Ellen Hughes lives in the Parkview neighborhood of D.C. and says violent crime is her top issue in this year’s race for mayor. She gives Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) passing marks on how she handled the pandemic and schools, so she’ll vote to reelect her next week. But she’s not exactly thrilled about the prospect.
“Lesser of two evils,” the Ward 1 resident said when asked about her choice in the June 21 Democratic primary. “I know what we’ve got with her. I’m not ecstatic about it.”
If Bowser wins the Democratic nomination over her leading challengers, D.C. Council members Robert C. White Jr. (At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (Ward 8), it will put her on the path to becoming a three-term mayor of D.C., a historic accomplishment equaled only by the fabled Marion Barry, who served four terms over two decades and earned the unofficial title of “Mayor for Life.”
But to get there, Bowser will need the backing of not only her enthusiastic supporters, but more reticent ones, like Hughes, who think the city could be better.
In her eight years as mayor, Bowser has become known to District residents as more of a low-key leader than a dynamic politician who engages easily and readily with constituents, according to D.C. political observers. Part of Bowser’s success, they say, is that while her personality may not generate wild enthusiasm from voters, it also doesn’t create deep dislike.
In campaign advertisements and appearances, Bowser has made her record her selling point. She highlights her efforts to create more affordable housing, which she has addressed in part with a record $400 million investment into the Housing Production Trust Fund last year, and her steps to reduce homelessness, which have led to the lowest homelessness rate in the District in recent history. She also shuttered the problem-ridden D.C. General family shelter, fulfilling another of her campaign promises. At the same time, though, homeless encampments have multiplied during the pandemic, continuing to be a concern for many residents.
On education, she has vowed to maintain full control of the school system, but results have been mixed. Billions of dollars have been invested in renovating schools across the District, and yet learning gaps remain between White students and students of color. And while some parents cheered her plan for reopening schools during the pandemic, others felt she moved too slowly.
In response to rising concerns about the jump in violent crime, Bowser proposed a budget increase to hire 347 additional police officers in fiscal 2023. And her long-term goal is to expand the overall department from 3,500 officers to 4,000.
“I’m fighting for more police officers and I won’t turn back the clock on school reform,” Bowser says in one of her advertisements.
Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s campaign chair, said the mayor’s “bottom line is that she makes the city work for you. Whether it’s health, affordable housing, education, her job is to make those services work for the residents of the city and her message is that’s what she’s doing. Her message is her accomplishments.”
Her longevity in office, Lightfoot added, “shows that people trust her to deliver government services that improve their lives and benefit them.”
Bowser’s opponents, however, say that she has done too little to respond to the needs of the city’s most vulnerable or that she has taken the wrong tack when it comes to dealing with the district’s most pressing issues. And her record plays differently in different parts of the city.
In some places, particularly the wealthy Wards 2 and 3, Bowser enjoys strong support. According to a February Washington Post poll, the most recent polling available, 61 percent of Democratic voters supported her in those wards, compared with 14 percent who supported Robert White and 8 percent who supported Trayon White. She is weakest in Wards 7 and 8, where the poll showed 38 percent supported her, 22 percent planned to vote for Robert White and 33 percent planned to vote for Trayon White.
Raymond Coates, 63, lives in Ward 7 and said he’ll vote for Bowser, but he wants her to do more for the ward. “All we ever see in the city is land development, but we never see real community development,” he said.
Coates, who is Black, expects the election will be a “lopsided” win for Bowser, even though he doesn’t think she will do well in the predominantly Black Wards 7 and 8.
“Those that do vote are not going to vote for Bowser,” he said. “They don’t like her because what she’s doing doesn’t translate into things for them.”
The same Post poll showed generally strong support for Bowser, who received 58 percent approval of her overall job performance. But that was down from 67 percent in Post polls conducted in 2019 and 2017. Since the 2019 poll, the share of residents saying the city is headed in the right direction dropped from 59 percent to 49 percent. Her challengers see that dropping number as an indication that voters have grown weary of the mayor and are looking for a change.
One unknown factor this year is that this is the first mayoral primary in which every registered voter received a ballot at home. That has created some uncertainty for all of the candidates about what effect, if any, it will have on turnout.
The campaigns of both major challengers say they are optimistic entering the final week of voting.
“We’ve had eight years of the incumbent and we still have not seen D.C.'s most urgent issues solved or enough progress on them,” Robert White’s campaign manager Luz Martinez said about the message the campaign is trying to deliver in the election’s last days. “The top issues of public safety, education and affordable housing are still going in the wrong direction. So I think the final message is that we do need someone in the mayor’s seat that can really tackle those problems and work to solve them.”
“People are really looking at the shape of the city, and they want someone who represents them,” said Fria Moore, Trayon White’s campaign manager. “We’re out on the streets and covering ground all over the city, and we think the truth will be told at the polls.”
The election in the view of many is a referendum on the eight years Bowser has had to implement programs, increase development and investment and tackle problems like homelessness, affordable housing and, increasingly, public safety.
Bowser’s most fervent supporters say she’s succeeded on all fronts despite facing difficult circumstances including a seemingly never-ending pandemic that shut down businesses and schools and the roiling unrest following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020. They also give her credit for standing up to former president Donald Trump at the height of protests over Floyd’s killing and managing the city following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
“She was really good about backing up the police during the insurrection,” said Cecilia Rogers, who moved from Ward 6 to Ward 3 last year. Rogers also supported Bowser’s decision to rename 16th Street NW near Lafayette Square as Black Lives Matter Plaza. “She was not going to be bullied by Trump, and I liked that a lot.”
Ron Williams Jr.‚ a farmer and small business entrepreneur, grew up in Ward 8 and now lives not far away in Ward 6. The 41-year-old wasn’t a Bowser fan when she first ran for mayor because he felt she was tied much more to interests west of the Anacostia River.
“I was opposed to her living, breathing, walking because of how she came in,” Williams said as he stood on Martin Luther King Avenue in Southeast, across the street from his uncle’s church. “But eventually she won me over on all the policy points: schools, affordable housing, minority business development, everything.”
“For me to be in her corner now, that says a lot,” he said. “She’s a force to be reckoned with right now.”
But some voters don’t see it that way.
Sarah Yerkes, 42, dropped her ballot in a drop box at Eastern Market right after she received it in the mail. A Ward 6 parent of two D.C. public school students, Yerkes voted for Robert White — but noted that she didn’t actually know much about the candidate she chose. “It’s more of an against-Bowser vote than a pro-White vote,” she said.
“The Bowser administration mishandled the pandemic,” she said, saying she wished Bowser had reopened public schools sooner. She perceived from Bowser “not a lot of recognition of what the strain was on working parents.”
Even in her home Ward 4, some voters have tired of Bowser.
Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of policy and government at George Mason University, noted that Bowser is part of a network of politicians that stem from her mentor, former mayor Adrian Fenty, known colloquially as the “Green Team.”
Fenty previously represented Ward 4 and endorsed Bowser to succeed him on the council in a 2007 special election when he was elected mayor. When Bowser was elected mayor in 2014, she tapped Brandon T. Todd, a longtime ally who was finance director on her campaign, to replace her in Ward 4.
But Todd fell short in his second reelection campaign in 2020, which Fauntroy said is an indicator some residents are ready for a change.
“It makes perfect sense that there would be some fatigue for people in the ward who’ve seen Bowser on their ballots the last 12 or 14 years,” said Fauntroy, who lives in the ward. But he added: “You can have fatigue, but if you don’t have a viable enough option, it’s not really going to matter.”
Margaret Lenzner, 76, a retired voter in Ward 3, placed her ballot in Cleveland Park Library drop box this week, said she voted for Robert White because she is ready for change: “I think Bowser, when it comes to serious local issues, she’s all talk and no action. She has a blueprint for everything. A lot of ideas. A lot of paper. A lot of ribbon cuttings.”
Bowser may be feeling the heat. Over the weekend, she launched a TV and radio ad buy targeting Robert White, accusing him of flip-flopping and of being someone “who can’t be trusted.” The election, she says in the spot, is “about D.C.’s comeback and who do you trust to lead it.”
A number of longtime political observers in the city, including some of her detractors, say that message will resonate, at least enough to keep Bowser in office. But her challengers wonder if voters who have tired of the mayor will vote for them instead or sit out the election altogether.
“Voters know that I have delivered on my promises," Bowser said in a statement. "People are not tired of nor fatigued from good government.”