D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser opened an interview last week with a broad, almost relaxed smile, a noticeable change from the manner with which she greeted reporters during her first month in office nearly one year ago.
This time, she was about to sign into law an expansive police body-camera program, an initiative she said would help “create an environment of trust between police officers and our community.” And in less than 48 hours, she would start her second year in office with a community 5K run, an activity Bowser seems to view as both fun and, possibly, a metaphor for her job.
“My approach to politics has just always been to go hard, go super hard, outwork everybody,” she said.
Bowser (D) has made it through her first year as mayor, weathering a spike in homicides and drawing praise for her push to shut down the city’s most troubled homeless shelter, and for injecting $100 million into an affordable-housing trust fund.
She has also encountered stumbling blocks.
The unlimited donations solicited by a political action committee closely affiliated with the mayor, and a shadowy series of negotiations between Bowser’s office and corporate energy giant Exelon over its proposed massive merger with Pepco, drew allegations of cronyism and pay-to-play politics that her critics say could haunt her in the years ahead. She has struggled to present a cohesive public-safety plan, despite a spike in homicides that has pushed crime to the top of the list of citizens’ concerns.
Bowser says she is entering 2016 determined to keep fighting, building on “the things that we’ve laid the groundwork for already.” She is much more aware than she was a year ago that, as the city’s chief executive, she will be held accountable for whatever happens to its 670,000 residents.
“There is a big difference with the attention that you get, and the enemies that you could get, when you’re mayor, versus when you’re a council member,” she said. “Things happen in cities. Anything can happen. . . . And so there is always a decision to be made.”
Bowser’s first year in office started hard and fast, when a smoke incident in a Metro rail tunnel killed one passenger and sickened others, drawing an onslaught of questions from a press corps she describes as “very aggressive.”
She has shown herself to be steadfast in the face of criticism, and she says she has a “high tolerance” for frustration. In articulating her vision for the city, Bowser has relied on slogans to represent her policies — catch phrases such as “Pathways to the Middle Class,” “Safer, Stronger” and “Fresh Start.”
She won praise for key appointments, including top aides assigned to reduce homelessness and improve city schools. She launched initiatives, including expanding the age range of the Summer Youth Employment Program and creating the LEAP Academy to train D.C. residents for government jobs, that — if successful — could help shape her legacy.
“It takes time for any administration to leave an impact on the city. But one thing you can evaluate in the first year is the caliber of people brought in, and honestly I’ve been impressed,” said David Zipper, who was an aide to former D.C. mayors Adrian Fenty and Vincent C. Gray and now is managing director of 1776, a seed fund for start-ups that has partnered with the Bowser administration on some projects.
But crime could wind up being Bowser’s Achilles’ heel. Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier drew criticism last year for what some saw as shifting explanations for the city’s homicide spike and a failure to articulate a clear plan of action. In the year ahead, the mayor and police chief will have to try to reduce crime with a police force that has shrunk to fewer than 3,800 officers for the first time in a decade, as well as mounting opposition from the local police union.
“I think overall, they have not done a good job either in anticipating what’s going on, or dealing with it once it’s happened,” said Delroy Burton, the head of the District’s police union, which has called for Lanier’s ouster.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) attributed part of the uncertainty to Bowser settling in to the job. “I think that, as with any new administration, there was a period where they had to sort of rethink their approach,” McDuffie said. “Residents want answers. They want solutions. And I saw attempts by the chief and the mayor to address the causes of the homicides that I think presented even more challenges for MPD, quite frankly.”
Bowser also has alienated some council members by appearing, in their eyes, stubborn and unwilling to compromise. Public criticism over the Pepco-Exelon merger and her political action committee — which led to the shuttering of the PAC — has also increased the mayor’s defensiveness.
She maintains that there was nothing opaque about the merger, which she approved after private negotiations between her office and the companies, and after Bowser had initially rejected it. “I don’t know too many people that negotiate deals on the front steps,” she said.
And she insists that there was nothing unsavory about Fresh PAC, which exploited a legal loophole to solicit unlimited donations — including from developers and recent appointees — during a non-election year.
“People have PACs all over the place,” Bowser said. “So when you all start criticizing the governors and Congress people for having PACs, then — I’m still waiting for that article.”
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), a sometime critic, says the mayor would do better to respond this year by pushing for campaign finance reforms that would prevent such fundraising efforts in the future.
“I think as mayor, she’s worrying about her image in some ways, but not worrying about it in ways that are deeply and profoundly important and reflect on her integrity and ethics,” said Mary Rowse, a community activist in Ward 3. Rowse said she is particularly disturbed by Bowser’s support for the Pepco-Exelon deal, which she believes will harm consumers and the environment.
In the coming year, Bowser said she will focus on “continued investment in affordable housing, ending homelessness, closing D.C. General, investing robustly in schools, and of course at the top of the list is working on safer, stronger initiatives in D.C. neighborhoods.”
Despite widespread support for shuttering the rundown former hospital that houses hundreds of homeless families, Bowser could find a new source of opposition among the residents of the affected neighborhoods when her administration announces the locations of six replacement facilities.
She told reporters last week that she is waiting for the D.C. Council to approve her Safer, Stronger legislation, which would put more police on the streets, increase the penalties for some crimes and allow warrantless searches of the homes of former offenders. But the proposal — particularly the suggestion of warrantless searches — met with such harsh criticism from residents, council members and community activists that it is unlikely to be adopted.
“In this job, every day, there’s a fight to be had,” Bowser said of her agenda. “If you care about all the things that are important to our agenda, you have to fight for them every single day.”
But where Bowser says she is determined, others also see stubbornness, and a mayor who has yet to leave behind the competitive, all-or-nothing outlook of a political campaign. At the Wilson Building, she has sometimes irked council members for taking credit where they said it wasn’t due, or for picking fights over legislative details rather than working toward compromise.
“I think some of the bumps have been toning down the political operation,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “I mean, even though we run for office, once elected, we have to shift gears to governing.”
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.