None of this feels quite right to her. Not all the attention. Not all the questions. Not all the buzz. Not all the glare.
In her methodically plotted rise, Muriel Bowser could always inhabit the light of someone else’s luster. She was the daughter of Joe Bowser, the community stalwart. She was the protege of Adrian M. Fenty, the hot-shot mayor.
But it’s all Muriel now. And it’s taking some getting used to.
“Kind of swinging to the position where all eyes are on me is unnatural for me,” Bowser said in an interview just days before a victory in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary that positioned her as the early front-runner in November’s general election.
Her reticence and her emotional distance are qualities that might have been a liability at times during the campaign, but her straightforward, drama-free approach to getting things done could be an asset in a city that prizes accomplishment.
Bowser, a lifelong Washingtonian, can be an enigma even to friends who admire her singular focus, her unflinching drive, her strength.
“Muriel is not someone I would invite to my card game,” said Beverly Perry, a friend who is a retired Pepco executive and lives in Bowser’s Ward 4 neighborhood. “She doesn’t seem to relax at that level and engage in that kind of camaraderie . . . not that kind of let-your-hair-down-kick-back card player.”
Bowser, 41, traces her Washington roots through the generations. She took her middle name — Elizabeth — from her maternal great-grandmother, Elizabeth Brown, who died in 2002 at age 96.
She grew up as the youngest of five children in a cramped North Michigan Park home in which organization and discipline were prized.
The family wasn’t wealthy but was prosperous enough to send their children to private Catholic schools. Bowser attended Elizabeth Seton, an all-girls high school in Bladensburg, Md. On Sundays, she served as a lector at Catholic Mass. Her father, a public school facilities supervisor and one of Washington’s first advisory neighborhood commissioners, prided himself on being a “no-nonsense guy.” He could be gruff with the boys who called in the evenings asking for his youngest daughter. “I said: ‘Why you calling? It should be homework time,’ ” Joe Bowser, 78, recalled.
While other girls were asserting their independence, Bowser was sticking close to family. As a teenager, even if she just wanted to go to the store, she would say, “ ‘Daddy, come with me,’ ” Joe Bowser said.
At Seton, some of her classmates chose quotes from the likes of Pink Floyd, Styx, Stephen King and Albert Einstein to place beneath their 1990 senior yearbook photos. Bowser, her hair piled high in the photo and a single strand of pearls around her neck, selected a passage from Corinthians: “Love is patient and kind; Love is not happy with evil but happy with the truth.”
Her father wanted her to go to an all-female college. At Chatham College, a small, women’s liberal arts school in Pittsburgh, the young woman who hadn’t wanted to go to the store without her father was homesick. Her father’s message: “You gotta stay.”
College friends use the same words to describe Bowser the student as allies now use to describe Bowser the politician: driven, talented, bright.
The college, at which Bowser majored in history, was “extremely competitive from a writing perspective,” said Madelyn Toliver, Bowser’s Chatham classmate. Bowser cites her writing ability as one of her strengths. Even in unscripted moments she employs an economy of words, carving away any fat.
After a stint as an insurance claims adjustor in Philadelphia, she returned to Washington, and took a job at the Montgomery County development office in Silver Spring. She followed in her father’s footsteps by winning a spot as an ANC commissioner.
Her careful use of language and her poise could impress at one moment, chafe the next.
“She thinks she’s better than you,” said Cherita Whiting, who served on ANC 4B with Bowser. “Just because she talks proper doesn’t mean she’s smarter than me.”
Whiting criticized Bowser’s handling of finances while she was the ANC’s treasurer, saying she had a pattern of submitting late reports. “She likes titles but doesn’t like the work that goes along with it,” Whiting said. Bowser, who had tough questions for city officials over the hiring of Whiting at the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the reports were filed late because ANC meetings were not held regularly.
It was during this time that Bowser caught the attention of Fenty, then the Ward 4 councilman. To get her launched as his replacement on the council, Fenty called one of his closest political allies, Bill Lightfoot, a former city councilman who had been Fenty’s campaign chairman. Bowser had been “anointed,” Lightfoot said.
A meeting was arranged at Lightfoot’s grand, art-filled home in Upper Northwest. He sat with Bowser in a spacious den, with bronze African figures and tall windows that look out on his pool and private tennis court. He remembers little beyond Bowser’s “big smile” and how she was “measured in what she said” and displayed a “sense of urgency.” She swept into office.
There’s always been a war of perceptions about her: She doesn’t take care of constituents; she is the master of constituent services. She’s mean; she’s nice. She is an elitist who can’t connect to the poor; she’s modest.
“She is not an ostentatious person,” Lightfoot said. Asked what she drives, Lightfoot hesitated for a beat. “She drives a Lexus,” he said. “But she drives it for quality.”
Bowser lives alone in a home in Riggs Park that she bought 13 years ago for $125,000. Being single probably hasn’t helped her standing with African American women, Perry said. “You know D.C. is the South,” Perry said. “The traditional South, they like to see families.”
In an interview, Bowser said that she is not in a relationship. “I would love to get married,” she said. “I’m waiting for the right, perfect guy to show his face. Who wants to deal with being followed by The Washington Post? Do you know anybody?”
Her critics zing her personality as much as her policies. “She rolls her eyes. . . . She’s disrespectful,” said Dorothy Brizill, a community activist and executive director of D.C. Watch. “Muriel is a carbon copy of Adrian Fenty — aloof, abrasive, doesn’t listen.”
Bowser is disinclined to apologize for her style. “It’s rough and tumble, politics,” she said in an interview. Some might think her arrogant, she said, for often using “we” in reference to herself, rather than “I.”
“In fact, I attribute it to not really wanting the spotlight to be on me, on [me] singularly,” she said. “I think that is a good trait in most of life. It’s not the best trait when you’re in politics.”
On the Saturday before the election, she targeted voters in low-income areas of Southeast Washington, where she was most vulnerable to criticisms that she is out of touch. “She’s a rookie as far as I’m concerned,” Bill Wise, a retired AFL-CIO purchasing agent, said as he waited for Bowser at an apartment complex for seniors. “Plus, she’s aligned with Fenty.”
Here, that’s not a compliment. At nearly every table, one senior after another was praising Marion Barry, the councilman and former mayor who was backing incumbent Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
Bowser arrived wearing a D.C. Statehood baseball cap. She’s 5-foot-9 and wore zip-up boots with tall heels. A man asked where she stands on “public schools versus charter schools.”
“There is no ‘versus,’ ” she corrected him. “They’re all public schools.”
A woman sitting to Bowser’s left shook her head. “I don’t see it that way,” said Valerie Gale, a 62-year-old retired Metro worker.
Her tone had changed. Bowser dropped G’s at the end of words, softening that formal enunciation that sometimes turns people off.
“I want to thank y’all for takin’ a listen,” she said.
Moments later, Bowser walked into a candidates meeting across the street organized by a group called the No Murders Project. She sat at the head table with her iPhone in hand.
Reta Jo Lewis, a long-shot candidate, spoke. Bowser’s eyes and fingers were on her iPhone.
Swipe, swipe, swipe.
Then came Tommy Wells, the D.C. Council member.
Bowser typed into her phone.
Then Carlos Allen, another long shot.
Bowser again reached for her phone. Swipe, swipe, swipe.
When it was over, the other candidates dashed out. Bowser lingered. The organizers put a video on the screen, a wrenching production featuring images of murdered youths.
The sound of Teddy Pendergrass’s voice on the video filled the nearly empty room: “Wake up everybody. . . . The world won’t get no better/ If we just let it be.”
Bowser leaned against a chair. Everything about her was still, except her right heel tapping to the beat. When the video ended she was still there, quietly talking to the young video producer.
She might have seemed checked out during the forum. Now she was zeroed in — a real moment of connection. And hardly anyone got to see it.
Mike DeBonis and Alice Crites contributed to this report.