D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser on Saturday became the first official entrant into the 2014 mayoral race. Ahead of her formal announcement, Bowser granted a lengthy interview on why she’s running and what her vision for the city is.
The following transcript has been edited for length, and while Bowser’s words are verbatim, I’ve cleaned up my questions to make them more coherent than they might actually have been.
Why are you running, and why now?
What we’ve heard from people is that they’re very disappointed in the state of the District. They’re especially disappointed because they feel like the government isn’t moving forward urgently, that the government is distracted, that corruption has robbed us of a lot of the momentum and the focus we had gotten used to in the District. So they want a leader, a mayor that can focus on those issues that are important to them. We know that people are encouraged by the growth in our city but we also knows it creates a lot of anxiety and fear for a lot of people in Washington. So we need focused attention on how we protect the diversity of our city, manage our growth and move forward as a city. We also know that people are continue to be very concerned about our schools. We’ve made some huge investments. We’ve invested in a change in our governance structure, which we had to do. We’ve invested in the buildings, We’ve even had changes in how we’ve held adults accountable. But we’re not making the kind of progress that people expected. We’ve seen really a diminution of the heat and light on the education issue. So we have to get that back, and we have to figure out how to connect all of the pieces of our education system and set some big goals around all of these things.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s narrative is that despite all his legal and political problems, the city is running well. Is it?
The city was running well in 2010. That’s what the people of the District of Columbia said. They said that city services had improved and that they were generally — and you’ll have to look at the survey your newspaper did, will show you that. People were very happy with the District. I think this mayor has inherited a pipeline of activity that any mayor would envy but what is shocking to me is that they claim that they’re responsible for it.
You’re saying the sense of urgency is not there.
What I’m saying is, he inherited a pipeline of activity. That’s why you see the cranes in the air. So now how can we be more urgent about the things that the government can really affect and get involved in.
That’s the same line of argument every critic of every mayor makes, though. Isn’t it the case that every mayor, to some degree, stands on the shoulders of his or her predecessor?
Sure it is, and usually you hear them acknowledge that. I challenge you to show me a time when that acknowledgment has been made. Have you heard it? … I’m not being facetious. I honestly can’t. And on top of that there would be an agenda that you can refer to of your own accomplishments. …. I’m not so sure of that.
He has agendas — economic development, sustainability, affordable housing, and so on. You can’t say he’s not made plans. Do you disagree with those plans?
I’m impatient about task forces after task forces after task forces being created. More than that, I think that the people are frustrated — certainly we want plans. We’ve had plans created in this District for decades. But what people really want is action, urgency and energy behind these ideas.
Are there projects you’ve seen languish that you can point to? That are not getting attention, that you’ve been pushing the mayor to take action on?
We saw delays in some of our school construction — Roosevelt and Coolidge [high schools] both delayed by at least a year. The 16th Street bridge and Kalmia culvert —these are smaller things that need to be replaced. We see delays in the streetcars getting moving and the like. We’ve had a four month delay where one of our rec centers wouldn’t open. The response from these people is well, it’s just taking a little bit longer than we thought … They’re not being held accountable for delivering.
On the streetcar, for example, they can easily say the planning was not done by the previous administration. No car barn, no power source, no cars ordered.
Oh, so it’s not their incompetent Office of Contracting and Procurement?
Where else have you seen him drop the ball?
I see it in just about everything. About how we see the directors — they are taking the lead of their leader who wants to create these number of plans instead of opening facilities, getting them opened on time, and moving projects, and I think we just see it around this city. Another thing I should say, the people in the District, they just don’t kind of want managing projects, they just don’t want taking the ideas of others and pushing them forward. They want to see new ideas. They want to see the government innovate. They want to see leaders who are visionary not just managers. So I think that the future of the District is going to be about, how do we put those type of people in positions to lead?
In terms of the theme of the campaign, is it about pace, speed, responsiveness and getting things done or is it about corruption, is it about ethics?
I think it’s about a number of things, no one thing. I think it’s about trust. People want to be able to trust their leaders, that’s first and foremost. I do think its about addressing, acknowledging, talking about and coming up with real policies that address this notion of our growth, which we all want, how are we managing it to a point where senior citizens whose property taxes have skyrocketed can stay in their home. How are we managing it so a young family knows they can buy a house and go to a great school? How are we managing so as we are creating jobs, people in this city can actually get one of them? … Around schools, we’ve got to get our focus back, build on those successes and not kind of meander and try this and try that, and that takes the mayor’s complete attention and his willingness to put his political capital or hers, behind it. So we have to get back to that. So how can we set some big goals around school reform?
Is there any initiative that the chancellor or anyone has proposed where you don’t see the wherewithal or political will to get it done?
I don’t think we have that big idea. What have we really seen in that last two years around schools? So we’re going to close some, we’re going to change the boundaries. Where are the big ideas?
Do you have a big idea?
I think what we have to do first of all is set some goals around what should school reform look like? And that’s not just K-12, which has taken all of our attention, not just preschool, but it’s collecting UDC, it’s connecting the community college, It’s connecting the private universities and it’s connecting workforce development. Call those things what they are. It’s a system of education for the District of Columbia.
“Cradle-to-career education” — that’s what Vince Gray ran on.
But has he implemented connecting the dots between those things or is it just more rhetoric?
But what are you going to do to get past the rhetoric? I’ve heard a lot of candidates talk about connecting the dots. Any concrete substantive proposals right now you can undertake?
I think we have to have the mayor’s full attention on all of the people responsible for these various things and hold them accountable for coming up with synergies that pull them together.
You’ve always been associated with Adrian Fenty, politically. What are you going to tell people who say, “She’s just Adrian Fenty Part 2, she’s Fenty’s creation, how are we supposed to trust Muriel Bowser?”
They’ve been trusting me for six years. For six years people have said that, and most of those people have been convinced otherwise. They know that I stand on my own, they know that I’m smart and hardworking — analyze the facts and then make decisions that are in the best interests of the citizens of the District of Columbia.
Are there other people you’ve relied on for counsel and advice?
Yes. … There’s a wide circle of people that I talk to. I don’t think you’re ever gonna find someone who says she doesn’t talk to anybody. I don’t think people will ever say that about me.
I asked because people said Fenty didn’t listen to anyone. He lost touch. How do you make sure you don’t lose touch?
I have always kind of approached situations to try to get as much information as I can. In the fact-finding stages of decisions I have to make, even as a council member, my approach to working with the ANCs, for example. I always reach out to them, get their feedback. My approach has always been, they have a job to do, to convince me to think the way they think. and I have a job to convince them to think the way I think. Oftentimes we meet in the middle. At the end of the day, though, I have to make a decision, you use all the info you have and you make the best decision for the most people you can.
What’s the best piece of advice you got as you made this decision?
I’ll tell you what one of my constituents said. She said you just have to step out there on faith and a good record. and that’s it: “Let’s do it.”
So let’s talk about your record. What do you want people to know about your record?
I want them to know I’ve been a serious council member, a full-time council member, that we passed tough legislation down here, pushing through ethics reform, for example, making sure we had something that really helped residents citywide in saving D.C. homes from foreclosure when we were going through a tough time around those issues, which is really important. We pushed through very complicated health-care reform legislation when the Obama initiatives, the early Obama initiatives hit us in the District. We’ve transformed the organizational rules for our code and the like. We’ve done serious legislation, and that’s what important down here. Oftentimes though, what the people of my word care about is that we’re watching and staying focused on these agencies to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing with the voters’ money. So providing 24-7 services to our residents is a large part of our job.
Besides ethics reform, is there anything else you can point to that is a big complex issue you found consensus and pushed it though and made a difference?
I would argue with that question first of all, because the skills you just described, yes, I have those skills but they have virtually nothing to do with executive decisionmaking and leadership, and I think that’s what we’re starved for. I would say having the skills of the chairman of the council or a legislator don’t fit well with leading a city, and I think we’ve seen that in spades.
Where have we seen your executive experience?
I tell everybody that being a council member for this ward teaches you how every agency should work or should not work and that’s exactly the best training ground for a mayor of the District of Columbia.
How explicit do you plan to be about the fact that you could be the only woman running in a campaign in a city that hasn’t had a woman mayor in 20 years?
I’ve never run as the “woman Ward 4 council member,” although since I’ve been down here … I will tell you, since I’ve been down here, probably my sensibility about it has changed, being only three women on a council of 13, I have seen how issues particularly affecting women don’t have sufficient voice in this building and that has got to change. …When we come down and we talk about family and TANF issues, and i will say i have very progressive colleagues and I think they care about women too but there is a certain different perspective that comes with it. There’s another approach to the law, especially lawmaking that women bring that allow for more consensus, consensus and the like but I think it’s also important that we have a strong voice in the city. I think it would be great to have a woman mayor.
What role do you see race playing in a campaign that includes the significant possibility there could be a white mayor for the first time since home rule?
All I know is this: I’m going to into every ward and we’re going to go after every vote. And I think that’s important. I know you’ve done, you have some lines in your articles recently about what role race is going to play. I get elected by white people, and I get elected by black people, and I don’t know that many people can say that to the degree that I’ve been able to say for our ward, especially in the wards. And I believe this is going to sound a little corny, but people want the same things. White people and black people want the same things. Latino people, they want the same things, too. They want safe neighborhoods, great schools and a chance in this city. That’s what people want. Where I do see how we can improve how we live in this city together, is by really dealing with these issues of managing our growth. You’ll find that a lot of people who have lived here for a long time, white and black, feel like that the growth is pushing them out or causing, you know, the prices to go up, the senior citizens to get hurt, so I think what we’ll focus on is trying to figure out how to pull that kind of new-old debate together. But how we manage it to the point that D.C. is welcoming to people who have lived here for five decades or people who have lived there for five months?
That was the hope for Mayor Fenty. He won every precinct, and he would bring everything together. but the old divisions came back with a vengeance. Can they be overcome again?
Try as you might to make me Adrian Fenty, I’m not. … I have great respect for the mayor, he’s a friend of mine and we share a lot of ideals for our city. But I don’t think people confuse me with him.
Did you talk to him before making your final decision?
What did he tell you?
“Go for it.”
Pretty sure there were more words in that conversation.
I put that call in the category of calls I made to folks that have been my earliest supporters. I didn’t want them to read it in the Washington Post and gratefully they didn’t.
What’s the plan for now, are you going to be knocking on doors?
People have asked me, why are you getting into it this early? Well, it’s not early, so we’re a year out, and I think whoever wants to run owes it to the rest of the District of Columbia to give them enough time to see them, to talk to them, to tell them what their aspirations are, and that’s the kind of campaign we want to run, where we have the time not just to throw up some ads, not just to send some mail, but to go into every ward and into every community and to talk to people and ask them for their support. … I think it’s important to talk to every voter. Unless you know another way, that’s the way to do it.
I’m hearing this a lot: On paper, Muriel Bowser is the best candidate, but does she have what it takes to deal with the rigors of a citywide campaign — the scrutiny of your political life, your personal life, the daily grind of it?
I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think that I could. And you know I think that some people were wondering if I would have what it takes to be the first one in the race. So that should tell them something about my grit.