Muriel Bowser stood on the sidewalk between her parents’ front yard and a tree box lined with her mother’s sedum, rehearsing her pitch to voters to make her the District’s next mayor.
Her parents, Joe and Joan Bowser, were on the front porch of their red-brick rowhouse in Northeast Washington, listening a couple of weeks ago as their youngest child read lines for a campaign ad that began airing on television Monday.
“I’m Muriel Bowser,” she said. “On November 4, I need your vote, so all eight wards can have a voice.”
Her father didn’t like what he was seeing. “Too fast,” he said. “Too fast.” He motioned for his daughter to slow down until Joan lightly laid a hand on his arm.
“Whatchu doin’?” she asked, slightly exasperated.
Joe Bowser relented.
If Muriel heard her father fussing, she didn’t let on. She’s used to it, anyway. Joe is dogged and, even at 79, doesn’t like being relegated to the sidelines. He has worn down city officials over the flawed design of a new recreation center and roamed the District’s streets, taking note of graffiti and abandoned cars. For decades, when D.C. government dysfunction was at its height, he was the one his neighbors turned to for help getting services.
Now his 42-year-old daughter wants to run the city where he’s been an activist her whole life.
Ever since Muriel was tapped eight years ago by then-Mayor-elect Adrian M. Fenty (D) to fill his D.C. Council seat, she has been most closely associated with the BlackBerry-wielding boy wonder. Some of that was by her own design. She adopted his trademark shade of green, relied on his moneymen and spent six months following in his footsteps to every front door in Ward 4, from Crestwood to Chevy Chase to Petworth.
But her political education began well before Fenty ever thumbed a QWERTY keyboard. Forty years ago, Joe Bowser was using a rotary-dial phone to badger agency heads and was campaigning for reelection as an advisory neighborhood commissioner even when he was unopposed.
Muriel was often by his side — so much so that her older sister called her “JB Jr.”
“His legacy is part of her,” said Bob King, the city’s longest-serving advisory neighborhood commissioner and a family friend.
As Muriel E. Bowser has moved from Wilson Building backbencher to mayoral front-runner, her critics have dismissed her as a lightweight legislator who has accomplished little of note and owes her Democratic primary win over a sitting mayor, Vincent C. Gray, to a corruption scandal. But for those who think of Joe before Muriel when they hear the name Bowser, her ascent is no accident.
“She has been in political boot camp all her life,” King said. “And she’s getting ready to graduate.”
If voters in the nation’s capital agree to a promotion.
JB Jr. dutifully did her homework when her father parked her in the back of countless community meetings. She was a skinny Catholic schoolkid who wore her hair in a carefully kept bob. If she was restless or bored, she didn’t show it, King remembered.
She didn’t listen closely to what was going on, she said, but heard enough to learn “that if you wanted something, you better speak up.”
Muriel knew her father was a ferocious advocate for North Michigan Park, a neighborhood of modest homes near Catholic University.
When drug dealers tried to take over a neighborhood playground, she recalled, her father confronted them. She saw the same uncompromising approach with unresponsive city bureaucrats.
“She knew I did the James Brown on them,” chortled Joe Bowser, who ran unsuccessfully for D.C. Council in 1994.
The Washington of Muriel’s childhood was a much different place than it is now: overwhelmingly African American with swaths ravaged by the 1968 riots, crime and an exodus of residents for more affluent suburbs. The population dropped by 184,451 between 1970 and 2000, census figures show.
Joe, a facilities manager for D.C. public schools, and his wife, Joan, a nurse, were among those who refused to give up on the city.
Muriel was a late addition to their Catholic family of six. When she was born in 1972, her closest sibling, Mark, was 10 years old — big enough, he recalled, to be enlisted to change her diapers. Twins Marvin and Martin were close to starting high school. The oldest, Mercia, was getting ready to apply to college.
Muriel grew up more like an only child. “Everywhere we went, she went,” said Joan, now 76.
She loved pleasing her parents and, later, her teachers. “She was a little old lady,” Mercia said.
“People used to say [that] a lot,” Muriel acknowledged. “I’ve always been pretty serious about the work in front of me. I studied when I was supposed to study. I went to work. I think it was kind of like a very Catholic, law-and-order mentality.”
At Chatham College, a small women’s school in Pittsburgh, classmate Najaa Young often spotted Muriel with a finger pointed in mid-sentence.
“I always felt like a lecture was about to happen,” her friend said. She would say things like, “ ‘You have to think about the consequences of your actions.’ In your late teens, early 20s, that’s not the kind of thing you want to hear from [a friend]. That’s who Muriel really was.”
By then, Muriel had grown into a tall — 5-foot-9 before donning heels — svelte young woman with a polished presence. The history major was always put together. “She would never leave the dorm in sweatpants to interact in the world,” Young said.
There were no male students on campus then, but men from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh often visited the school. Like everyone else, Bowser got her heart broken a few times, said classmate Tamara Watkins.
“I can name all of the frogs that she kissed,” Watkins said of her friend, who remains single.
After college, Bowser took a job with State Farm as an insurance claims representative in Philadelphia. But she wanted to move back to her home town, best known by then for its high homicide rate, a mayor who had gone to prison for smoking crack and fiscal troubles so dire that Congress imposed a financial control board on it.
Bowser enrolled at American University, eventually getting a master’s degree in public policy. While friends were buying big houses in the suburbs, she was taking a class for first-time home buyers so she could afford a Riggs Park rowhouse. Four years after moving there in 2000, she ran for advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 4 to tackle problems she wanted to see fixed.
“My pet peeves are graffiti and abandoned cars,” said Muriel, sounding very much like her father’s daughter.
Friends don’t recall her showing much affinity for politics until then. “With Muriel, the funny thing is, while I didn’t see it, my mother saw it,” Najaa Young said. “My mother always called Muriel ‘The Senator.’ ”
The day after Fenty won the 2006 Democratic mayoral primary, the jockeying to fill his Ward 4 council seat began.
Joe Bowser knew what his younger daughter should do: run.
At the time, she was assistant director of a Montgomery County-backed economic development agency in Silver Spring, where she impressed her boss, Gary Stith, with her incisive questions and her willingness to log long hours at community meetings. She thought of herself then as more of a civil service type than as a politician. But being an advisory neighborhood commissioner altered her view of elected office, she said.
“The more I saw how things worked in the city,” she said, “I saw the elected path was the best and fastest way to get things done.”
Fenty wanted people he could count on to support him in a mayoral takeover of the schools, two former campaign aides recalled. He told Bowser that he wanted to see her run.
For some, her father’s pedigree was just as significant as Fenty’s endorsement. “When she told me she was Joe Bowser’s daughter, that was all I needed to know,” said former D.C. Council member Bill Lightfoot, who now chairs her campaign.
By January 2007, she had taken a leave of absence from her job, bought campaign footwear — which she dubbed her “man shoes” because they were so ugly — and proceeded to knock on every door in Ward 4 at least twice, as Fenty had before her.
Several of her 18 opponents derided her as a Fenty’s anointed lapdog. Five months later, she defeated them to win the seat. She was elected to a full term the following year.
To this day, door-knocking is one of Bowser’s favorite aspects of campaigning. It plays to her strengths. In front of cameras or on a dias, her reserve can make her seem aloof and scripted. Face to face, she is far less opaque.
During an hour-long interview in her office last month, flashes of exasperation, amusement and sympathy flitted across her face as she fielded questions about her upbringing and political ambitions. Often, though, she looked irked, a reluctant participant in an age of oversharing. She recalled half-jokingly telling a newly hired press aide that he had a tough job because she “hated” reporters.
She can be dismissive, her critics complain. Longtime community activist Dorothy Brizill has called her “disrespectful” and “abrasive” for rolling her eyes at her.
In the mayoral campaign, however, it has been her perceived lack of passion that has been an issue. Her two opponents, D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) and former council member Carol Schwartz (I), have accused her of not being outspoken enough on major issues, including affordable housing and education reform. Catania has gone even further, slamming her in a video that features faux Muppets as Bowser supporters.
“Avoiding the tough issues is probably the best way to solve them,” one puppet explains.
Privately, several of her D.C. Council colleagues said they, too, have found her legislative performance wanting. But since her primary win over Gray, almost all of them have fallen in line behind her bid for mayor, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) who sent out a campaign mailer when he was running against her that used a mostly blank page to describe her record.
Bowser bristles at these attacks and is unapologetic about her deliberate, constituent-centric approach to governing. And she takes issue with the idea that she was ever some greenhorn plucked from obscurity — rather than a dedicated public servant who has worked hard to reach this point.
“I’ve put myself in the right places,” she said. “I’ve been prepared every step of the way.”
The work she had done on behalf of constituents saved her at the ballot box, and her 2012 reelection quelled any lingering doubts about her political survival. Soon after, several ex-campaign aides to Gray pleaded guilty to taking part in an illegal shadow campaign to help him win the 2010 election, and a series of scandals would eventually force the resignations of three D.C. Council members.
By mid-2012, Muriel was sounding out campaign aides and potential donors about a mayoral bid. Joe Bowser was thrilled. By his account, he was the first to urge her to run.
Told that, Muriel smiled wryly and said, “You are getting to know my father.”
With the Nov. 4 election just weeks away, Muriel Bowser strode into a Petworth storefront filled with about 50 campaign volunteers. The weekly strategy meeting was one of her last stops over a busy weekend, which included appearances at a Crestwood church, a street fair on Capitol Hill and a meet-and-greet with D.C. teachers.
She took up a position at the head of a large table. Behind her, Joe Bowser was parked in a seat against a wall, in front of a precinct map. He and a buddy were dressed identically in green Muriel for Mayor T-shirts and baseball caps.
At that point, poll numbers were showing Muriel Bowser with a double-digit lead over Catania, and the energy in the room was high. The candidate, however, was all business.
“Tell me what happened this week,” she said. “Did that guy get his sign up in Fort Lincoln?”
She went around the room, gathering reports on what was accomplished and what needed to be done. She was a different candidate from the cautious woman who silently mouths answers to herself during debates. Bowser was decisive and firmly in command of her troops, with a self-assurance that she said she has built up over four successful runs for office.
This campaign, though, is proving to be her most challenging, with Catania gaining on her, according to new polls, and a significant number of likely voters still undecided.
During the meeting, Bowser’s father piped up once in a while. “Come out here so people can see you,” he ordered one volunteer, who was barely audible when speaking. But mostly he stayed out of his daughter’s way.
She placed her hands on the table and looked out across the room. Success, she said, was going to boil down to three things: “Shoe leather. And phone calls. And turnout.”
“We win by winning,” she said, prompting a few chuckles.
“I’m pretty sure we won today. Did we win today?” she asked as everyone started clapping. “All right, team.”
As people got up to leave, Joe Bowser was saying something hard to make out over the chatter. Then his words became clearer.
“Fired up and ready to go!” he cheered. “All eight wards!”