The District’s only public hospital is plagued by mismanagement. The school system is awash in scandal. Allegations of cronyism, favoritism and contract steering loom over city hall.
The litany of missteps that have punctuated Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s first term would form robust talking points for any opponent making the case against her reelection.
That is, if anyone was running against her.
Less than three weeks before the deadline to enter the Democratic primary, Bowser faces no formidable opposition and will probably become the District’s first mayor to win a second term since Anthony Williams in 2002.
The mayor’s glide path to reelection may be rooted as much in the city’s economic stability as in her ability to avoid the personality-driven dramas that bedeviled her mentor, former mayor Adrian Fenty (D), whom voters rejected after one term.
Yet the absence of opposition should not be interpreted as a universal embrace of the mayor’s leadership or her administration’s performance, Democratic leaders and operatives say.
Only last week, in what was the latest embarrassment for the administration, the mayor ousted Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson after he acknowledged violating District policy by skipping the city’s competitive lottery to enroll his daughter in a school with a waiting list of more than 600 families.
“A smart politician would not conflate the lack of an opponent with widespread satisfaction,” said D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). He described constituents’ frustrations with the school system and their sense of feeling unsafe despite statistics showing violent crime fell last year. “I can say definitively that a number of people are not happy with government services.”
John Falcicchio, Bowser’s chief of staff, said that Bowser “for the most part” is confronting adversity that is beyond her control. “What we control is how we react to it,” he said. “When something goes wrong, she tells people what she knows, she tells people how she thinks it happened, and then she tells people how she’s going to fix it.”
Falcicchio, who served as a senior adviser to Fenty, said Bowser is not repeating the former mayor’s mistakes, which included offending constituencies with a brashness that critics found arrogant.
“Fenty acted on gut and instinct while Bowser actually hears from a lot of people, studies issues deeply, then forges down a path,” he said. “There’s more of a collaborative approach, a more engaging approach than that administration had.”
In her recent public appearances, a mix of community budget forums, ceremonial events and news conferences, Bowser has betrayed no worries and maintains an outward appearance of calm.
“We hope it’s a really long peak season,” she told an audience gathered Thursday to announce the impending start of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Her smile was bright.
Yet the mayor appears well aware that the cascade of damaging revelations about the school system can undermine her politically, even with no opponent. Last Tuesday, she quickly summoned reporters after The Washington Post reported about widespread enrollment fraud at an elite high school. By midweek, amid news that the percentage of high school students earning diplomas was falling, her campaign deleted from its website boasts about rising graduation rates.
With its population reaching 700,000, the highest level in over 40 years, the District is thriving in ways that can overshadow the disruptions that have pocked the mayor’s term. In addition to her advisers bypassing the school lottery to place their children in coveted schools, the stumbles have included questionable deaths and allegations of mismanagement at the city’s public hospital, run until recently under a no-bid contract awarded to a company started by Bowser campaign donors.
At the same time, unemployment has declined since the mayor took office, an estimated 30,000 new residents have moved into the District and developers continue to transform a plethora of neighborhoods, as they have for more than two decades.
“In their gut, people feel that things are going in the right direction,” said Ron Lester, a veteran pollster. “If you feel good about the direction of the city, there’s a tendency to overlook certain things, which means controversies over the schools or the hospital are not as significant as they might be.”
While the D.C. Council has attracted five new lawmakers since 2015, many of them political neophytes, none have expressed immediate interest in running for mayor. It’s a job that is something of a dead-end because of the District’s odd configuration as a city and not a state, where ambitious politicians have no hope of aspiring to become a governor or voting member of Congress. Many talented residents engage in national, not local, politics.
“We don’t have a deep bench of people who can run and carry a mantle of leadership for a multibillion-dollar city corporation,” said Michael Fauntroy, a Howard University political science professor.
White, 34, who was elected to the council in 2016, is regarded by Democratic operatives as a fresh, if inexperienced, voice who could be a strong mayoral contender. He has demonstrated a willingness to jump into the political fray. As news broke recently about the schools chancellor’s scandal, and Bowser initially expressed confidence in his leadership, White became the first council member to demand his resignation.
But White is not planning to run this year, citing as a reason that he has an 18-month-old daughter. He said he detects in potential candidates a wariness about entering District politics. In recent years, three council members pleaded guilty to felonies that ranged from bribery to fraud to embezzlement.
“We still have a reputation in D.C. of a pay-to-play culture and cronyism,” he said. “And while the city has improved a great deal, I think most people aren’t convinced that the culture is gone, and people with families and successful lives don’t want to dive into that pool.”
Another potential candidate, council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), lost his quest for a second term as mayor to Bowser in 2014 when he was the target of a federal investigation into his previous campaign. Gray was never indicted, although six people, including several of his associates, pleaded guilty to various crimes.
Chuck Thies, Gray’s former campaign manager, said that the scandal’s taint would make it a “very, very steep uphill climb” for the former mayor to defeat Bowser, although he did not preclude the possibility, particularly because of the recent spate of school scandals.
“A significant portion of the electorate is almost off-limits to Vince,” Thies said, referring to voters who moved to the District as the scandal unfolded and only know him as a mayor under investigation.
At the same time, Thies said that Bowser, for all her vulnerabilities, commands the advantages of incumbency, including nearly $2 million in campaign funds. “This is the daunting task of taking on an incumbent who has a strong record of winning,” he said. Bowser has not lost a race since her first campaign for the council in 2007.
The District has a long tradition of competitive mayoral races, including when Marion Barry was the city’s dominant political force. In two of his general election victories, Barry faced Carol Schwartz, an at-large Republican council member, who portrayed him as incompetent and as a liar.
“You have managed to manage this great city, and its image, into the ground,” she told Barry during one debate.
Schwartz’s chances of winning may have been remote in a city where the vast majority of voters are registered Democrats, but her candidacy forced Barry to answer for his record and offered voters an alternative. In 1994, she won 42 percent of the electorate; 56 percent supported Barry.
“It may have given Marion the opportunity to show how clever he was,” said Arrington Dixon, the former council chair. “It’s always healthy to have folks competing with you. The competition makes you sharper.”
At the moment, no Republican is planning to run for mayor, said Patrick Mara, who recently stepped down as executive director of the District’s Republican Party. While nominating petitions for the District’s primaries are due March 21, third-party candidates running in the general election have until Aug. 8 to enter the race.
District voters have demonstrated a willingness to reject incumbent mayors, the first being Walter Washington, who lost his 1978 reelection bid to Barry, then a civil rights activist who personified the city’s defiant rebirth under Home Rule.
Voters rejected Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in 1994 after one term, much of which was defined by a massive budget deficit and a soaring homicide rate.
They also turned on Fenty, even as a majority embraced the quality of city services and the District’s direction. But voters, particularly in the African American community, disliked Fenty’s antics, which included, perhaps most famously, his refusal to meet with civil rights icons Dorothy Height and Maya Angelou.
Tom Lindenfeld, a political strategist who advised Williams, Fenty and Bowser, said the city’s one-term mayors were ousted because of their own missteps — not because their rivals won voters over with riveting campaign messages.
“Each of their losses had to do with them, not their opponents,” Lindenfeld said. “If Muriel were in any of the troubles that any of them were in, it would encourage people to show interest in this. But she has played it safe and I don’t think she has stirred things up in a way that has created electoral problems.”
Lindenfeld was part of the team that helped Bowser craft her 2014 campaign message, one that promised a “fresh start” from the corruption that defined the District’s political past, and “Alice Deal for All,” a slogan that referred to the acclaimed Tenleytown middle school that she hoped to replicate across town.
If the mayor has fallen short on both of those promises, it is also true that public outrage is not nearly as palpable as it was during recent mayoral races, which were high-volume and bitter.
“After two nasty races, the blood isn’t boiling for another,” said Bryan Weaver, an Adams Morgan activist. “It either means everyone is fine or they think it’s just not worth the fight.”