The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bowser seeks to follow Marion Barry, but some Black voters are skeptical

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser responds while getting a congratulatory phone call from Vice President Harris during a news conference at her campaign headquarters in D.C. on June 22. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Margie Edwards cast her vote in Tuesday’s mayoral race, then stepped out of the Columbia Heights Community Center into a neighborhood that she has watched become richer and Whiter and more divided. And that’s when she saw Muriel E. Bowser’s campaign workers, planting new bright-green Bowser signs in the dirt outside the polling places.

“They need to throw all them signs in the trash,” she muttered loudly, then shouted toward the workers, “No more Bowser!”

Edwards, who is 55 and Black, thinks that Bowser — who is 49 and Black and was the victor in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary, putting her on a path to three terms — is a mayor for the wealthy people living in the shiny new condos that have been built in Columbia Heights and many other neighborhoods of the city, with Bowser’s encouragement. “We don’t need her looking out for the people who don’t need help,” she said.

Bowser won substantial support from all sectors of the racially and economically diverse capital city Tuesday, racking up 10,000 more votes than her nearest opponent, at-large council member Robert C. White Jr., in an election that didn’t turn out to be particularly close. But she won with much more support from majority-White neighborhoods than majority-Black ones, leading some voters to question whether the mayor is doing enough for the people suffering the most from the violence and inequality that she campaigned on reducing.

Wendell Felder, chair of the Ward 7 Democrats, spoke for many of his neighbors in the mostly east-of-the-Anacostia, majority-Black ward when he said he trusts Bowser. “She is a battle-tested leader and what the city needs right now,” he said. He’ appreciated that she has worked to build affordable housing and grocery stores, two of Ward 7’s most pressing needs — and that she led the city through a pandemic and the Trump administration.

Bowser won seven of the city’s eight wards, with White beating her only in Ward 1, the dense and diverse urban ward where Edwards lives.

Still, Bowser’s support was strongest in wealthier, Whiter areas. In Ward 3, which includes the neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park where residents can afford spacious single-family homes, Bowser won 64 percent of the vote. Across the Anacostia in Ward 8, by contrast — the poorest ward of the District and where most residents are Black — she won 38 percent, her lowest showing in any ward.

Bowser has tried to describe herself as a mayor for Black Washington. In the days and months before the election, Bowser rolled out a $10 million initiative specifically aimed at helping Black people buy houses in the city, and grants to bring grocery stores and restaurants to mostly east-of-the-river Black neighborhoods.

In her victory speech Tuesday night, she said within her first few sentences, “Today I stand in the footsteps of Marion Barry,” evoking the legendary leader of D.C. in the era that many Black Washingtonians still hark back to as the time when the government represented them. “We won’t lose our Chocolate City, but we will invest in it. We will continue to be a city where Black Washingtonians thrive,” she said in her speech.

Yet while she enjoys the support of Black and White residents, Black residents are less likely than White ones to feel confident that she is improving the city for them. In a February Washington Post poll, 60 percent of White residents said D.C. was on the right track, and 54 percent of Black residents said the city was moving in the wrong direction.

That disparity “needs to be a wake-up call so the government will feel the sense of urgency many residents feel,” said Markus Batchelor, an activist who formerly represented Ward 8 on the D.C. State Board of Education.

Batchelor, who supported White, said that Bowser’s win with about 50 percent of the votes means that half of the city’s Democratic electorate is tired of the status quo. Many of the city’s most acute problems, such as violent crime, poor public health and educational gaps, are generally worse in areas of the city where Bowser received the lowest share of votes, he noted.

“My hope is she matches Barry’s legacy not just in longevity, but taking up the mantle he did to uplift the poor and open up avenues of opportunity for those who’ve been excluded,” he said. “Chocolate City is hanging by a thread, and what she does to preserve it is now up to her.”

If Bowser wants to follow in the footsteps of Barry, it will take more than just becoming the only person other than him to win three terms, local political strategist China Dickerson said. “How is this going to help people who’ve been here for generations? If she focuses on that, she’ll be on the Marion Barry track. If that’s her mind-set, everything will fall into place.”

Serena K. Parks, a Black Brookland resident, has lived in the District for half a century. Nowadays, she said, she knows at least two senior citizens who could no longer afford the property taxes on their homes in the gentrifying neighborhood and find themselves living in tents. “That crushed me,” said Parks, 58. “I miss everybody looking out for each other. When something happens and a house sells, the children no longer go to school with our children. They don’t play with the grandchildren. We use to have block parties and go on trips together. The sense of community for Brookland is not here.”

She sees Bowser as encouraging the gentrification, not helping people like her. “She sells out to the developers. A lot of things that are being done are not benefiting us,” Parks said.

Some Black residents see the massive change in the District during Bowser’s eight years as mayor, including brand-new neighborhoods on the Southwest Waterfront and around Nationals Park in the Navy Yard, and wonder why the mayor hasn’t been able to bring more amenities to their neighborhoods.

At a celebratory news conference Wednesday, Bowser repeatedly discussed how her campaign touched “all eight wards.” Asked about her loss in Ward 1, Bowser highlighted that she still won seven of the eight wards: “In most places, they call that decisive,” she added.

Pressed further on varying levels of support for her throughout the city and whether that would factor into her strategy heading into November’s general election, she doubled down.

“In [Ward] 8, I think you know, we had more votes than the sitting council member,” Bowser said, referring to one of her opponents, Ward 8 Council member Trayon White Sr., who received 201 fewer votes there than Bowser. “So I think that we did very well.”

The mayor who once gained worldwide attention for painting “Black Lives Matter” in street-wide yellow letters, Bowser strove during her campaign to demonstrate her attention to majority-Black parts of the city, including by holding events touting her new “Black Homeownership Strike Force” and new grocery stores and restaurants she helped attract.

Ron Moten, a longtime activist, has been impressed by Bowser’s grants for small minority-owned businesses, homeowners and even residents with ideas to reduce gun violence.

“I have people tell me Bowser hates Black people. I say, ‘Why?’ and they can’t tell me. They just say she doesn’t like us,” he said. Some people point to her desire to bolster the city’s police force, he added, “but people rarely talk about the millions she’s put into violence intervention.”

“She has to do a better job getting out there in front of the people who she’s helped,” he said. “She’s fighting a narrative and picture that’s been painted. Some of it’s from her policies that haven’t been the greatest. But overall, she’s put more money in the Black community than anyone since Marion Barry.”

Lafayette Smith, 74, noticed Bowser’s recent attention to the Black community but was unimpressed. “Mayor Bowser, she’s not for the average citizen. She’s for big business,” said Smith, a Black D.C. voter since 1967. “Now, the last 60 days, she’s come out with all these different programs. She had eight years to put those programs in place, and she’s just putting them in place now? And people want to consider that? Mm-mm. We need a change.”

Jacqueline Carrington, a longtime Ward 7 resident and native Washingtonian, was skeptical of Bowser’s gestures. “You only see Bowser over here when it’s time for reelection,” said Carrington, who voted for Trayon White.

Carrington thinks comparisons between Bowser and Barry, whom she admired so much that she considered writing in his name this year, are inapt. “There’s a reason why he was mayor for so long,” she said. “He cared for the people.”

Many of their neighbors were more willing to give Bowser another chance to show that her leadership can work for Black Washingtonians.

Larry Smith, 76, hopes that her third term will represent a new chapter in which she turns her attention to struggling older Black residents. A lifelong Michigan Park resident, Smith is sorrowful about the changes in his Northeast D.C. neighborhood. “A lot of my senior friends lost their homes to developers or buyers. It used to be Chocolate City, and it’s no longer. It’s moving too fast,” he said.

He blames Bowser, but he also has hope that she will change.

“She is the cause of that,” Smith said of the gentrification. “But since the development is here and it’s bringing in money, she now needs to change her focus to residents, senior citizens and the homeless.”

He’s willing to wait and see if that will happen. Bowser won his vote.

Clara Ence Morse, Eva Herscowitz, Nazmul Ahasan, Gaya Gupta and Vanessa G. Sánchez contributed to this report.