Three women at a recent mayoral forum in Georgetown told me that they had come to “check out” Muriel Bowser. Their intelligence-gathering was fueled, they said, by a desire to support “one of our own.” By evening’s end, they had moved closer to her campaign, politely rejecting Reta Jo Lewis — the only other woman among the candidates vying for the Democratic Party nomination.
Race and class have long been predictable — and combustible — ingredients in the District’s political cauldron. Is gender politics being added to this year’s mix?
Females constituted 52.7 percent of the District’s population in 2012, according to the city’s Office of Planning. Further, the largest cohort of women are younger adults, between ages 20 and 39. Could the city’s changing demographics and a national political landscape filled with notable women be creating the conditions for this new gender advocacy?
“I know a lot of younger women are thinking more about voting for a woman,” longtime political activist Patricia Bitondo told me. She is not one of them, however. Bitondo favors Ward 6 D.C. Council member Tommy Wells in the Democratic primary.
But Wells also appears to be making a push for women’s votes. Bitondo will co-host with Nancy Broers a tea on Jan. 31 at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, where Wells’s wife, Barbara, will sing her husband’s praises. “His vision is what I want Washington to be,” said Bitondo. “There’s no dirt on him. I don’t know anybody who could bribe him.”
Women have won seats on the D.C Council. The mayor’s office has been a different story, however.
Most of the women, who identified themselves as registered Democrats or said they were planning to register as Democrats, responding to a recent Post poll went for one of the men when asked about their candidate of choice in the Democratic primary. Only 13 percent indicated support for Bowser.
“I don’t know if they feel it’s a man’s job,” continued Bitondo, remembering her surprise when in 2006 she couldn’t persuade many of her associates to support then-council chairman Linda Cropp in her mayoral bid.
Blame some of that reluctance, then and now, on Sharon Pratt. If Bowser hopes to galvanize women behind her candidacy, she will need a ghost buster.
The District’s only female mayor, Pratt still haunts the city and invites fears of a possible repeat performance if another woman were elected to that office. Her tenure from 1991 through 1994 was a certifiable disaster.
Holding an actual broom — sometimes a shovel — as a campaign implement, Pratt promised to “clean house.” The D.C. government was a hugely dysfunctional bureaucracy. There were also concerns about then-Mayor Marion Barry’s drug use. Eventually, he was caught on tape smoking a crack pipe.
When Pratt, a Pepco executive, arrived, she seemed a savior. Congress even provided her a special appropriation of $300 million as a welcoming gift. Before long, however, she and her posse of female aides, dubbed the “shoulder-pad brigade,” began to wreak havoc.
She grossly mismanaged the city’s finances. She even persuaded the D.C. Council to create a fifth-quarter property tax gimmick to camouflage her ineptitude. The breaking point may have come when she used $7,500 of public money to hire a professional makeup artist to travel with her, ensuring that her lipstick and blush were applied properly.
“The girlfriends are still haunting us,” said Marie Drissel, noting that some of the issues at the Office of Tax and Revenue where inherited from Pratt’s administration.
By the time Pratt was booted out — receiving only 13 percent of the vote in her reelection bid — the city had a deep deficit. It and Barry’s return to office prompted Congress to impose a financial control board.
Will that history put the kibosh on Bowser’s mayoral aspirations? Already some residents and political operatives have described her as too inexperienced.
“Sharon came in not having held a public position. She did not have the experiences that Muriel has,” countered Cynthiana Lightfoot, offering that Bowser’s record in Ward 4 is “phenomenal.”
Lightfoot is a co-chairperson for the “Women for Muriel” event scheduled for Jan. 26, at the Woman’s National Democratic Club. Her husband, William, is chairman of Bowser’s campaign. But Lightfoot said she is not officially part of that structure. Drissel thinks Bowser could be successful if she had more time to make her case before the election.
“Muriel has a strategic plan. She looks at things globally,” continued Lightfoot, ticking off a list of issues Bowser has championed, including tax relief for senior citizens, education reform, neighborhood development and access to care. “Aren’t these our issues?
“We are doing a disservice to ourselves because of a perception from 20 years ago that doesn’t fit into the reality of today,” said Lightfoot. “We are looking at the possibility of a woman being president in 2016.”