Muriel Bowser, the D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate who is spending 15 hours a day crisscrossing the city in an effort to beat incumbent Mayor Vincent C. Gray, vanished from public view for much of Tuesday afternoon.
Bowser (D-Ward 4), it turns out, was closeted in her office, working the bureaucracy to find a place to stay for a retired teacher. Muriel Martin, 68, had been displaced from her apartment by a mold infestation. At a candidate forum, she approached Bowser, who told her to come visit the next day.
“Out of all this big government, all the people I went to, she was the only one who responded,” Martin said. “She never asked me what ward I lived in. She never asked me to vote for her.”
But when a reporter who had randomly met Martin asked Bowser about the incident, the candidate didn’t talk about the woman’s plight, didn’t slam the mayor for his handling of this winter’s homelessness crisis. Instead, Bowser stiffly replied: “Constituent service is an important part of the job.”
One week before the Democratic primary in an eight-way race that will determine whether the District’s embattled mayor becomes a lame duck, Bowser, the least experienced of the four council members vying for Gray’s job, is suddenly the leading object of curiosity for the two-thirds of D.C. voters who told a Washington Post poll they don't want to see Gray reelected.
A new poll by Washington City Paper and WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, published Friday, found Bowser and Gray in a virtual tie, with council members Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Tommy Wells (Ward 6) lagging far behind. Polling experts cautioned that the survey’s data were obtained by automated calls rather than live questioners, which is the industry standard for accuracy.
As the race narrows, Bowser is visibly evolving, her every utterance now inspected for mayoral gravitas. In a sharply divided city — split between voters who are enjoying the economic renaissance born under former mayors Anthony A. Williams (D) and Adrian M. Fenty (D) and those who are anxious about being priced out of their homes — Bowser must show that she is not merely the anti-Gray.
Her transition to primary alternative has been lightning-fast. In a few weeks, her bureaucratic and jargon-filled speaking style has yielded to a feisty, sometimes startlingly frank manner. But she still bats down questions of the sort that most politicians answer with ease. “What do people want to know about me?” she asked. “What do they need to know?”
She is a striking presence, the only woman among the major candidates, tall, with piercing obsidian eyes and an unusually expressive face. Where other politicians paste on a permanent, unrevealing smile, Bowser is an ever-shifting portrait of surprise, disgust, delight, anger and exasperation.
She has a habit of referring to herself as “we,” something several voters pointed to as evidence of arrogance. But on Thursday night, after a forum in Cleveland Park, with no cameras and few voters left in the room, she stayed behind, unlike the other candidates, and helped staffers fold up chairs.
She often calls herself “Bowser.” At the groundbreaking for the Wharf development on the Southwest waterfront Wednesday, she was the only one of three council members who spoke who did not shake Gray’s hand.
Her rhetoric has grown spicier as she senses growing disenchantment with the mayor. She called Gray’s behavior with former political ally Jeffrey Thompson “ridiculous.” “Imagine this: A 71-year-old man in a televised debate having a conversation about calling a man 15 years his junior ‘Uncle Earl.’ Is that what you want for your city?”
Asked about her tough demeanor, she said, “I’m young and female, so I have to mean business when I do business. But there are all sides to me.”
Bowser, 41, lives alone in Riggs Park and spends her non-work hours, usually Friday and Saturday nights, seeing family, watching TV (“Someone just introduced me to the ‘House of Cards,’ ” she said) and cleaning house. When she finds time, she’s reading a book on Robert F. Kennedy’s last campaign.
Her critics tend to be people who know she’s a protege of Fenty’s and tag her as a “gentrifier,” or at least an avid supporter of the economic resurgence that has made the city prohibitively expensive for many low-income residents.
Bowser makes no excuses for the support she gets from Fenty’s crew. Her treasurer, Ben Soto, a central player in development projects under Fenty, had the same position in the ex-mayor’s campaigns. Her campaign chairman, former council member William Lightfoot, held the same job for Fenty, as did her campaign strategist, Tom Lindenfeld. And Bowser, like Fenty, ran into trouble because of her association with Sinclair Skinner, a Fenty fraternity brother who played a key role in a contracting scheme that a council investigation called “a classic case of waste and abuse.” A fundraiser Skinner was to host for Bowser earlier this month was scrapped after it became a campaign controversy.
Bowser embraces Fenty as her mentor and still “a friend and a supporter,” but in an interview, she said that “you won’t be surprised that I spent a lot of time thinking about” where his mayoralty went wrong.
“When you do these jobs, sometimes you charge hard and you need people around you who will speak truth to power,” she said. “What I would do differently: I’m going to make sure I have people around me going, ‘Muriel, stop. Muriel, listen. Muriel, go there.’ ”
As she said it, she reached out with both hands, grabbed onto her imaginary self and shook, hard. “I go into this with a lot less ego,” she said.
The main cudgel wielded against Bowser in the campaign has been the idea that after seven years on the council, she has little experience managing people or running an operation.
Evans, the council’s longest-serving member, bashes Bowser at debates, accusing her of having her best lines written “by one of your flunkies” and taunting her with offers of training so “you can actually learn how to be mayor, because you’re going to need that.”
Bowser bristles at the criticism, noting that although three other council members are challenging the mayor, “no one talks about their management experience, which is the same as mine. Why do they say that about us? Because I’m 41.”
But some voters in her ward echo the critique, saying she’s parochial and hasn’t championed big ideas.
Asked to name her top legislative achievements, Bowser points to the ethics bill she sponsored shortly before three council members pleaded guilty to corruption charges. Bowser’s committee wrestled nearly a dozen ethics bills into one. What she settled on, critics say — establishing a new ethics board without banning the funds council members can use to benefit political supporters, and without tougher limits on outside employment or gifts — will do little to halt wrongdoing.
Bowser also takes pride in passing a bill that lets D.C. schoolchildren ride for free on Metrobus.
“Muriel’s move for the school kids on buses was right and effective,” said Mary Hynes, a member of the Arlington County Board who serves on Metro’s board with Bowser.
In Ward 4, which straddles Rock Creek Park in the city’s north, Bowser has alienated some parents by voicing support for the policy allowing children who live east of the park to attend schools in upper Northwest. “It has been a long tradition of people finding the best opportunities wherever they are,” she said.
Some Ward 4 parents wish she’d put more energy into improving schools in their neighborhoods rather than working for parents who take their kids across town to schools with better reputations and test scores.
“Clearly, there are good options on the other side of the park,” said Andrew Rowe, who joined other parents to create ForWard4 to advocate for neighborhood schools. “But people are interested in seeing what options can be created in the ward.” Rowe, who said he “wouldn’t necessarily vote for” Bowser, said that “schools are not one of her top focuses.”
Many Ward 4 residents say Bowser has helped them push back against efforts to put more shelters and group homes in their neighborhoods. This winter, Bowser has been a fierce critic of Gray’s approach to the city’s soaring homeless population, calling him callous.
The critique has won Bowser applause at debates, but also pushback from council colleagues and advocates for the homeless who say she agitated against one of the few promising leads in the search for a new family shelter.
In 2010, Fenty’s senior staff, looking for rooms for families spilling out of the main shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital building near RFK Stadium, set their hopes on an abandoned nursing home the city had owned for four decades.
Fenty’s housing director said the best option was to renovate the old Hebrew Home for the Aged on Spring Road NW in the mayor’s home ward. But that was now Bowser’s ward and neighbors told her that devoting the building to the homeless would create a cluster of three transitional housing facilities, harming property values and public safety.
“How could a government agency ask people in a two-block radius to support three homeless shelters?” Bowser asked at a hearing. She focused instead on finding permanent housing for the families, and adding resources at D.C. General, despite opposition from its neighbors.
Advocates for the homeless blamed Bowser for scotching the Hebrew Home option. Scott McNeilly, an attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said at a hearing that city officials had told advocates that “there was some political issue” with the site. McNeilly said he heard the proposal was dropped “because of objections from the council member for the ward.”
But Bowser said she did no such thing; rather, she asked that the community be consulted before a shelter was established in their neighborhood.
This winter, as Gray struggled to find space for families crowded into motels and recreation centers, his head of human services, who wasn’t in the District in 2010, met with advocates and again broached the idea of renovating the Hebrew Home. He was quickly waved off by those who knew the politics, according to advocates who were at the meeting.
Bowser said this week she is working with housing officials on a plan to redevelop the Hebrew Home as mixed-income apartments with units reserved for moderate- and low-income families, including some homeless people.
Bowser portrays Gray as a cynic whose “One City” slogan rings hollow as he targets his campaign mainly in neighborhoods that are majority black, especially east of the Anacostia River, where he did best four years ago. She said the picture of Gray embracing former mayor and current Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) at his endorsement announcement “demonstrated we need a clean break from the past.”
Political organizers east of the river say Bowser faces considerable skepticism there, primarily because of her ties to Fenty, but also because people don’t know her. Bowser has heard this before: “‘They don’t know you, Muriel. You’re from uptown, you don’t relate, you’re not going to get any votes,’” she said.
But Bowser is campaigning in every ward and she tells audiences that she’s “your best chance” to bridge the District’s racial divide. She offers as evidence her effort to bring her black constituents together with whites at a family festival west of Rock Creek Park.
“That park is a real separation,” she said, “but people want the same things. They want their kids to be able to have a better shot than they did. They want a bridge. I represent that bridge.”
It’s 10 p.m. and she still has another appearance to make. But she’s excited and nervous about the next morning, when she will film “my first TV commercial. That’s something new. It’s for people who want to know who I am. I want to answer their questions.”