Updated 3:30 p.m. to note that Mary Cheh has not endorsed a mayoral candidate
It has been four months since D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) triumphed in the Democratic mayoral primary, and it will be another six weeks before she is set to participate in her first general election debate, but as she addressed hundreds of supporters at a birthday-bash fundraiser Thursday night in Takoma, Bowser finally showed signs of shifting into a more combative campaign mode.
Another view might be — after months of caution and studiously avoiding controversy, somewhat unsuccessfully — that she’s betraying some anxieties about her opponents, particularly fellow lawmaker David A. Catania (I-At Large).
As in the past, her remarks to the crowd leaned heavily on her party affiliation to draw contrast with her opponents, using the word “Democrat” or “Democratic” 15 times during nearly 13 minutes of remarks.
Fellow D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) — until Thursday, the only council Democrat aside from Chairman Phil Mendelson and Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) not to endorse Bowser — got the partisan ball rolling: “She’s got those strong Democratic values that we all know and love,” he said to cheers after praising her as “grounded” and a “tireless legislator.”
Bowser took it from there: “We know that we need a good Democrat in the mayor’s office, right?” she said. “We’re going to fight for the things that Democrats believe in, and I’m here to tell you: Don’t be fooled, I’m the Democrat running for mayor. Don’t be fooled … because there’s some Republicans out there trying to masquerade as Democrats.”
Both Catania and candidate Carol Schwartz, a former at-large council member, are independents who were formerly Republicans and hold positions that rarely stray too far from the city’s liberal orthodoxy.
Bowser continued on, making several sidelong references to her opponents:
• “We know that we’re the Democrats of President Barack Obama. We didn’t support George W. Bush.” Both Catania and Schwartz supported Bush in 2000; Catania later broke with Bush and left the party over his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
• “We’re Democrats, so we believe in the middle class, don’t we? In making sure we have middle class security. So that means if a union asks me to stand with workers, I don’t say no. I stand with the workers, because we know it’s the great union movement that has secured good incomes for Washingtonians.” That’s an unmistakable reference to Catania’s decision, alone among D.C. Council members, not to sign a letter calling on a local construction company to negotiate with a union seeking to organize its workers. Catania, who has ties to the construction industry, said he didn’t have enough information to sign on to the letter.
• “We believe in safe and clean and affordable housing, and we just didn’t discover it this year, did we? Don’t be fooled! Because of some people that, you know, just found out about affordable housing, who just started caring about Ward 8. Well, we won’t be fooled in an election year, will we?” That would be a reference to Catania’s recent pressure on Bowser over her involvement in the ongoing controversy over the Park Southern apartments in Ward 8, as well as Catania’s accusations that Bowser has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to affordable housing.
Besides those jabs, there was plenty of tilting at straw men: “We know that we’re the Democrats that are going to preserve our gun laws,” Bowser said, five days after a judge struck down the city’s ban on carrying weapons publicly. “We don’t side with no congressional Republicans.” None of her opponents have suggested they do.
“We’re Democrats, so we believe in health care for everybody,” Bowser continued. “We believe in marriage equality. We don’t support anything that gets in the way of people’s rights to have a level playing field for women, for African Americans, for Latinos and for D.C. residents of every background and belief.” Again, there is no indication her opponents would dispute any of that, and Catania regularly touts his leading role as a lawmaker in expanding health-care access in the city and legalizing same-sex marriage.
“We’re Democrats, so we believe in an open and honest government,” she said, “so we don’t stand for corruption in city hall now, do we?” While this particular Democrat might hold a hard line on corruption, others have not.
There was also a glancing reference to another potential line of attack against Catania: that he’s too fiery and intemperate to be mayor.
Said Bowser, “You know you need a mayor that can walk in a room and command respect and moral authority, and respects you, too. You need a mayor who can work with the business community, and take the ideas of the community and not shout ’em down or cuss ’em out. You need a mayor that can go in every ward and not just talk about … what I’m doing during election season, but what I believe and what my values are.”
All of this was juicy red meat for a partisan crowd, but what remains to be seen is how much the electorate cares about the party of her opponents or their temperament. Bowser can take comfort in the fact that three-fourths of registered voters are Democrats, but Catania’s campaign does not betray much concern about the disadvantage.
Ben Young, Catania’s campaign manager, said voters “can see through her empty attacks” and noted that Bowser has voted for every one of Catania’s key legislative initiatives during her seven years on the council.
“If she would like to debate David Catania on her record on issues like education, health care and affordable housing, he’ll have that debate any day of the week,” he said. “But her handlers won’t let her do that. Because they know that one candidate in this race has actually advanced Democratic values time and time again, and it’s not Muriel Bowser.”