D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) begins her second term in office with an unquestioned mandate from voters and a widely lauded vision for a city whose prosperity could finally be shared across barriers of race, class and neighborhood.
But Bowser’s plans for spending her political capital — and achieving that vision — remain a work in progress.
More than two months after she clinched victory in a reelection campaign that featured no serious opponents, the mayor has yet to announce a concrete agenda for her next four years at the helm of the nation’s capital.
Instead, Bowser has offered a broad array of goals — among them: increasing affordable housing, improving public education and reducing violent crime — accompanied by promises to eventually flesh out the details of how she will attain them.
Bowser, in an interview, said District residents were confident in her ability to achieve the objectives she has laid out.
“We’re growing. We have improved financial conditions,” she said. “We have the tools that we need to work on the things that continue to be problematic for us, including building more housing, including changing the trajectory of neighborhoods and people who need higher incomes and safer communities.”
Voters, she added, “have gotten behind my leadership and ability to pull disparate communities and ideas together to achieve those changes.”
The mayor has begun to plot a course toward her larger vision. She said she wants to increase the police force over the next four years to deploy more officers to foot patrols, addressing a spike in homicides in 2018 that shows no signs of abating three weeks into the new year.
Bowser said she wants to add 36,000 new housing units in the District by 2025, easing a shortage that is helping to drive up rents and home prices. She said she would consider increasing the city’s annual $100 million investment in the Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main tool for producing new affordable housing.
At the same time, she wants to look for new ways to increase middle-class housing, in addition to programs aimed at low-income residents. The city should consider trying to modify a federally imposed limit on the height of buildings to increase density, she said, but she has not committed to any specific proposal.
In the realm of D.C. Public Schools — where recent scandals included revelations of fraudulent graduation rates and the removal of former chancellor Antwan Wilson after he violated school enrollment rules for his daughter — Bowser said she is confident that the replacement she has nominated, Lewis D. Ferebee, will make progress in closing the stark achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
Looking back on her first term, Bowser can also point to the fulfillment of one of her core 2014 campaign promises: The closing of the D.C. General shelter for homeless families, which is being replaced by smaller shelters spread out across the city. Three of the six new shelters have already opened.
What is missing, at least for now, is a legacy-defining program or policy of the kind typically associated with the District’s select group of multiterm mayors.
Marion Barry is remembered for his iconic summer jobs program for young Washingtonians, which endures to this day. Anthony A. Williams, the last mayor to win reelection, in 2002, is viewed as a historic fiscal reformer who led the District out of the dark days when chronic budget mismanagement led to a federal control board.
No such associations leap to mind for Bowser, said Mark Plotkin, a D.C. statehood activist and former political commentator for radio stations WTOP and WAMU.
“She’s led, in some ways, a charmed political existence. She’s worked hard, she’s emptied the field, she’s climbed the political ladder,” Plotkin said. “But if you say ‘Muriel Bowser’ it’s difficult to attach anything that she’s done with her name.”
He added, “As a leader you’ve got to do more than just attain and keep office.”
The open-ended nature of Bowser’s second-term agenda was driven home last fall after her general election victory, when she formed a working group to “recommend people, policies, and processes that can help the Bowser administration achieve a shared vision for Washington, D.C.” That effort was accompanied by the launch of a website where District residents could submit ideas for what the mayor should do over the next four years.
The site asks visitors, “What would you do if you were not afraid to fail?”
Officials in the Bowser administration did not respond to requests for the top suggestions submitted by District residents or the findings of the working group. It is not clear whether the working group actually created a final set of recommendations.
Bowser doesn’t work in a vacuum. Much of her effectiveness in enacting the policies she ultimately decides to pursue will depend on cooperation from the D.C. Council.
And while she sailed to reelection, she starts her second term with reduced sway over the council after she tried but failed to unseat member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a frequent critic of the Bowser administration. In November’s election, Silverman trounced Dionne Reeder, the challenger heavily promoted by Bowser, even beating her in Ward 4, Bowser’s home turf.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the mayor has not yet expressed any specific legislative priorities to him for the next four years, but he said he expects her agenda to focus on affordable housing and education.
Bill Lightfoot, Bowser’s reelection campaign chairman, said the defining theme of the mayor’s pitch to voters had been to “ensure that everyone shares in the opportunity that our economic growth has allowed.” He said he expected the mayor’s plans to take shape by this spring, when she delivers her annual State of the District speech and proposes a budget for the next fiscal year.
Bowser echoed those remarks, saying she would be soliciting ideas from her department heads for major budget initiatives or new legislation in the coming months.
She said it was premature to discuss what her lasting mark on the city would be.
“I think it’s too early to be talking about a legacy, other than that we fought hard for everybody in this city to have a chance at experiencing the prosperity that we are experiencing,” Bowser said. “We want everybody to have a fair shot.”