With a light rain falling on U Street, politicians, protesters and racing presidents alike mingled outside the Lincoln Theatre on Wednesday ahead of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s State of the District address. It was a far cry from the last time the annual speech was delivered, at Kelly Miller Middle School, when Vincent C. Gray was still at the helm of the city.
From the beginning, you could tell that Bowser’s tone and demeanor alone are far more palatable than her predecessor’s. Maybe because he was under constant scrutiny when he was mayor, Gray had an approach that often felt indignant, lecturing and sometimes condescending. Looking through rose-colored lenses, you could say he was hard-nosed.
Fair or not, it’s amazing how without the cloud of controversy hovering over the Wilson Building, a mayor’s vision seems so much clearer.
That night, Bowser touted the high marks the District has received for being walkable and fit, and she laid out her plan and vision for the city a day before releasing her budget to the D.C. Council. The event managed to be grand but not pompous as she shared the stage with various residents while she spoke.
She discussed tough issues in a down-to-earth, pragmatic way: In reference to the city’s schools system, she said: “They aren’t failing themselves. We are failing them.” There weren’t a whole ton of goofy sports metaphors or other catchphrases. There was a pop culture joke — albeit dated — to the New Kids on the Block, in reference to new council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
The speech illustrated that Bowser has finally started to show something that quite a few people thought she was incapable of having: personality. On the campaign trail, she was often portrayed as a wooden character, a puppet for holdovers from Adrian Fenty’s time as mayor.
Personally, I prefer my politicians to be outsized and brash. Bowser is not that, and really, no one in D.C. politics is anymore. But the more measured approach showed its worth the next day.
Sitting for an interview at the Anacostia Playhouse on Wednesday with WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, there were no stages or security between Bowser and the people, just microphones. The diverse crowd packed into the theater company floor to see the mayor, who happens to be on the cover of the March edition of American University’s magazine.
Coming fresh off her appointment of Courtney Snowden as deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, many in the crowd wanted to know what she was going to do for them.
“I keep hearing you say, and I heard the president say about middle class. But I’m poor. I’m not middle class. So, does that leave us out?” a man named Bill asked. “Because everybody says middle class people. Everybody’s not middle class. I have a little small paint company. . . . Guess what? No one has helped us out since 1967 over in Ward 8.
“We want to make sure that there’s a pathway to it. I haven’t met too many people that said, ‘You know, Mayor Bowser, I’m poor, and I want to stay poor.’ What they say is, ‘I want opportunities to have a better life for myself and my family in this city.’ I just haven’t come across that person that says, you know, if there’s a pathway, I don’t want to get on it.”
It sounded slightly funny at the time, but the point — that economically disadvantaged residents need chances — was well taken, and things moved on. There were questions about construction contracts, firefighter shortages and the availability of jobs. When she didn’t know an answer, she said so. What she knew, she talked about, without being patronizing.
Of course, in the early days of an administration, this stuff is the easy part. But for someone who seemingly had so much trouble connecting with voters on the campaign trail, her ability to represent the city well hasn’t been compromised, disproving many, myself included.
Playhouse founder Adele Robey isn’t necessarily convinced of Bowser’s plan to be connected to all eight wards equally, but she does appreciate Bowser’s more citywide outlook on arts funding. “The accountability part is so important to me. Because I have been dealing with the D.C. government as many of us have. But I’m self-employed, have been for years, and the frustrations — doing this project nearly finished me, so I worry that will she have the pieces in place to actually make that accountability happen,” she said. “I’m hoping she will. Oh, my God, I want her to be so successful.”
Afterward, Bowser was frank about the realities of her term.
“I get judged every single day. I have a pass-or-fail kind of job. And I think every day will have some wins,” she said. “Our plan is to have monthly goals, annual goals and a four-year set of goals. Some things you’ll move the ball on quickly, other things we’ll just chip away at it every single day.”
And just because her style doesn’t fit many people’s particular fancies, it certainly doesn’t mean she’s not the best person for the job.