Muriel E. Bowser said she will run for a third term as mayor of Washington in 2022, asking voters to grant her four more years to manage the city’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and see through developments in housing and health care that she says will make the District more accessible to residents and competitive throughout the region.
Bowser’s decision, which she announced Thursday, broadens a pool of mayoral hopefuls that already includes two members of the city’s council.
Bowser (D) also said she will participate in the city program that offers public financing to candidates who pledge to only accept small-dollar donations, despite her early misgivings about using tax dollars for campaigns when it was first proposed by the D.C. Council. (She later changed course and supported the legislation.)
Having served in elective office in D.C. for about 17 years, Bowser said her depth of knowledge about the city’s government and rapport with community leaders set her apart from candidates who have tried to sell voters on the need for a fresh approach.
“I ran my first campaign in 2004, where I asked Riggs Park residents to trust me,” said Bowser, reflecting on her time as Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “And that’s what I’m asking D.C. residents to do again: Trust that I know where we are as a city better than most, and that I can execute a vision to bring the city back.”
A native Washingtonian raised in a Black Catholic family long involved in city politics, Bowser, 49, first ran for mayor in 2014, after two terms representing Ward 4 on the D.C. Council. She has become a popular local leader over her first two terms and a recognized figure on the national stage as she led the city through the pandemic, the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the greatest progress toward D.C. statehood in decades.
Bowser is known for her strong rhetoric in defense of the city’s rights and her occasional creative strokes, like transforming the wide street outside the Trump White House overnight into “Black Lives Matter Plaza” with gallons of yellow paint. But she has also been criticized by some residents who are frustrated with spiking levels of gun violence and the high cost of housing after almost seven years of her tenure in office, and who view her decision-making — like her insistence this fall that almost every child in the District return to school in person — as sometimes heavy-handed or misguided.
Unlike 2018, when Bowser ran for her second term with almost no serious opposition, this time she will face at least two challengers who also have experience in local government. Last month, D.C. Council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) declared their intentions to run in the Democratic mayoral primary, which in this deep-blue city is tantamount to the general election. By participating in the public financing program Bowser will forgo the large corporate donations that helped fund her last campaign and contributed to criticism that she is too closely linked with developers. Robert White has already met the public financing threshold; Trayon White has not yet filed paperwork for his campaign.
Both challengers have charged that Bowser has not gone far enough to support the city’s neediest residents in a city with significant economic disparities.
Bowser, in turn, says many of her initiatives have been aimed at helping Washingtonians who need the most support. She pointed to the $375 million development of a full-service hospital at St. Elizabeths East in Ward 8, which is set to open in 2024 and bring additional resources east of the Anacostia River, an area that has long faced disparities in access to health care. Over the years, she has directed $1 billion into the Housing Production Trust Fund, though a recent report from the D.C. inspector general noted that the city in recent years did not meet a legal requirement to spend 50 percent of those dollars on households at the lowest income threshold.
When Bowser first became mayor, she vowed to tear down the decrepit D.C. General homeless shelter and replace it with small shelters across the city — a plan she has completed, in the process drastically reducing the number of families in the city who are homeless. However, Bowser acknowledged the need to go further to address homelessness experienced by single adults by streamlining and improving pathways to services.
“We have a road map, because what we have been able to do with the family system is pretty dramatic, and it’s changing,” she added.
Bowser has at times captured the national spotlight, too, particularly during the Trump administration, when she occasionally became a foil for the Republican president residing blocks away from the Wilson Building. When protests erupted outside the White House in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — and Donald Trump raised the threat of federal force on the streets of D.C. to quell civil unrest — the president and the mayor traded barbed tweets.
When rioters overran the Capitol on Jan. 6, Bowser used the spotlight on D.C. to highlight her plea for statehood, appearing on national TV as a country rattled by the attack listened.
During her tenure, statehood has gone from the fringes of national politics to a core value for many Democrats. A bill to make the District the 51st state has passed the House twice in the past two years, for the first time in history, and while it has failed to advance in the Senate, many D.C. residents say they appreciate Bowser’s vocal advocacy.
Residents have also credited her with steering the city through the pandemic. While the coronavirus shuttered schools, businesses, churches and tourist attractions for months, the District avoided some of the worst experiences — raging case rates, overcrowded hospitals — that plagued many other jurisdictions, from New York City to rural regions. At one point last year, she held near-daily news conferences to provide updates as the virus upended city life.
As she inched toward announcing her reelection campaign, Bowser talked often in recent months of her desire to go from being the mayor who led the city through the pandemic to the mayor who led it into its recovery.
“I’m confident on a national stage, I’m confident on a regional stage … that’s a skill that I’ve developed,” she said. “I’m always proud to be the chief spokesperson for Washington, D.C., whether it’s [testifying before] Congress or on ‘Meet The Press.’”
Pandemic restrictions, which were almost entirely decided at the local level, caused some Washingtonians to pay attention to their mayor’s choices in a way they never had before. While some praised Bowser’s relative caution, others were frustrated by actions they saw as too lenient (such as moving from one phase of reopening to the next, even when the city’s own metrics said conditions were insufficient) or too strict (such as continuing to mandate masks indoors, a precaution that still remains). Parents of schoolchildren, in particular, have questioned the mayor’s move to bring students back to classrooms — especially before a coronavirus vaccine was available to the youngest age groups.
The national reputation Bowser has acquired meant that both local and national media scrutinized her decisions to travel to President Biden’s victory celebration in Delaware while imposing coronavirus-related travel regulations, and to take off her mask at a wedding she officiated soon after imposing a mask mandate. Early this year, coronavirus vaccines were also initially difficult for Washingtonians to get because of a complex and frequently changing system, and some members of the council complained the District’s vaccine rollout should have focused more on equity.
Trayon White and Robert White have also focused on public safety in their campaigns. Following high-profile shootings this year, including gunfire outside Nationals Park and a restaurant on 14th Street NW, as well as in neighborhoods long plagued by violence, some residents clamored for Bowser to do more, and she responded by revising her already-submitted fiscal 2022 budget proposal to call for more police officers. But left-leaning activists have said Bowser relies too heavily on police, and that her gestures of support for the Black Lives Matter movement are hollow without more robust movement away from traditional policing and toward alternatives. Bowser said she feels residents desire a balance between all of these approaches.
Often trying to speak for her police department and for local business owners, the mayor has found herself at odds with an increasingly left-leaning council over the police budget, as well as several other topics, including a tax increase that the council passed this year on wealthy residents, the parental leave benefit that the council created and a bill to decriminalize Metro fare evasion that passed over Bowser’s veto.
The two mayors who preceded Bowser — Adrian Fenty, her political mentor, and Vincent C. Gray, whom she ousted in the 2014 Democratic primary — each served only one term. If successful, Bowser would be the first mayor elected to a third term since Marion Barry’s 1986 victory. (Barry served three terms in a row, then a fourth four years later.) In addition to the two council members, James Butler — who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2018 — as well as Michael Campbell, a clergyman, also filed to run in the Democratic primary.