of the 369,037 registered Democrats bothered to vote.

Excitement in Bowser’s ward was equally muted. Only 16,918 of the 47,996 registered Democrats in Ward 4 came to the polls. In Precinct 62, one of the largest and most active, she beat Mayor Vincent C. Gray by only 13 votes: 729 to 716, according to the Board of Elections. In Precinct 65, where she votes, Bowser lost to the incumbent by 31 votes: 431 to 400.

That spells vulnerability, especially given that some Democratic voters are still seething over Gray’s loss. Will they ultimately rally around Bowser? Will they embrace one of her opponents? Or will they stay home? Bowser certainly isn’t helping herself by giving her Ward 4 constituents the cold shoulder.