A gaggle of children swirled around Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on a recent afternoon in Southeast Washington, posing for photos and following along as she took a stroll before cutting the ribbon at a newly expanded public charter school.
But Bowser (D) was not universally celebrated in a neighborhood where a 15-year-old boy was shot to death recently, another victim in the surge of homicides outraging a community defined by blight and violence.
“What does she do for us over here?” said Jasmine Douglas, 24, who walked the other way from the mayor, her two children in tow. “She talks a good game. But what does she do?”
As a mayoral candidate in 2014, Bowser vowed to focus on neighborhoods where her support was weakest, the African American communities east of the Anacostia River.
Yet, as Bowser seeks another term in Tuesday’s primary, civic leaders and residents in Wards 7 and 8 say that she is falling far short in the three basic responsibilities of any big-city mayor: economic development, education and public safety.
“I just don’t see the same commitment to east of the river,” said Paul Savage, a former president of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association in Ward 7. “African Americans have not benefited from the boom, and a city cannot be whole when there are such disparities. No one seems to be looking out for us.”
It is largely because of the prosperity on the west side of the Anacostia that Bowser is facing no credible opponent in the Democratic primary — tantamount to victory in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. A decade after she won the Ward 4 D.C. Council seat, Bowser is set to become the District’s first mayor since 2002 to win reelection.
A Washington Post poll from last year, before the homicide rate spiked and the school scandals erupted, showed that the mayor’s popularity had grown in Wards 7 and 8 since she took office, when she was largely unknown to voters in neighborhoods such as Anacostia, Congress Heights and Deanwood.
“I didn’t feel close to her when she got in, but watching her I like what she says,” Sheila Wilkins, 66, a retiree who plans to vote for Bowser, said as she shopped for groceries in Ward 7. “I like that there’s a woman in there.”
But the recent increase in homicides is new grist for civic leaders already frustrated that the symbols of change evident in many District neighborhoods — new housing, restaurants, and places to shop — elude their own. As much as they want those amenities, however, community leaders and residents also complain that the Bowser administration is not protecting poor and working-class families from being displaced.
“All of this is about big developers coming in here, buying up the land, forcing people out, and the mayor’s isn’t doing anything about it,” said Bill Russell, 66, a retired Navy veteran who lives in Ward 8. “They’re developing people out of the city. They’re developing me out of the city.”
Victims of recent gun violence on the city’s east end have included a popular Anacostia businessman and an amateur boxer, both of whom died, and the cousin of D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who recently pronounced the mayor’s anti-crime strategies “too little, too late.”
There have been 72 homicides so far this year, a 53 percent increase from this time last year, and most of the killings have occurred east of the river.
But the carnage is not all that has beset residents.
In a mailing to voters, Bowser boasts that the District is the nation’s “fastest improving urban school district” — a claim that is misleading and rings especially hollow in Wards 7 and 8, where black students lag far behind whites in more prosperous neighborhoods in standardized test performance.
At Ballou Senior High School in Congress Heights, more than half of last year’s graduating seniors missed at least six weeks of school, a scandal that has prompted two federal investigations. “Some of us aren’t feeling that improvement or seeing it,” said Tina Fletcher of the Ward 8 Education Council. In Ward 8, she said, “The simple things that make up a school don’t happen.”
The mayor, who did not respond to a request for comment, casts the area’s progress in far more positive terms, often citing unemployment rates in Wards 7 and 8 that have declined by about 3 percent since she took office, according to the District’s most recent figures.
“We have driven down unemployment in Ward 7 — it’s the lowest number in Ward 7 since we started recording unemployment numbers,” Bowser boasted at a recent campaign rally. “In Ward 8, we’re seeing numbers that no one ever really expected. So we are living up to the promises we made.”
Nevertheless, the jobless rates in the two wards — 9.9 percent in Ward 7 and 12.8 percent in Ward 8 — are the District’s highest, and are at least three times more than the Ward 3 rate, which also has declined since Bowser took office.
Her team cites economic development projects such as a new sports and entertainment complex for the Washington Wizards and Mystics on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital, and the decision by Uber to open an office in Ward 7.
“All of us want to move further, faster,” said Courtney Snowden, the deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, whom Bowser appointed in 2015 to focus on underserved neighborhoods. “But none of these things happen overnight.”
From his brick rowhouse in Anacostia, David White, 60, a retired firefighter, can see the construction cranes across the river, a view that he says reminds him of what is lacking in his own neighborhood.
Yet, a few hundred yards from his porch, evidence of change exists. Workers are putting up the 114-unit Maple View Flats, an affordable-housing complex that is to include the first stand-alone Starbucks east of the river.
The development exemplifies Bowser’s efforts to counter gentrification, which has made housing costs in the District increasingly unaffordable for even middle-income families. But White and his neighbors do not see Maple View Flats as progress, mainly because they think that subsidized housing is already overly abundant in Wards 7 and 8.
The prospect of a Starbucks is little consolation in an area with a dearth of retail.
“Can I go to Starbucks to buy a suit? We do wear suits over here, you know,” scoffed White, who said he won’t vote for Bowser. “For 40 years I’ve been hearing about the development that’s coming. Was this what they were talking about?”
Over the years, voters in the District’s east have largely viewed mayors with skepticism, the exception being Marion Barry, a Ward 8 resident and Democrat who enjoyed bantering with residents and was popular for creating initiatives such as the youth summer jobs program.
Democrat Vincent C. Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign was successful mainly because Wards 7 and 8 voters rejected incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D), Bowser’s mentor, who was viewed as catering to more prosperous Zip codes.
When Bowser defeated Gray in 2014, her lowest vote totals were in Wards 7 and 8, where she lost by a 2-to-1 margin. After her election, she reaffirmed her pledge to focus on the wards by appointing Snowden and assigning her an office in Anacostia.
“I said, ‘Hey, I can get on board with that,’ ” said a Ward 8 leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “But it has been up and down. She needs to build more friendships over here, so that people feel like, ‘That’s my mayor’ as opposed to, ‘That’s the mayor.’ ”
Bowser’s political strength is rooted in the precincts on the District’s west side. But she needs Wards 7 and 8 to demonstrate that she is “the mayor of the entire city,” said Ron Lester, a pollster whose clients have included Barry and Gray.
A 2017 Washington Post poll found that Bowser’s favorable ratings in Wards 7 and 8 were 65 percent — nearly double what it was in 2014, when 62 percent held no opinion of her.
“She has made steady progress,” said Lester, who has no relationship with Bowser. “These voters are sophisticated enough to know that the mayor can’t solve all the problems all alone. It takes a sustained effort, and they think she’s trying.”
In her first year, Bowser announced the $55 million complex at St. Elizabeths, predicting that the venue would draw 380,000 patrons annually and create hundreds of jobs.
Monica Ray, executive director of the Congress Heights Development Corp., said the project has the “potential to bring a critical mass of people” to Ward 8. “We need that shot in the arm,” she said.
Yet a sports arena is not at the top of the wish list for many residents who lack easy access to drugstores, supermarkets and restaurants.
“We don’t have anything over here,” said Walter Coates, 79, a retired building supervisor who lives in Anacostia. “Why doesn’t she put something people need?”
Darryl Peterson, 42, standing across from St. Elizabeths one afternoon, said the anticipation that the project may create opportunity is offset by trepidation that it will “raise property values and push people out.”
He also doubted that it would generate jobs for his neighbors.
“When the jobs start, you don’t see black people,” said Peterson, who is African American, echoing a common complaint among civic leaders and residents. “They present the jobs to everyone but they don’t choose us.”
A mayoral representative said that of the 40 full-time construction workers at the St. Elizabeths project, 28 live in Wards 7 and 8. Of the $65 million in contracts awarded on the project, $10 million went to seven contractors from the wards.
In March, White led a demonstration outside Maple View Flats, accusing the developers of failing to meet hiring requirements for District residents and chiding them for not employing Ward 8 workers.
More recently, it was the spasm of violence that drove criticism of Bowser, as well as a decision by the police department to demote a popular commander.
“People who did like her, like her less,” said Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, a Ward 8 community leader. “I’ve never heard anyone say they want to have a parade for her.”