On the first workday of the new year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser crisscrossed the city with a specific goal in mind: denouncing inaction by the D.C. Council on her proposed response to last year’s homicide spike. And she blamed one particular member for the delay — Kenyan R. McDuffie, chairman of the judiciary committee and an emerging political nemesis.
“We need some action, we just need some action” from the council member on the crime bill, Bowser (D) said. “If there are things that you disagree with in the bill, change them. But we want it to move. . . . Vote yes or no.”
McDuffie responded that he would “not be rushed” by Bowser to complete his review, and he characterized a portion of Bowser’s plan as “knee-jerk.”
The next day played out like the first: Bowser’s office blamed the Ward 5 Democrat for almost letting her emergency rules against pot smoking in public evaporate. McDuffie, they said, had sat on Bowser’s marijuana bill for almost a year, nearly letting it fail.
If the mayor’s first year in office was animated by tension over sharing power with Karl A. Racine, the city’s first elected attorney general, and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), the coming year is shaping up, at least in part, as a battle between polar opposites Bowser and McDuffie — and potentially with longer-term consequences for city leadership.
A former federal prosecutor with a knack for connecting emotionally with crime victims, McDuffie is seen by many in political circles as a rising star on the D.C. Council who regularly deflects questions about how soon he might run for mayor. In his first year leading the powerful judiciary committee, McDuffie has been the antithesis of Bowser, slowly plodding away on legislation like he is amassing evidence to litigate a federal court case.
An active mayor, Bowser makes no apologies for urging McDuffie to move more quickly on her legislative proposals.
Aides for both Bowser and McDuffie have publicly played down any tension between the two leaders, both in their early 40s.
“While, inside, we know very well what the mayor can do and what the council can do and we are always counting votes,” said John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, “outside the [Wilson] Building, city residents just want to see the mayor and council working together, and we want to make sure that happens.”
McDuffie repeatedly sidestepped direct questions about Bowser last week, saying residents “do not want finger-pointing” but rather thoughtful action to address the homicide spike and other criminaljustice issues.
Still, there was ample evidence that tension between the two marked the latest in decades of storied clashes between D.C. mayors and council members. But the fact that Bowser was battling directly with a committee chairman was somewhat unique. Usually, a mayor focuses criticism on a council chairman, because of the immense power the council leader has over how the city legislature operates.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who has observed battles between the chief executive and council for a quarter century, said the back-and-forth between a mayor and a committee chairman is unusual. He also said it is tough to assign blame in the current dispute because both sides “have a story.”
“From the mayor’s perspective, she has sent down these bills and there’s been no action in a long time,” Evans said. “And from McDuffie’s point of view, the administration has not been giving him the information he needs. . . . The bottom line is the two sides need to start working together because this is a committee where things have to get done.”
The tension has been most apparent over how city officials are dealing with the rise in crime. Homicides surged 54 percent last year and became an unexpected liability for Bowser’s administration; the mayor was pushed to show that she is trying to address the problem.
But the administration has seen McDuffie as anything but cooperative in the effort.
In August, Bowser released a crime bill that included a controversial proposal to allow for warrantless searches of repeat offenders, citing a handful of arrests of murder suspects with violent criminal records. Bowser said that she hoped city police could snag illegal guns from those who might be most likely to use them again in deadly crimes.
McDuffie quickly denounced the idea as a step backward in a post-stop-and-frisk era of criminal justice reform. He countered by proposing his own bill filled with incentives for ex-offenders, including financial incentives for some to turn away from crime.
Bowser’s team further chafed when McDuffie then held a hearing on the homicide spike in September that ran until after 3 a.m., including calling Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, to the stand after 2 a.m. A second hearing that McDuffie led on Bowser’s crime bill later in the fall ran almost until midnight.
The mayor’s office then became enraged, according to Bowser aides, when — despite the late nights — McDuffie took no action on either bill before the end of the year. The committee chairman has, for the last two months, said that he is studying the nation’s best crime-prevention models and would release a final bill that will refine his plan, as well as include some ideas that he supports from Bowser’s bill.
McDuffie also said that Bowser’s administration seemed to be intent on sabotaging what parts of her bill remain viable.
Lanier, he said, had not agreed to meet with him about the issue. And the department also had yet to provide promised information to back up other Bowser proposals in the legislation, including her request for enhanced sentences for those convicted of crimes in Metro facilities and other public transit sites.
“So far, I have not been able to meet with her in the last few months,” McDuffie said of Lanier. “And it’s just not talking to the chief. We had a hearing, and we asked specific questions. . . . They said they would provide it, and they have yet to do so.”
Kelly O’Meara, Lanier’s head of legislative affairs, said the chief asked to reschedule planned meetings with McDuffie in both November and December but disputed that the two have not talked. Emails from the mayor’s office showed that McDuffie said he was busy for two weeks following the planned November meeting and could not find a time to reschedule.
“The chief and the council member speak and meet frequently, both on recurring and emerging issues. We look forward to working together on important public safety issues in the District,” O’Meara said.
Amid that back-and-forth over the crime bill, tensions between the mayor and McDuffie also flared again last week when the council briefly voted to let the restrictions banning pot clubs from forming in the city expire.
Bowser had proposed, and the council passed, the temporary restrictions last February when pot possession was legalized in the city, thanks to a ballot measure. But McDuffie did not hold a hearing on making the temporary restrictions permanent until December, forcing another vote to extend the mayor’s temporary law.
The council had misgivings, however, and it required a frantic round of calls to lawmakers on the dais, by Bowser, to keep the temporary restrictions in place for 90 days. Falcicchio said the judiciary committee had “failed to act” in a timely manner to allow for a proper law to be voted on.
In an interview, Mendelson said he saw political motivations in Bowser’s browbeating of McDuffie over the last week and said his second in command on the council was acting prudently.
“Crime is a very easy issue on which to grandstand, and crime easily gets people upset,” Mendelson said. “In reality, the judiciary committee has to be careful to ensure that justice remains in the criminal justice system.”
Donahue disagreed. He said that the council could be both thoughtful and fast-acting, and amid heightened concerns about crime, residents expect action.
“In meetings all across the city, I’ve heard passionate viewpoints about the legislation” that the mayor proposed, the deputy mayor said. “I don’t get questions asking us to be more careful or to not act.”