The Washington Post

How gender helps, hurts Muriel Bowser’s bid for mayor of Washington


WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 19: Council member and Mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser greets attendees at the SW Wharf project groundbreaking on March, 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Paris just elected its first female mayor, and Washington, D.C., could be on track to electing its second, with  Muriel Bowser in a down-to-the-wire-race with Mayor Vincent C. Gray that will be decided at the polls on Tuesday.

The election has been by shaped by an ongoing investigation into illegal campaign activity surrounding Gray’s 2010 campaign. Bowser, who early on was running a distant second to the incumbent, has in the last two weeks pulled even, after a D.C. businessman told federal investigators that Gray knew about a “shadow campaign” that involved more than $400,000 in unreported campaign expenses. Gray has denied any wrongdoing.

Washington is one of few major cities in the country to have elected a female mayor. Bowser, who is up slightly in the latest Post poll, is looking to join a pretty small group — of the 1,351 mayors of U.S. cities with a population of over 30,000, 259, or 18.4 percent are women, which is about the same percentage of women in Congress.

And historically that number has dipped over the last decade and stalled:

Two Rutgers University political scientists did a study in 2010 on women who run for municipal office. One of the authors talked about Bowser’s campaign in the context of the study’s findings.

“One of the advantages that women have in running for office is that they are perceived as ethical and honest, because we haven’t had many examples of women in office who have been unethical. So Bowser is being helped by that stereotype,” said Susan J. Carroll, who along with Kira Sanbonmatsu did the study on women mayors . “Women are also perceived as outsiders even when they are insiders. People see them as not being part of the inner circle and as someone who represents change and who isn’t part of the normal political establishment.”

On the other hand, Bowser’s gender has linked her in the minds of some voters to the city’s first female mayor.

One female voter told Post columnist Petula Dvorak last month: “Let me just say this: Sharon Pratt Kelly. Okay? We don’t need that again.” She was referring to the District’s first and only female mayor who served one term, from 1991-1995, and was widely criticized for management and ethical lapses.

“When a woman is the first, the women who come after get judged by her performance as though they are somehow similar,” Carroll said.

According to The Post’s latest poll, Bowser leads overall, with 30 percent of the vote and Gray at 27 percent, but the sitting mayor has a slight advantage with a very important voting bloc: African American women back him 36 percent to Bowser’s 28 percent. Bowser does, however, appear to be gaining ground with that group since January, when she got only 15 percent support among black women.

Bowser herself said that women have outsized expectations; they “expect a perfect candidate” and “they have the same expectation of themselves.”

Those expectations, Carroll said, are especially high when it comes to women candidates. Bowser, 41, has been a member of the D.C. Council since 2007. Critics have asserted that she lacks the necessary experience to run the city.

“A little experience will go a long way if you are man. But women are always being asked: Do you have enough experience, are you up for the job?” Carroll said. “Voters are more likely to expect them on the council, but there are concerns and stereotypes about women taking charge, being a leader and being able to manage a bureaucracy, and a big budget.”

Voting ends Tuesday night at 8p.m. and the most interesting post-race reading will be the exit polls which will break down who voted for who and why and likely shed some light on how gender politics showed up in the voting booth.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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