As questions have mounted and the volume of the blame game has grown louder over last week’s fatal smoke incident on Metro, one public figure has struck a notably cautious, nonconfrontational profile: D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
Firefighters have blamed Metro for the emergency, which left one passenger dead and dozens injured. Metro has blamed firefighters. And members of Congress and the D.C. Council have pointed fingers at both.
Bowser (D) has said that drawing conclusions would be “premature,” that commenting with a federal investigation underway is “irresponsible.” She considers it a duty not to rush to judgment — even as Metro riders are clamoring for answers, as well as some assurance that the region’s subway system is safe.
The crisis has provided an early test of Bowser’s leadership style and, by some accounts, it has defined the outset of her term. Nearly every day since the incident on Jan. 12 — Bowser’s 11th day in office — has brought a new example of her measured approach.
Her style has offered a noticeable contrast to that of her predecessors. Adrian M. Fenty (D) rushed to the scene of the last major Metro accident, in 2009, and, to the chagrin of arriving federal investigators, held his own news conference. Vincent C. Gray (D) could deliver breaking news in a monotone yet rise to a boil at perceived injustices to District residents, even facing down then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) during a government shutdown.
“Some will respond with bluster,” Bowser said in an interview. “My approach is to get to the bottom of what happened and make sure we fix any problems that we find, be they on Metro’s end or anything we find on our end.”
Vada Manager, who was a spokesman for Sharon Pratt Kelly when she was mayor and now advises corporate clients on crisis communications, said it’s impossible to know what it has been like for Bowser “in the crucible” of the Metro crisis. But Manager said he preaches to clients to make sure that during disasters they show immediacy, compassion for victims and a plan for action.
The approach can “mitigate some of the second-guessing and criticism that you get,” he said.
Bowser’s defenders say her response has been appropriately even keeled. Ellen Qualls, a Democratic strategist who has handled crisis communications for politicians in the region, said it’s hard to deal with an event like this one during the opening days of an administration. And restraint will help advance the long-term goal of figuring out how D.C. firefighters and Metro can coordinate better, she said.
“If [Bowser] led a pitchfork mob to the doors of Metro, it’s going to be harder for her to get answers,” Qualls said. “She really has to maintain a position, which I think she has done a good job of, as a trusted negotiator for the city and Metro to work together in the future.”
Bowser began taking heat for her response when she waited five hours to issue her first statement. The criticism grew, particularly on Twitter, when the mayor described rescuers’ response times as “customary” amid reports that some passengers had waited 40 minutes for help to arrive.
“I don’t think #customary is what the #WMATA #customers want Mayor Bowser IMHO 40 minutes for help to arrive is #liability issue for District,” read a typical tweet.
Bowser has declined to blame Metro or publicly pressure the system to address some of the safety questions that emerged from the incident: Did the ventilation system work properly? Did emergency radios work in the tunnel? Are train doors accessible to emergency crews?
Bowser appeared to defend Metro when, the day after the incident, she said that “the safety culture has dramatically improved” — a remark that prompted critics to say that she was speaking as a former Metro board member and not as the District’s mayor.
She declined to blame Metro even when her administration concluded that after Metro’s initial call for help, 20 minutes elapsed before Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials told firefighters that there was a train carrying passengers stopped in the smoke-filled tunnel.
And Bowser declined to comment when the National Transportation Safety Board said it took 35 minutes for Metro to cut power to the tunnel’s dangerous third rail, perhaps delaying firefighters’ rescue of passengers.
The mayor also has deflected questions about the city’s culpability, even after Metro on Thursday broke an 11-day silence and said D.C. firefighters were to blame for emergency radios not working in the smoky tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station.
“What I’ve asked our homeland security division to do,” she said, “is to especially look at all communications issues.”
Bowser has followed some of the playbook on crisis management that Manager laid out. On Monday, a week after the incident, she tweeted a photo of herself riding Metro. And her first statement expressed sadness over the death of Carol Glover, the 61-year-old grandmother and federal contractor who succumbed to respiratory failure in the smoky train.
Bowser’s staff issued the statement as the mayor entered an evening event at the Kennedy Center to honor District teachers. On stage, she mentioned the calamity, and afterward she traveled to three hospitals and visited with victims until about 10 p.m.
Yet the mayor didn’t attend Glover’s funeral, instead sending her secretary for protocol to the memorial service on Monday. Members of her staff declined to give a reason for her absence.
In many ways, Bowser’s approach reflects how she won her job. She remained unflustered and low-key last year during primary and general election battles as competitors taunted her with questions about her readiness to be mayor.
After meetings with NTSB officials Wednesday, the contrast between her and D.C. Council members was stark. “The investigation is ongoing, but it is moving too slowly for our taste. I’m hoping they got the message,” said Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large). “We want to make sure that those who ride Metro . . . feel safe.”
Bowser emerged from her own meeting with the NTSB far less animated. “Generally, we just confirmed process and how we can be cooperative with them,” she said. “We have committed to a top-down review.”
And on Thursday, she found herself on the defensive as the general manager of Metro said new radio encryption that D.C. firefighters had installed left them unable to communicate in the tunnel.
On Friday, Bowser may have the last word for weeks to come with the release of a preliminary report by the city’s homeland security agency. She has cast the report, a little more than a week in the making, as the District’s comprehensive “statement of facts” about the incident.
Bowser said Friday’s report would “cover everything we know.”
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.