D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser used her first citywide address to pledge a new era of transparency in local government, vowing to outfit all D.C. police officers with body cameras, consult honestly with residents on development projects and finish the beleaguered streetcar line while remaining open with the public about the system’s shortcomings.
“Accountability is embedded in everything this administration does,” Bowser (D) said in her State of the District speech Tuesday night. “Corruption at any level in our city is unacceptable.”
The focus on clean government stood in sharp contrast with last year’s address, when then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was forced to confront new allegations of impropriety, taking the stage to proclaim: “I didn’t break the law.”
With Gray out of office, Bowser suggested that the District government has an increased ability — and an urgent need — to address economic inequality in the nation’s capital.
Bowser said her first budget, due to the D.C. Council on Thursday, would lay out a plan for funding her priorities, including matching the $100 million a year that Gray allocated at the end of his term for affordable housing.
Speaking from the stage of the Lincoln Theatre in the rapidly gentrifying U Street-corridor, Bowser said that the District is at an economic and cultural crossroads and that the city government has no option but to do better.
“We know that it’s tougher and tougher for many people to start down and stay on the pathway to the middle class,” she said, noting that in the 1960s, her parents were able to buy a home in the District on “two modest government salaries.” Now, she said, the median home value tops a half-million dollars.
“If we are going to remain a city that keeps and welcomes families, we must do more to create opportunity for them,” Bowser said.
Largely echoing campaign promises made last year, Bowser sketched a broad vision that included solving problems her predecessors have tried to fix to no avail: chronic homelessness, a raging economic divide and rapidly disappearing affordable housing.
The mayor vowed to use the streetcar line to connect the city’s economically depressed eastern reaches with its thriving downtown core, taking ownership of a project that is years overdue and tens of millions over budget — and that she repeatedly criticized as a candidate and a council member.
“We all know that it has been long on promises and short on results. That changes now,” Bowser said of the streetcar system.
She promised to move forward with a scaled-back plan embraced by the council last year for about eight miles of rail, down from an original goal of 37 miles. The streetcar would run from east of the Anacostia River to Union Station and “eventually all the way to Georgetown.”
The mayor, who until last month had not said whether she would go forward with the streetcar at all, promised to be open about challenges the system might face — and about struggles her administration will encounter elsewhere.
She pledged to close the city’s dilapidated family homeless shelter on the campus of the former D.C. General Hospital “once and for all.” And she put dates to her goal of ending homelessness — 2018 for chronic family homelessness and 2025 for all homelessness.
Bowser said she supports funding a new hospital east of the Anacostia River, something she balked at when Gray proposed it last year.
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Bowser challenged city residents to develop “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” toward solutions to civic ills. The remark was partly an exhortation to accept the presence of small homeless shelters in six or more residential neighborhoods to make up for the nearly 300 D.C. General hospital rooms that currently house homeless families.
“We need your help,” Bowser said. “I challenge you to be more inclusive of those who need a hand up.” She did not mention that as a council member, she fought a plan to open such a shelter in her home ward, Ward 4, saying there were too many such shelters there.
Bowser took a high-profile swipe at Indiana’s controversial religious liberties law, which is being criticized as anti-gay. “We won’t stand by” she said, and support segregation. Aides said she would sign an executive order banning District-paid travel to that state.
Bowser also alluded to the racial tension that exploded last year in Ferguson, Mo., saying that in the District, she will work to make “ ‘black lives matter’ more than just a hashtag.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Bowser announced a partnership to establish 100 year-long internships for young black men.
In her speech, she also reiterated that she would pursue opening an all-male school for underprivileged boys. And she said she would reinvest in the city’s New Communities initiative, which aims to rejuvenate some of the city’s rundown public and subsidized housing.
The mayor also said the city would do more to ensure accountability and transparency in relations between residents and police.
Bowser said she would expand a $1 million pilot program begun last year and outfit every D.C. police officer with a body camera within 18 months. “It’s the right thing to do for our officers and our residents,” Bowser said.
She also promised to restore credibility to the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, including its troubled 911 dispatch system. She said she would work with the council to approve funding for free Metrorail rides for all city schoolchildren — an expansion of the free bus service that is offered now.
She warned that funding her priorities would require cuts elsewhere and said those would become apparent Thursday when her budget is released.
Johnnie Scott Rice, vice chairperson of the National Congress of Black Women, attended Bowser’s speech with her husband, a retired Metro employee. Both said they were hopeful. “I liked her promises,” Rice said. “Let’s hope she can keep them.”
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.