“When you’re the president, you’re supposed to swing up, you’re supposed to be beating up on foreign leaders,” Bowser said. “Not swinging down on chick mayors.”
In a city famous for political bombast, Bowser is known as a cautious leader who expresses herself in the forgettable words of a government bureaucrat. Now, in the span of a week, she has turned into a fresh voice of the resistance, buffeted by Trump’s threat of a federal takeover and his use of racist language to criticize street protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody.
The mayor’s most dramatic stroke — deploying city workers to paint “Black Lives Matter” in huge yellow letters along two blocks leading to the White House — drew widespread acclaim, including from James, who wrote, “BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!! TOGETHER we shall prevail!!” to his 46 million Twitter followers.
Yet, among adversaries closer to home, the mural was dismissed as a publicity stunt — “a performative distraction,” according to the local chapter of Black Lives Matter. A day after it appeared, BLM activists erased an emblem of the District flag from the design and wrote in equally large lettering, “Defund the Police.”
Over the course of her mayoralty, Bowser has antagonized left-wing activists by increasing funding for police and championing development — including affordable housing — that they say is too expensive for poor and working-class African Americans.
In the heat of the presidential primaries, she was a visible surrogate for Democrat Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor whose “stop and frisk” policing strategy disproportionately targeted African Americans.
“It’s clear that black lives don’t matter to her,” said Jauhar Abraham, a community organizer in Southeast Washington who says he is a supporter of Trump and believes Democrats have abandoned African Americans. “If black lives mattered, we would see an increase in education, and quality of living. So many of our neighbors have had to leave because they can’t afford to live here.”
Bowser, 47, dismissed the criticism of her mural, saying public displays — or their removal — can crystallize the significance of important moments.
“What would you say to the people who argue to take down Confederate statues or change names of buildings?” she said in an interview. “Are those empty gestures?”
She said most Washingtonians back her approach to tackling inequality, such as championing low- and moderate-income housing in wealthy, majority-white neighborhoods and launching job-training programs.
“People felt, and feel, like we have to fight for ourselves as black people, we have to fight for our city as Washingtonians,” Bowser said. “We have to beat back this aggressive, this kind of all-out assault on our traditions as Americans.”
'The perfect foil'
Undefeated in every election she has faced, including three for the D.C. Council, Bowser has long demonstrated a capacity for political jujitsu. But she has never played in as high-stakes an arena as the one she found herself in last week, against an opponent as powerful and ferocious as Trump.
“She has identified the perfect foil,” said Chuck Thies, a political consultant and adversary whose candidate, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray, lost to Bowser in 2014. “Ninety-six percent of the D.C. electorate did not vote for Donald Trump. If she had not chosen to lead, the political damage would have been permanent.”
With the mural, Thies said, the mayor “captured the essence of the outrage of the moment in three words that are large enough to be seen by a Goodyear Blimp.”
“It was brilliant,” he said.
Until the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, the first major crisis of her mayoralty, Bowser’s tenure had been largely free of drama. Even when scandals erupted involving her schools chancellor and favorable treatment of campaign donors, the mayor avoided lasting damage.
With the economy strong and new development remaking neighborhoods, she faced no significant opponents when she sought reelection in 2018, becoming the first D.C. mayor to win a second term in 16 years.
Yet polling last fall showed that even as two-thirds of Washingtonians approved of her performance, only about a fifth of those surveyed felt strongly about her — a lack of enthusiasm perhaps rooted in her understated approach to governing.
“I’m a balanced Democrat,” she told a reporter during her first mayoral run, describing herself as a technocrat who “looks at the body of law that we have, finding the gaps and filling them.”
Her campaign highlighted her background growing up in North Michigan Park, a middle-class black neighborhood, the youngest of six siblings. Her father, Joe, worked as a schools facilities manager and served as an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner.
After graduating from Chatham College, a small women’s school in Pittsburgh, she worked as an insurance claim representative before getting a master’s in public policy at American University.
She entered politics in 2000, winning a neighborhood advisory seat, after which she caught the notice of then-D.C. Council member Adrian Fenty. When Fenty became mayor, he backed Bowser to fill his council seat.
She was far from a natural campaigner and resisted reporters’ inquiries about her personal life. Even now, six years after taking office, she begins news conferences by introducing herself by name and giving her title.
For all her reserve, however, Bowser is willing to take political risks. In 2014, she entered the mayoral race against better-known and more-experienced candidates, one of whom sent out a mass mailing of a blank white page to symbolize what he said were her legislative accomplishments. Bowser won, assembling a coalition of support that crossed racial lines.
“People underestimate how savvy she is,” said Bill Lightfoot, a former D.C. Council member who chaired her mayoral campaign.
Fodder for antagonists
Bowser is not the first D.C. mayor to tangle with the federal government. In 2011, Gray was arrested for protesting a Republican-backed restriction on the city spending money for low-income women to obtain abortions. Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelly and Fenty all bristled at federal efforts to control city finances and policies.
But none of Bowser’s predecessors have pushed back as forcefully as she did by renaming 16th Street “Black Lives Matter Plaza” after Trump referred to demonstrators as thugs, threatened to have them shot and unleash dogs on them, and called for a military-style crackdown on city streets. In interviews and on social media, the mayor has called the president’s rhetoric “gross” and tweeted that he “hides behind his fence afraid/alone.”
“You have a mayor who is vulnerable to the president essentially thumbing her nose at the president in a way you just haven’t seen in D.C. politics,” said historian George Derek Musgrove, who has written about the District. “It is symbolically a return to the sort of Chocolate City, Marion Barry years.”
Bowser’s defiance is not without risk, because the White House influences the level of funding the District receives from the federal government. But Musgrove said Trump would have difficulty dismissing Bowser because the city’s financial health is stronger than it was during the Barry era.
“You just can’t say you are going in because the mayor is not doing her job and the city is poorly run,” he said.
Her invocation of “Black Lives Matter” has given Bowser’s antagonists another opportunity to criticize her management of the police department, her opposition to measures such as decriminalizing fare evasion, and her oversight of what they say is an unsafe, unsanitary jail.
“I and most residents liked seeing her clapback to the president,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). “This show has to be followed up by substantive and overdue attention to the issues of racial justice and, specifically, to the issues of policing black communities.”
Ari Theresa, a lawyer who has sued the District over zoning policies he says promote gentrification, said he did not interpret the mayor’s “Black Lives Matter” mural “as a symbol of her respect for the movement.”
“It was a symbol of her sticking it to Donald Trump,” he said.
For all her political skills, he said, Bowser has found ways to alienate black constituents, such as when she wrote on Facebook a few weeks after winning reelection that she was “annoyed by Mumbo sauce” and wished people “would stop suggesting that it is quintessential DC.”
“It was a big middle finger to the black community,” he said. “It was her way of saying, ‘I don’t need you locals.’ ”
In the interview Monday, Bowser said she has never been in a situation in which she feared a police officer. But she said one encounter from her council days left an impression. As she drove on Georgia Avenue NW, officers pulled her over because she had beads hanging from her rearview mirror.
“I was mad; I mean, I was hot,” she recalled, describing how she called then-Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier to complain. “Here I am a council member, I’m in my own ward, I’m driving my own car down the street and I get pulled over.”
She said the experience was a reminder of how all black Washingtonians can be treated unfairly and left her committed to eliminating nuisance laws that give police grounds for such stops and to having a police department with more officers who understand the city.
“What I recognize is I’ve never been in a position, and I’ve never felt in my life that I was scared of the police,” she said. “Other people don’t have that experience.”
At a news conference Monday, Bowser said her team has not discussed how long the mural would remain on 16th Street NW. She touted the rendering as an important piece of the city’s history, as well as “American history.”
Asked about the “Defund the Police” message that activists added to the display, the mayor said she did not consider it “part of the mural,” even as “we recognize it as expression” and that “acknowledging and affirming expression is important.”
The mayor departed without saying whether the additional words would remain.