On a hot summer morning, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser stood on a sidewalk in Northwest Washington to promote her administration’s war on rats, an effort she said exemplified “the basics of our government operations” and her team’s “incredible contributions.”
“One . . . two . . . three . . . rat-free!” the mayor said, smiling for a photo.
Over the years, D.C. mayors have defined their reigns through ambitious initiatives, whether it was Marion Barry’s summer jobs program, Anthony Williams’s repairs to the city’s finances or Adrian Fenty’s public education reforms.
On the brink of her reelection campaign, Bowser, 45, resists any such shorthand definition. Instead, the city’s seventh mayor views herself as the “balanced” manager of an ever-safer and more prosperous city, untainted by the dramas that engulfed her predecessors, including the incumbent she ousted, Vincent C. Gray.
Her tenure has not been without embarrassment — charges of cronyism, campaign finance violations and contract steering have cropped up — but little seems to have captivated a public largely fixated on the city’s main political ringmaster, President Trump.
A June Washington Post poll showed 67 percent of District residents approve of Bowser, though only 20 percent voiced strong support. Her political prowess seemed especially tenuous after three of the four D.C. Council members she backed in last year’s election lost their seats.
Yet, in a city known for rejecting incumbents after a single term, including the two men who preceded her, Bowser is well-positioned to become the District’s first mayor in 15 years to win reelection next year.
“She’s not exciting, but in some ways we’ve had enough excitement in District government,” said Tony Bullock, Williams’s former press secretary. “She’s a calming influence, she’s businesslike, and she’s not prone to off-the-wall comments.”
Yet Bowser’s measured approach can repel those seeking an impassioned leader to wrangle with Washington’s challenges, including soaring costs that have created two cities — one for the rich, another for the poor.
“It’s hard to be enthusiastic about someone who isn’t enthusiastic,” said China Dickerson, executive director of DC Young Democrats. “It’s apparent to me that she’s a Democrat and she’s progressive, but I’m not sure what issue she champions.”
A centerpiece of Bowser’s agenda is replacing D.C. General, the District’s primary shelter for homeless families, with a citywide network of six smaller facilities, a plan the D.C. Council eviscerated before approving a modified version.
At a July groundbreaking in Petworth for one of those new shelters, Bowser appeared to wipe away tears after invoking Relisha Rudd, the homeless youngster whose 2014 disappearance from D.C. General spurred calls for its closure.
The moment was unusual for a mayor who rarely allows herself to seem vulnerable in public.
“That little baby gets to me,” Bowser explained later, as her security detail whisked her to city hall in her black, city-issued SUV.
The mayor spoke during an expansive interview in which she trumpeted accomplishments, answered criticism and weighed her political prospects. Studiously guarded, she also revealed details about her private life, including a long-term boyfriend she had at the time, a man whom she had named to a District commission and who has what can only be described as a unique flair for invention.
Bowser said her political strength is rooted in her appeal to a broad spectrum of constituencies. Advocates may “want to attack us for being pro-development,” she said, but can’t square that against her determination to overhaul homeless services.
“They can’t put their finger on me,” the mayor said, her smile back in place.
In her city hall office, the mayor keeps an orderly desk, which is adorned with several framed photos, including one of her and former mayor Fenty, a testimonial to the allegiance she still feels to her political mentor despite his mixed reputation among many District voters.
Nearby was a magazine entitled “Easy Home Makeovers” and a copy of “Confidence: How Winning Streaks & Losing Streaks Begin & End.”
A self-help book may seem unnecessary for a politician who has never lost a campaign, but Bowser said the book adds to “my toolbox for how to approach situations.”
“I’ve always been confident,” she said. “I don’t lack confidence. You think I lack confidence?”
After nearly three years as mayor and a decade in public office, she said she still encounters skeptics.
“They always underestimate me — young, female and black. Well, I’m not as young as I used to be.” Sometimes, she said, “I think some people think I can’t string a sentence or something, so they’re surprised.”
Bowser displayed no self-doubt during a spate of summer appearances, stressing balanced budgets, a declining unemployment rate and devoting $100 million annually to affordable housing.
At a meeting of the Ward 4 Democrats, she fielded a query about her aides’ “lapses in judgment,” an apparent reference to the former schools chancellor placing children of Bowser appointees into coveted public schools, allowing them to bypass the school lottery. A second embarrassment was a D.C. Council member’s investigation alleging that her aides showed favoritism toward a top political donor.
“Anybody know what season we’re in?” the mayor asked the audience. “It’s called silly season. . . . The period right before an election. You all know things get dredged up.” She asked voters to “trust my judgment.”
Christopher Alexander, 44, a database engineer in the audience, said he was taken with the mayor’s presentation even if “I couldn’t tell you two or three accomplishments or point to anything really impressive. At the same time, it seems like there’s no big trouble.”
Across town, Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 activist, said she had expected Bowser to be an “uppity” reincarnation of Fenty, who alienated African Americans by appearing to cater to affluent Washingtonians and by rarely showing up in predominately black neighborhoods on the city’s east side.
But Bowser won over Seegars with her plan to open neighborhood homeless shelters, including in affluent Ward 3, and by closing a deal for a Washington Wizards practice facility in Ward 8.
“The message is: ‘I’m trying to treat everyone equally. I’m trying to spread the wealth and poverty,’ ” Seegars said.
The mayor’s supporters describe Bowser as personable, citing invitations to informal Sunday teas at her home for LGBT leaders, small-business owners and other groups, where she can be found cleaning up amid the festivities.
“It was great to see the mayor walking around picking up after people,” recalled Philip Pannell, an activist who has been a guest.
The mayor’s detractors say she’s reaping the benefits of a booming economy and is devoid of original initiatives. They mock her team’s constant branding — the rat initiative was accompanied by a #BackToBasics hashtag on social media.
“D.C. government is on automatic pilot,” said Dorothy Brizill, an activist. “She is largely implementing policies and plans developed by her predecessors.”
Activists fault Bowser for not fully funding the city’s long-term plan to end homelessness or reducing the waiting list of 40,000 families seeking rent vouchers. They say she’s too close to developers, citing her original plan to lease homeless shelter space from builders who were her campaign donors.
“She wants to develop every inch of the city with high-end condos and with the bare minimum of affordable housing,” said Parisa Norouzi of Empower DC, a housing advocacy group. Norouzi dismissed Bowser’s annual pledge of $100 million for low-cost housing as insufficient.
“You read the headlines and you think this mayor is the most progressive mayor you’ve heard of, but you have to do your homework — the housing isn’t really affordable,” Norouzi said. “If she really wanted to lead, she’d say $200 million for affordable housing and at least 50 percent would be for the lowest income.”
Bowser and the council have an often fractious relationship, laid bare last year when the mayor cursed out council Chairman Phil Mendelson after he accused her of “obfuscation and misinformation” during negotiations over replacing D.C. General.
Council members revised her plan to require that the new shelters be constructed on public property. Mendelson, in an interview, declined to revisit their clash but said Bowser undermines her effectiveness when she “picks fights” with council members.
The mayor also faced criticism over FreshPAC, a political action committee her operatives created and were forced to shut down amid criticism. Several donors accompanied Bowser on a trip to China, triggering complaints she was fostering a pay-to-play culture that has long shrouded D.C. politics.
“Given the position that the mayor took when she was on the council around government ethics and campaign finance . . . I’m surprised she has not exhibited stronger leadership in that area,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, a possible Bowser challenger.
Bowser said her decisions are driven by the city’s “best interests” — not political allies — and no evidence exists to the contrary.
“Won’t be able to find it,” she said.
Asked about the 2018 race, the mayor wondered aloud about who would challenge her.
She expressed no concern about a rematch with Gray, saying, “ Maybe he doesn’t want another round with Muriel Bowser.”
Gray declined to comment.
One aspect of her mayoralty that Bowser is still adjusting to is curiosity about her personal life.
“People always want to know more,” she said before describing a daily routine that includes going to sleep at 10 p.m. sharp and awakening at 5 a.m., when she reads Twitter and does household chores. In her down time, she said she enjoys HGTV and magazines with headlines like “21 Ways to Tame Your Closet.” A favorite restaurant is RPM, an Italian eatery she described as “sexy” and where she drinks Manhattans and eats spicy crab.
The mayor, who has never married, reluctantly identified her boyfriend as Jason Turner, 49, a former Parks Department official under Fenty, who is a divorced father of two. He escorted her to a 2016 White House state dinner.
Turner earned a measure of fame in 2010 with his then-spouse, Stacie, on the reality television show “Real Housewives of DC.” During one episode, he boasted about his patented invention — the “Penile Volumetric Measuring Device,” which quantifies the size of the male sex organ.
In the application for the patent, which Turner got in 2006, the inventor lamented the “remarkable lack of convenient and accurate methods for measuring the penis.” His patent expired in 2015 because of nonpayment of fees, a U.S. Patent and Trademark official said.
Turner, who did not return calls, and his former wife hosted at least one fundraiser for Bowser before their 2012 separation. The mayor said she and Turner had been involved for “a number of years,” beginning before she became mayor, but declined to elaborate.
“Let’s move on,” she said.
Around the time of the July interview, Bowser appointed Turner to an unpaid seat on the Commission on Climate Change and Resiliency, an eight-member panel established to “assess the impacts of the changing climate.”
On Friday, John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, said Turner’s interest in environmental issues and his background in facilities management qualified him. Falcicchio also said the nature of the relationship between the mayor and Turner had changed since his appointment.
“To the best of my understanding, they’re not together anymore,” he said.