D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser took the oath of office Wednesday, becoming the first mayor in 16 years reelected to lead the nation’s capital and the first woman to serve multiple terms.
After attending an interfaith prayer service at a church in Mount Vernon Square, Bowser (D) headed to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for a ceremony in which D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Attorney General Karl A. Racine, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and other local lawmakers were also to be sworn in. Every incumbent won reelection last year, unusual in a city where residents in recent years have tended to topple their elected leaders.
“Today, I follow in the footsteps of Marion Barry and Anthony Williams and take this oath for a second time,” Bowser said. “Like them, I do not view a second term as a chance to warm the seat but to think and act boldly as we work together to take on our toughest challenges.”
She begins another four-year term as the city’s economy continues to boom amid rapid gentrification, as the District enjoys a AAA bond rating and as the population has broken the 700,000 mark — a dramatic resurgence. The 46-year-old Washington native did not have to defend her record during a low-key reelection campaign that drew no serious challenger.
But significant wealth disparities persist between the rich and poor, differences that are particularly pronounced between the largely African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River and the rest of the city.
“When people ask what I want to be remembered for, it comes down to this — a relentless commitment to a fair shot for every single D.C. resident. Period,” Bowser said, adding later, “We can’t take a victory lap as a whole if African Americans in our city continue to see lagging wages and a huge income disparity with their white neighbors.”
Bowser faces criticism over her handling of public schools, her close ties to developers, homelessness and affordable housing.
And while she won reelection with 76 percent of the vote in the mayoral contest, she fell behind other winners in citywide races, including Racine, Mendelson, Norton and even the low-key “shadow senator” Michael D. Brown (D), suggesting that many voters decided to skip over her name on the ballot.
In her first term, the mayor’s biggest achievements have included the closure of the D.C. General homeless mega-shelter and the creation of a network of smaller shelters for homeless families. She shepherded new developments, including an entertainment and sports arena in impoverished Ward 8 and Audi Field at Buzzard Point.
Bowser avoided the kind of voter backlash that doomed her mentor, Adrian M. Fenty, who served a single term from 2007 to 2011 and whose framed photo Bowser keeps in her office. Fenty was on hand Wednesday to see his protege achieve the second term that eluded him, but he declined to comment on Bowser’s achievement.
She also steered clear of the type of ethics scandal that in 2014 helped her unseat her predecessor, Vincent C. Gray, who now serves on the council. He saw his mayoral reelection hopes dashed after he became mired in a campaign finance probe that led to convictions of several associates.
Bowser’s immediate priorities for 2019 include taxing and regulating the sale of marijuana — which may be possible after the Democratic takeover of the House — as well as launching a new hospital in Southeast Washington, coaxing the Redskins to return to the District and promoting the District’s campaign for statehood.
In her second term, Bowser also has to grapple with challenges from her first term.
The D.C. school system, once a darling of the national school reform movement, has been awash in scandal, with a federal probe into fraudulent graduation rates and with the ouster of Bowser’s last handpicked chancellor. Her choice for a new chancellor, which she announced last month, is facing questions over the way he handled a sexual abuse case in his current job with Indianapolis Public Schools.
Homicides surged in 2018 to a total of 160, about 40 percent more than the previous year’s total of 116. The carnage brought Washington to the cusp of a count not seen since 2015, when a violent summer alarmed residents.
And the city had the highest increase in opioid overdose deaths among urban U.S. areas while the mayor’s administration ignored lifesaving strategies and misspent federal dollars.
“She’s done very well with economic development, but I think the challenge will be what I call human development — to address the violence associated with guns, the harm of the drugs in this city, and, always, education will be the number one priority,” said Bill Lightfoot, a former at-large council member who chaired both of Bowser’s mayoral campaigns.
In her remarks, Bowser acknowledged several of those challenges. She promised to reverse the homicide spike and said she had created a “road map to opioid epidemic prevention strategies funded by the federal government.”
The mayor also said the city needs to reconsider height limits to allow construction of taller buildings and more-dense development to create more living spaces. She said she wants to invest in workforce housing for teachers, social workers, police and firefighters.
While three-quarters of voters chose Bowser, they also reelected members of an increasingly liberal council that has often been at odds with the mayor.
Over Bowser’s initial objections, the council enacted one of the most generous paid-family-leave laws in the country, as well as a public campaign-financing program and stringent regulations governing Airbnb.
Bowser tried to unseat council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) in November by strongly backing challenger Dionne Reeder, lending her campaign donor network and organization to Reeder.
But the move backfired. Silverman handily won reelection, showing the limits of the mayor’s power and potentially emboldening Silverman and other council members to serve as a check on the administration without worrying about political consequences.
At Wednesday’s inauguration, D.C. Council members were more blunt than the mayor in their assessment of the challenges ahead, speaking repeatedly about the gaps in wealth, educational achievement, health and opportunity between rich and poor Washingtonians.
“The achievement gap is embarrassing, and it is growing,” said Mendelson, who called for a “Marshall Plan” to attack the problem in the earliest grades. “We need to look at this with urgency. We need to look at this differently and work harder.”
Bowser urged fiscal caution, warning that the city’s recent revenue boom could crumble under a recession.
“We are resilient, but we are not financial-tsunami-proof,” Bowser said. “We must resist writing checks now that we cannot cash in recessionary times.”
In her first four years, Bowser largely avoided the national spotlight, with a few exceptions. She appeared last year on the “Today” show to introduce her adopted newborn daughter, Miranda. The adoption made Bowser a rarity — a single mother leading a major city.
Bowser also clashed with President Trump on Twitter over his delayed attempt to hold a grand military parade in the city, an exchange she featured on one of her few campaign mailers.
“By now you know that I don’t react kindly to people talking bad about our city or trying to push us around . . . even if you’re the president,” she told the crowd.