“We are promoting our D.C. values of inclusivity around the world,” she said when asked about the trip’s benefits for city residents. “Letting the world know that we are Washingtonians, not just who you see in the White House, and that has been increasingly important in the last two and a half years.”
On her visit to Ethiopia, her fifth international trip since her 2014 election, Bowser led a 70-member delegation that toured Addis Ababa, the capital, where they renewed a sister-city agreement, met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde, and sampled lamb stew, injera and other local delicacies.
After a one-hour flight to the town of Lalibela, they toured underground cathedrals and a school that was modernized by a Bowser donor who was on the trip. Before returning home, the mayor also accepted congratulations when Addis Ababa’s mayor, Takele Uma Banti, dedicated Mayor Muriel Bowser Street. The mayor’s office announced the designation in a news release that also reported that another location in Addis Ababa had been renamed Washington D.C. Square.
Her delegation included two council members, Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), nine administration officials, two members of her security detail and the mayor’s official photographer. The $77,000 in travel expenses was paid by the D.C. government, said Chanda Washington, spokeswoman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, which organized the trip along with the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The delegation’s more than 50 nongovernmental members — a mix of business executives, community leaders and school officials — paid their own way, she said.
The delegation included supporters who collectively — along with their companies — contributed more than $110,000 to Bowser’s campaigns and inaugural fund, according to campaign finance records.
But LaToya Foster, the mayor’s communications director, said the chamber of commerce — and not Bowser — sent the invitations to the delegation that attended the trip.
At least a dozen of the travelers have business with the District as either government contractors or vendors.
For example, a company owned by one delegation member, Rudy Seikaly of MCN Build, has received more than $500 million from the District for building a fire house, schools, homeless shelters and recreation facilities, records show. Another delegation member, Casey Stringer, founded Broughton Construction, which has received $36 million in District government payments for work on libraries and schools.
Both companies were among five represented on the trip that have donated the maximum allowed $10,000 to the mayor’s inaugural fund, records show.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the nonprofit public advocacy organization, said that the merit of such trips can be undermined “when you have major donors and contractors rubbing elbows with the mayor and getting a chance to form an intimate close relationship.
“It starts to reek of political opportunism,” he said.
Asked for the potential to curry favor with her, Bowser said: “People who are interested to go can go. ... Sometimes people criticize how large our delegations are, but that’s how more people can be involved.”
Seikaly, 55, who posted a photo of himself with the mayor in Ethiopia on his Facebook page, said that his work in the District began during the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) and that District agency officials — not Bowser — determine whether his firm is awarded contracts.
“The mayor doesn’t give me work,” he said in a phone interview from Lebanon, where he traveled after Ethiopia. “I don’t get work from the top down, I get it from the bottom up.”
Seikaly said he viewed the trip as a chance to network with Ethiopian leaders who can assist with his various philanthropic causes in their country, which have included modernizing a hospital wing, opening orphanages and renovating a school.
“It helps me make connections,” Seikaly said.
On Sunday, Seikaly showed Bowser the school he modernized near Lalibela, as well as the orphanages he opened, one for boys and another for girls. “It was the highlight of their life,” he said, referring to the children. “They got to talk to a powerful African American woman who looks like them. It gives them hope.”
Foreign excursions are common for mayors and governors, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), whose globe trotting included an eight-day mission to Australia in September and a 12-day tour of Asia in 2015. New York City’s mayors consider it a job requirement to travel to places such as Israel, Ireland and Italy because so many of their constituents have connections to those countries.
Such trips “can lead to new markets for local firms and even attract foreign investors,” said Mitchell Moss, a public policy professor at New York University.
But there’s another practical benefit, he said.
“Every politician is a hero the further they are from home,” he said.
When he was mayor, Marion Barry’s trips to Asia and Africa drew scrutiny because of questions about his spending. Former mayor Anthony Williams’s overseas travel became fodder for criticism because of the frequency of his trips, which in the last two years of his tenure included forays to China, England, Greece and South Africa.
Bowser’s trips have included El Salvador, Israel and Cuba. Her 2015 trip to China raised questions because her administration invited two business executives who had made $10,000 contributions to a political action committee she later shuttered.
Dalton Bennett contributed to this report.