Muriel E. Bowser shows no false modesty when she talks about the prospect that she will soon be decisively reelected to lead her city for a rare third term as mayor — only an eager grin.
Bowser, 50, handily won the Democratic nomination in June and is poised to win November’s general election in a city where Democrats dominate. After a tumultuous second term in which she drew national attention by battling with President Donald Trump, led the city through the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and the pandemic, and struggled to tackle age-old problems like crime and gentrification even as the coronavirus upended the city, she says she’s looking forward to a term focused on rebuilding.
“It’s a very important period for D.C.: how we come back from the pandemic, how we reposition our downtown, how we catch kids up in school, how we reinvest in public safety,” she said.
If Bowser wins on Nov. 8 against her competitors — independent Rodney “Red” Grant, Republican Stacia R. Hall, and Libertarian Dennis Sobin — she would be the first mayor to serve a third term since the legendary “mayor for life” Marion Barry, who began his third term in 1987 and his fourth in 1995. Some residents say they’re tired of the same, noting the continued presence of homeless encampments and four years of increasing homicides.
When Bowser visited a Ward 7 Democrats meeting this month, some took the opportunity to press the mayor on why they should trust her promises when she has had eight years to fix their problems.
“These are the same people who have been in office — why is nothing being done? Homelessness is still a problem,” Falecia Richmond said, gesturing toward Bowser and two other longtime officeholders at the meeting, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large). “With there being a Black mayor — when I call for help, I expect to get it. If you’re not there to make change and justice, there’s no justice.”
Another resident followed her: “There’s no affordable housing,” she said. “The question is, what’s going to be different from you all now? From when you first got in office, it’s the same thing going on.”
“I do have a record, and I’m proud of my record,” Bowser replied to the woman, who did not give her name. The mayor pointed to changes she has made, including recruiting a new Lidl grocery store east of the Anacostia and making plans to move a D.C. government office building to Ward 7.
Many welcome Bowser’s moderate brand of leadership over the past eight years.
“People have confidence in her: She’s weathered two storms — Trump and coronavirus — where she was a steady hand at the wheel,” said Terry Lynch, a longtime Bowser supporter who leads the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. “Among the electorate, there’s always a desire for change. But overall, they felt she handled the big issues well.”
In an interview in late October, Bowser characterized her first term as a “fresh start,” focused on new ideas, and her second as the “fair shot” term, with an emphasis on housing, among other priorities. She points to the changes she has made in the city along the way, including following through on a promise in her 2014 mayoral campaign to tear down the decrepit D.C. General homeless shelter and replace it with eight state-of-the-art shelters — and, more significantly, a concerted push that has drastically reduced homelessness among families with children, a success that she pledges to extend to childless adults in her next term.
The face of the District has changed under Bowser; she mentions proudly the new developments drawing residents and businesses, not only in increasingly upscale areas like the Wharf but also in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods including Anacostia and Skyland. She touts her progress toward her overall goal of building 36,000 new housing units by 2025 to accommodate the District’s growing population and its persistent housing crunch.
The theme of her third term, she said, will be “the comeback.”
“What excites me so much about a third term is that the job is different … bringing the city back from the pandemic, preparing for a possible recession, preparing for the possibility of a hostile Congress. That’s why I think it’s so important and I asked voters to make sure we had seasoned leadership in the mayor’s office,” she said.
She’s still hoping to get more downtown workers back to their desks to bolster the city’s daytime economy, but she’s also looking at streateries — restaurants with sidewalk seating — parades, and other uses of public space that will boost revenue without relying on a five-day office workweek that perhaps is gone forever.
Bowser said she would like to work on projects she hasn’t accomplished yet, like assuming control from the federal government of post-conviction supervision of juvenile criminal offenders, and trying to blunt crime rates after years of squabbling with the D.C. Council over the size of the police budget. Bowser favors a larger force, and has recently secured budgets to let her hire more officers.
“In many wards, the numbers have actually gone down along a lot of categories” of crime, she said. “I have been among the only people willing to say we need the police that we need, and I stand by that. Because when we can deploy in neighborhoods and neighbors see the presence of police, that does make them feel better. … We’re going to do what it takes to drive crime down.”
Bowser, who grew up in the District and represented Ward 4 on the city council, became mayor after unseating incumbent Vincent C. Gray in the crowded 2014 primary, at a time when he was weakened by a federal investigation into his campaign fundraising. Four years later, she faced no significant opposition in her bid for a second term.
Running for a third term, Bowser faced primary challenges from two members of the D.C. Council, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who both ran to her left, arguing that her moderate approach had failed to stop the gentrification pricing out Black families or lessen the city’s gulf between rich and poor. Former advisory neighborhood commissioner James Butler ran as well.
Bowser won easily, outpacing her opponents in seven of eight wards and coming in more than 10,000 votes ahead of Robert White, her closest competitor.
Still, more than half the Democratic electorate voted for someone else: Bowser finished with 49 percent of the vote.
“Muriel is trying to create a kind of legacy and trying to grapple with some of the issues that she’s heard the community complaining about. I think she can look at the softness of her numbers and recognize that something really needs to take place that’s going to address what people are feeling out here,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, a longtime community activist who led Trayon Robert White’s campaign. Particularly on the issue of gentrification, Hagler said, “I think she’s going to try to make some conscious change.”
Hagler pointed to Bowser’s recent creation of a task force on increasing Black homeownership, which he served on, as a “clear turn” toward addressing her opponents’ criticism of her approach to inequality.
Bowser characterizes the primary results differently. “Voters in June gave us a big win,” she said. Asked about what she learned from the fact that slightly more Democrats voted against her than for her, or about whether she learned from the campaign that she needed to change course on any issues, she does not describe any change in her approach.
Instead, she looks forward to four more years.
Every night, Bowser said, she tells her 4-year-old daughter Miranda that her favorite job in the world is being her mother. But during this election season, she has talked more with her preschooler about her other job as she headed out on the campaign trail. “I said, ‘Well, I have to ask people if I can be the mayor,’ ” Bowser recalled. “And she goes, ‘You are the mayor.’ ”
Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.