By her own account, Muriel Bowser staked her first D.C. Council campaign on the promise of reforming the city’s public school system, and she did it again when she ran for reelection four years later.
Yet, in nearly two terms on the council, Bowser, the Democratic nominee to succeed Mayor Vincent C. Gray, has written just one education-related law that has attracted notice — the one that allows students to ride public buses to and from school free.
Bowser’s supporters say the Kids Ride Free bill exemplified her practical approach to lawmaking. But critics see something else: a failure to address deeper policies and a record with no defining achievements.
A review of Bowser’s council tenure shows that she has been the primary author of more than a hundred bills, presided over budget and oversight hearings as chair of four committees, and cast thousands of votes on legislation.
What she has not done is push bold legislative initiatives.
While some of her colleagues have taken on contentious issues such as marijuana decriminalization and same-sex marriage, Bowser has delved into areas that generate little notice, such as regulating tire outlets, pawnshops and street vendors, and requiring developers to notify neighborhood residents if they plan to raze a building.
Bowser acknowledged that her bills may not draw as much attention as, say, the council-approved 5 cent tax on paper and plastic bags. But she said their significance should not be minimized.
“Did I ever tell you my approach is dramatic?” Bowser asked in an interview. “It’s effective. It affects people’s lives.”
Bowser said she has not written more education legislation because she doesn’t view her role as managing the schools, even though her 2012 campaign declared that she “staked her first campaign on the promise to reform DC Public Schools.”
“You probably won’t see me write education reform legislation,” she said, adding that she has long supported mayoral control of the schools. “I believe you have a great chancellor, you give her the tools that she needs and hold her accountable.”
Bowser’s limited forays into school legislation included a non-binding resolution in December — announced after she began her mayoral campaign — that calls on the city to “commit to replicating” the quality of Alice Deal Middle School “across the District.”
“It’s aspirational,” Bowser said.
Bowser’s record was fodder for opponents during the Democratic primary, when Gray and council member Jack Evans (Ward 2) dismissed her as lacking accomplishments. Evans, who endorsed Bowser after she won the primary, included in one mass mailing a largely blank white page to represent her achievements.
In the general election, one of Bowser’s opponents, council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), has distributed a flier showing an empty chair to depict her leadership of the Economic Development Committee. “Her record is sparse, and that’s being kind,” Catania said.
Dan Wedderburn, a Democratic activist who has contributed to Bowser’s campaigns, said her record makes it hard to know whether she “has the capacity” to make substantial changes as mayor.
“She hasn’t left a lot of footprints,” he said.
Michael Fauntroy, a Howard University political science professor, said Bowser’s record provides “reason for some optimism and a bit of concern.”
“Optimism because, depending on your policy pursuit, it’s quite likely you will get a good hearing with her,” Fauntroy said. “But there’s also concern and trepidation because it could mean she’s an empty vessel that can be moved in one direction or the other, depending on who’s the last person who had her ear.”
Bowser, 42, dismissed criticism of her record as coming from “insiders and hired guns,” and she suggested that her primary victory proved that voters see her differently.
“You know I won, right?” she said. “I beat a sitting mayor and three sitting council members. More than 42,000 people came to the polls and said, ‘Muriel Bowser is our kind of leader.’ ”
She resisted an invitation to identify several bills that define her council tenure.
“I’ve only done that a thousand times,” she said — a binder containing a chronology of bills she has authored and co-introduced in her lap — as two aides sat close by.
She views her job, she said, as consisting of “a few buckets” — presiding over her ward, chairing her committee, helping to prepare a budget and drafting legislation. “What defines me,” she said, “is looking at the body of law that we have, finding the gaps in that law and filling them.”
In the course of the interview, Bowser did cite examples of her legislative efforts, including a bill that requires mediation 90 days before banks foreclose on properties (similar to laws enacted in nearly two dozen states before the District’s was passed); changes in the way vacant and blighted properties are taxed; and a mandate that all council meetings be open to the public.
At one point during the interview, an aide, Rob Hawkins, questioned whether her detractors are being fair.
“These claims have been lobbed, as you point out, for almost two years,” he said. “I wonder, at this point, if it’s a key word for something else. If people are trying to say something else.”
When Hawkins was asked to elaborate, Bowser interrupted, assuming the voice of a critic: “ ‘She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s, well, she’s, what’s this young, black wo—. ’ Well, you know, you know the, you know the words.”
Asked why she invoked race and gender, Bowser said: “I didn’t say that. You didn’t hear me say that.”
Pressed to elaborate, she said, “I haven’t heard similar criticisms in other races, let me put it that way.”
Bowser joined the council in 2007, after Adrian M. Fenty became mayor and endorsed her to succeed him as the member from Ward 4, which stretches between Chevy Chase to the west and Riggs Park to the east.
From the start, her colleagues and advocates viewed her as a cautious lawmaker who aligned herself with Fenty when he had few council allies. Bowser also developed a reputation for being collaborative and asking substantive questions.
Over time, advocates say, Bowser has become more assertive, and they see value in her willingness to delve into issues such as whether the cap should be raised on the amount of debt the District can amass to finance projects.
“It’s a quiet issue that doesn’t get a lot of publicity, and Muriel is interested in it. It’s hugely important,” said Richard Bradley of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District.
Bowser’s highest-profile moment as a legislator may have occurred in 2011 when the council sought to enact ethics reform as scandals rattled the city. As the chair of the Government Operations Committee, Bowser led a review of at least 10 bills and then drafted one of her own.
After months of debate, the council passed Bowser’s bill, which created an ethics panel and toughened disclosure requirements for members. Reform advocates criticized the bill for not imposing restrictions on campaign contributions from city contractors and lobbyists. Members were also allowed to maintain $40,000 constituent service accounts — criticized as funding purchases such as baseball tickets.
Bryan Weaver, a Democratic activist who lobbied for reform, said he had hoped that Bowser would push for dramatic change.
“I wanted her to be the hero. She could stand up to the old guard who liked the system as it is,” he said. The result was a disappointment, Weaver said, but a measure of progress was achieved. “She did push it forward,” he said.
To advocates and colleagues, Bowser’s identity as a lawmaker can seem opaque. She supported a bill to grant paid sick leave in 2008. But she opposed a bill favored by labor that would have required big-box stores such as Wal-Mart to provide workers with pay and benefits worth at least $12.50 an hour.
“She has supported things on different sides of the same issue,” said Ed Lazere of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “One interpretation is that she’s trying to be cautious, that she’s trying to support workers and families in need, and business, as well.”
Jim McGrath, leader of the Tenants Advocacy Coalition, who has criticized Bowser on rent issues, said she “seems to be lacking any kind of passion,” an opinion expressed by others interviewed. “She’s kind of a riddle in that way,” he said. “She doesn’t come out strongly in favor of anything.”
Bowser, in the interview, described herself as being as “open as they come,” and she asked, “What do you think is Vince Gray’s passion?”
Asked to define herself politically — progressive, liberal or conservative — Bowser said: “I’m a Democrat. I’m a balanced Democrat. I’m balanced.”
Her passion, she said, is development. She wants to deliver everywhere in the city “amenities that are enjoyed in tonier sections of town.”
Bowser boasted of her role in pushing the District to arrive at a plan for the development of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is in her ward. She organized community meetings and lobbied for residents to have a role shaping the project after the federal government turned a portion of the campus over to the District.
“There would be no Walter Reed [redevelopment] but for the leadership of council member Bowser,” she declared. “It’s more than getting people to the table. It’s starting the process. I could have said: ‘You know what, federal government? That’s not a bad idea. Keep the whole thing.”
Like Fenty before her, Bowser has focused on Ward 4. Her office has published announcements touting her part in renovations made by the city to libraries, recreation centers and schools as well as other improvements in the ward, for example: “Bowser opens Upshur Dog Park with leash cutting this Saturday”; “Bowser to Cut Ribbon on New Lights for Sherman Circle”; and “Bowser to Celebrate Grand Opening of New Ace Hardware in Petworth,”
The proof of her effectiveness, supporters say, is her overwhelming election victories, although she won less than 50 percent of the vote in her ward in the mayoral primary.
“She’s primarily been defined, like her predecessor, by constituent services,” said Terry Lynch, a Bowser supporter. “That’s what ward council members are elected to do: get the trash picked up; get the abandoned vehicles towed.”
He added: “She’s not running to be a legislator. She’s running to be a manager, a leader, a politician. A mayor combines a lot of roles.”