Muriel Bowser has won the Democratic nomination for D.C. mayor. Do you know what she stands for?
Bowser, who represents Ward 4 on the D.C. Council, has won what’s typically the District’s highest-profile race while generally minimizing the amount of discussion on her vision for the city. Sure, she supports better education, jobs, lower crime, affordable housing and a functional government. But every other candidate in the primary backed those things, too.
Bowser was quite adept at citing facts and figures but also showed a real talent for framing issues in a way that sounded good to everyone. She generally praised many ideas in the abstract but remained noncommittal as they became concrete.
If residents in her ward had “concerns” about an executive-branch initiative, Bowser, too, expressed “concerns.” On transportation, she doesn’t want the Metrobus garage to stay at its current location on 14th Street NW, but she opposed putting it at the large Walter Reed complex and had no alternative plan. When the District Department of Transportation put forth a plan for disability parking meters, she introduced a resolution to block the proposal without offering a better one.
On the District’s zoning overhaul, Bowser praised the work of the Office of Planning while insisting she had only four small “concerns” — the four proposals that represent the most significant changes. When discussing questions such as the appropriate scale of development at the Takoma Metro station or whether to put a bus lane on 16th Street NW, she gave a broad, process-oriented answer: She supports moving forward on good ideas but wants to ensure that every voice is heard and neighborhood concerns are taken into account.
Listening to every voice is indeed an important quality in a mayor, but a mayor also has to make tough decisions. Push ahead on a project or don’t? Budget money here or there? A mayor can’t duck every divisive choice if she wants to keep the city moving forward.
But, hey, one certainly can’t fault Bowser for picking a winning campaign strategy. Her voters didn’t seem to mind.
I spoke to residents outside a Dupont Circle polling station during the April 1 primary, and the plentiful Bowser supporters most often said they were choosing her because of the “shadow campaign” that helped elect Vincent Gray in 2010. Some said they were concerned about corruption. Some cited Bowser’s relative youth. None listed an actual vision for the city or policy position.
Bowser’s primary opponents generally didn’t force the issue. Since Gray was the incumbent and people were generally pleased with the city’s direction, none of the leading candidates really ran against Gray’s plans or program for the future. Instead, they focused on the transgressions of his 2010 campaign.
Gray ran on his record until the end, when polling made it clear the race was coming down to him and Bowser. Then his campaign launched the “Muriel not ready” Web site, which made an argument about experience. That’s still a character-based argument, and on character, Bowser came out on top — thanks to the shadow campaign.
Next, Bowser may face council member David Catania (I-At Large) in the general election. Catania has made government waste and public health signature issues during his time on the council, and he now chairs the committee on education, where in a very short time he has made himself into an expert on education. Whether you agree or disagree with Catania, he would be pushing detailed proposals for education on the campaign trail. Bowser will have to do the same.
Bowser’s vision has been especially fuzzy on education. She says, for instance, that she wants every middle school to be like the city’s most desirable one, Alice Deal in Tenleytown. That appealing sentiment alienates nobody, but it isn’t a plan of action. Deal has far fewer low-income students than other D.C. middle schools. Raising achievement in high-poverty schools will require approaches better tailored to the needs of those communities.
On Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith’s school boundary proposals, which came out last weekend, Bowser now says she likes some elements of the proposal but has concerns about others. Meanwhile, Bowser has refused to participate in an early forum on education.
If elected, Bowser could be a great mayor with a strong and positive vision for the District. On the other hand, she also could end up pursuing a very poor vision or, intent on avoiding the mistakes of former mayor Adrian Fenty, she might decide that it’s better not to risk upsetting anyone and eschew anything controversial. The machinery of government could grind to a halt.
To guard against such an outcome, voters should insist that all candidates take a stand on the tough issues. They should choose a mayoral candidate based not on party affiliation or superficial characteristics but rather on who has the best vision for the city. There’s a good chance that, for many voters, that person will turn out to be Bowser. But she — and Catania, too — should have to make the case.
The writer is editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington.