IT'S difficult to imagine any mayor’s second term like the one with which Muriel Bowser has grappled. It began in 2019, filled with promise. One year later, it felt like Pandora was once again among us, unleashing all sorts of hellish things and experiences.
“We were hit with a pandemic, [a] racial reckoning, an economic crisis, and a political tsunami given who we had in the White House,” Bowser recalled during a wide-ranging interview with me earlier this month over Zoom.
When I asked Bowser to rate her second-term performance, she demurred: “That’s up to the voters.”
Their turn will come during the June 21 Democratic primary. Bowser faces three challengers: former Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner James Butler, at-large DC Council member Robert White and Ward 8 Council member Trayon White.
An interesting view of the race comes via an analysis of the distribution of campaign
contributions by ward, prepared by political activist Keith Ivey and published on his website dcgeekery.com. By this measure, Bowser and Robert White are nearly matched. For example, 16.2% of her donors come from Ward 3 while 16.5% of Robert White’s come from there; 24.9% of Bowser’s contributors come from Ward 4 while 24.3% of Robert White’s come from Ward 4.
Trayon White’s support has come mostly from communities east of the Anacostia River, with his own ward accounting for 47.2% of his donors and Ward 7 for 20.9%, according to DC Geekery; wards 5 and 6 accounted for 11.4% and 6% of his donors, respectively. That concentrated support in predominantly Black communities may have spurred Robert White to challenge Trayon White’s qualifying signatures. Undoubtedly, Robert White hoped to remove him from the ballot, believing perhaps that he had a better chance of beating Bowser by doing so.
However, the DC Board of Elections ruled last week that Trayon White met the threshold, having 138 valid signatures more than the required 2,000. He will be on the primary ballot.
That means the two Whites will split the opposition, making it more difficult, if not impossible, for either to unseat Bowser.
Moreover, many voters continue to ask whether either White is ready to manage a city with a $19.5 billion budget and a population of about 700,000 that is still reeling from the pandemic and faces possible financial troubles in two years when federal relief funds dry up.
Trayon White’s campaign didn’t respond to my recent request for an interview. Robert White’s campaign, which responded after the deadline for this column, indicated they weren’t able to schedule an interview. (When Robert White announced his candidacy last year, I spoke with him at length.)
The fight between the two Whites and Bowser could be seen as one between the far-left wing of the Democratic Party and centrists or moderates. It is one that has been underway in the District for at least the past four years.
Without grading herself but offering an implicit answer to the question of her opponents’ readiness, Bowser said her administration “stood up to Donald Trump. We fought the pandemic. We stood up the best [COVID-19] testing regime, I would argue, in the country. We got out emergency relief to folks. We saved lives. We got kids back in school before anybody in the region. We actually came out financially OK because of the careful way we’ve managed the government going into it.
“We didn’t lay off a single person. Nobody in DC government missed a paycheck,” she said.
Many residents have praised Bowser’s leadership: “Everything she said she was going to do, she has done,” said Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 civic leader who has been involved in local politics for decades.
Still, Bowser has faced consistent and vociferous criticism. Her opponents and their allies have decried the lack of sufficient affordable housing and the removal of homeless encampments. Some have argued she should be stripped of her control over public schools. Several nonprofit organizations and unions — including AFSCME, the Washington Teachers’ Union and Jews United for Justice Campaign Fund — have joined the chorus, endorsing Robert White.
I have offered my own complaints about the Bowser administration, centered around the questionable competence of some senior managers, the absence of any visionary or entrepreneurial spirit within the top ranks, and the executive’s mishandling of several controversial procurements.
The key question: Could Robert White or Trayon White do any better?
Bowser said she has fired people and others will move on just as they did when she began her second term, though she didn’t name names. She spoke about plans for a reimagined, revitalized downtown and cited efforts to revive several neighborhood corridors. She seemed unaffected by the various endorsements that have gone to Robert White. After all, she has some of her own, including from several unions.
When I asked if she felt the city was headed in the wrong direction as some have asserted, she said no, using schools to illustrate her point: “When I grew up in DC, anybody who could afford not to go to DC Public Schools didn’t go.” Things have changed. Many families are eager to enroll in their neighborhood schools, she said. “With my own daughter, I look at the schools and if I just look at Ward 4 alone, she could go to any of those schools.”
Claiming credit for improvements during her mayoral tenure, Bowser recalled the time when the council attempted to snatch $100 million that had been set aside for the modernization of Coolidge High School. “I told [alumni association president] Terry Goings that I will lie down in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue before that can happen.
“Now that school is bustling. We have a middle school there; the enrollment is up,” she said, adding the city offers an extensive free pre-K program as well. “We’re doing all of that and my opponents think we should go backwards on schools and re-litigate this governance issue, which is bizarre to me.”
She said the virtual academic environment created during the pandemic offered older students the opportunity to go to school and to work, which they saw as a positive experience. “So, we’re going to lean into that in how we are rethinking the 12th grade.”
Bowser asserted that her administration “stands apart” from her predecessors’ in the investments it has made east of the river, including securing “the first [tax increment financing] in Ward 8” and bringing a new supermarket to Ward 7. “We’re going to have a big announcement on a grocery soon at the failed Walmart site,” she said. “Before the pandemic, we had the lowest levels of unemployment in Ward 8 since those numbers have been recorded. We were on our way to getting below double digits.”
Bowser pledged that the city will rebound, recapturing those employment improvements while rebuilding the economy. That vision of a vital post-pandemic DC, she continued, means “focusing on the comeback of our downtown” — a goal that “involves several issues that will require having responsible fiscal leadership. I say leadership because the mayor still has to work with the council. The council has a whole different point of view. Most of them haven’t been around for a recession in the District.”
Undoubtedly, voters want to know the image Bowser has for the city’s future. Their greatest concern, however, is ending the rising crime and violence. Last week, there were at least 15 shooting victims, including several from the sniper attack in the Van Ness community near Edmund Burke School.
Robert White has accused Bowser of not having a plan for dealing with the crime and violence. He has introduced two since announcing his candidacy. The first relied heavily on policies and programs like adding more violence interrupters, improving education, expanding affordable housing, expanding mental health services, and reforming the police culture to eliminate “dangerous” tactics.
There was nothing new there. The proposal replicated much of what was already being done under Bowser.
His second proposal, announced last month, is a massive $1.5 billion guaranteed jobs program. (I keep imagining whether guaranteed employment would have deterred Rayful Edmond, whose criminal drug enterprise terrorized whole neighborhoods. Then I remind myself that his parents brought him into the business; they had steady government jobs.)
White doesn’t propose increasing the police force. Bowser has proposed to add more officers for the past two years. Each time, the council has cut the police budget.
“It’s not the mayor; it’s the council that is against doing something about the crime,” said Seegars, whose work in the community has focused extensively on crime and violence.
For the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget and Financial Plan, Bowser offered, in my view, an overly expensive proposal with increases in funding for violence interrupters; the city’s Pathways program, which is designed to circumvent potential criminal behaviors; and life coaches for those who seem predisposed to crime. She also sought a $31 million increase for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The council will vote in May on that and the rest of the budget.
The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, chaired by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, is proposing to cut Bowser’s MPD proposal by $6 million. Bowser has complained. He has accused her of political grandstanding.
He may be projecting. Reviewing his draft committee report, it appears he shifted some of those funds to meet demands made by special-interest groups while increasing Attorney General Karl Racine’s budget to allow him to hire more lawyers.
“COVID has caused some things to go sideways; public safety is one of them,” Bowser told me in the interview. “We have to reinvest in our whole public safety ecosystem, get our police back on the right track, figure out which one of these violence prevention programs is really working and double down on that one, and extricate ourselves out of anything that’s not working,” she continued, adding that the city does “all those things — at the same time.”
This approach surely resonates with many District voters, but some will ask whether she can deliver on it. Then there’s the political dynamic: Will the message expand her support and help to get her over the finish line?
“I feel confident about where we are, but this is an election and strange things happen in elections,” Bowser said. “So, we’re being very aggressive out there.”
a version of this article was first published on TheDCLine.org