Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Muriel Bowser has been thinking about re-election since 2015, her first year as mayor.

On the bitter cold night of Jan. 8, Bowser was feeling hot. The week before, she’d thrown herself three days of inauguration events. One was an inaugural ball at the Convention Center featuring a performance by D.C. rapper Wale. The series cost more than $1.1 million in private money that came mostly from corporate sponsors.

The next week, Bowser found herself in a less festive setting. She was speaking to a crowd of 900 people gathered for an “inaugural action” at St. Augustine Catholic Church near Malcolm X Park. The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), a nonprofit membership group that can mobilize thousands of voters, organized the event.

It was standing-room only. Bowser promised to invest in affordable housing, create job programs for struggling residents, and reduce homelessness. She said she would “listen, learn, and act.”

“I didn’t get elected to warm the seat. And I only got elected for four years—though I’m going to run again,” Bowser added, amusing the crowd. “But I know this: I can’t make decisions thinking about the next election. I have to make decisions that I think are right.”

Around the same time, the @TeamMuriel Twitter account, which Bowser’s office uses for official government business, tweeted: “I’m gonna run again. #win4dc.”

Someone deleted that message 13 minutes later, according to archives kept by ProPublica, the investigative journalism outfit. Other sources confirm the tweet. “#win4dc” was the hashtag-pun WIN members deployed to promote the forum.

Why delete a tweet of confident commitment on the heels of a solid victory? Months before her inauguration, Bowser routed incumbent Vince Gray, whose hopes of a two-term tenure were dashed by a widely publicized, protracted federal investigation into his 2010 campaign finances.

In part, Bowser’s victory was a matter of excellent timing. She won the 2014 Democratic primary with more than 10 percentage points over Gray just three weeks after Gray’s campaign supporter Jeffrey Thompson pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. 

It was also a testament to Bowser’s abilities as a candidate. An energetic door-knocker and hardworking pavement-pounder, according to those who know her, she has not lost a race since first being elected as a councilmember for Ward 4 in a 2007 special election

It looks like Bowser is about to win again. But in this race, voters don’t have a point of contrast.

At least not yet. No other elected official in D.C. with a shot has pitched themselves as an alternative to Bowser. The dozen-or-so candidates opposing her are little known. 

The March 21 deadline for declaring to compete in the June primary is less than two weeks away. With that window of opportunity closing, any opponent would have to make up their mind to challenge Bowser soon. But toppling her wouldn’t be unattainable, political observers say.

The politicos who might have a chance against her are either running for re-election to their own seats or not ready for a mayoral bid, save for a few. Some have privately and publicly expressed disinterest in being mayor right now, having other priorities.

Gray, though, hasn’t ruled out the possibility, telling City Paper contributor Tom Sherwood last Saturday that he could gather the required signatures within “48 hours.” He is currently the Ward 7 councilmember.

Meanwhile donations and other support have flown to Bowser like metal to a magnet. She has amassed a hefty war chest worth roughly $2 million for her 2018 campaign. That sum would daunt most rivals, especially this late in the local elections process.

Someone could run against Bowser as an Independent in the November general election. But in Democratic D.C., such a candidate would have long odds, both because 2018 is not a presidential election year, when turnout increases, and D.C. has never had an Independent (or Republican) mayor in the history of Home Rule

In some corners—including inside the Wilson Building—frustration over the lack of a competitive mayoral race is palpable. Those most invested in local democracy say it is suffering as a result, regardless of Bowser’s merits and flaws.

“Elections should be about big ideas and holding elected officials accountable,” says Ed Lazere, a candidate for D.C. Council chairman and longtime policy advocate. “And that’s hard to make happen when you don’t have a challenger. … Without a challenger, [Bowser] doesn’t have to have a bold vision for the next four years, and clearly the city needs one.”

She and her backers insist that she does. “We are making tremendous progress, but we have more work to do,” Bowser has said, in one phrasing or another, across recent statements and media appearances. In her campaign kickoff video last September, she took a more boosterish tack: “To put it bluntly, D.C. is winning,” she proclaimed.

For a long time, Bowser has been winning, too. She was the protégé of former Mayor Adrian Fenty’s and his successor to the Ward 4 seat on the 13-member D.C. Council. That ward is a largely residential voting district at the northern end of the District with diverse demographics and neighborhoods on both sides of Rock Creek Park.

She won the Ward 4 seat in 2007, again in 2008, and again in 2012, each time by large margins. Her seven years on the Council were relatively unrocky. During that period, she chaired the legislature’s economic development committee and honed her constituent services. 

She declared her run for mayor in March 2013—before Gray announced his re-election bid—and stumped on future-focused rhetoric about education and ethics reform. As a legislator, she had championed the latter through a comprehensive 2011 bill.

To many, Bowser’s vanquishing of Gray in the 2014 primary symbolized a new chapter—if not wholesale revenge—for Fenty’s Green Team, a cadre of well-heeled Democratic professionals who often dress in green for political events. 

In the general election, she beat David Catania, a former at-large councilmember and Independent who had given up his seat to oppose Gray. Bowser earned more than half of the votes cast and trounced Catania by 20 percentage points. At last, her 19-month campaign ended.

It was a marquee moment for Bowser, then 42 and D.C.’s first female mayor in two decades. At the Howard Theatre for her victory speech, which several local politicians old and new attended, she urged her supporters “we must move faster.” 

“Some call you a machine,” Bowser told the crowd. “I just call you Team Muriel.”

Which brings us back to the deleted tweet. It might have been a bad look for a fresh mayor only a week into her position. But the message was the same as the one Bowser delivered in person to the interfaith audience: She wanted to be boss for eight years.

At the moment, that reality is almost in Bowser’s grasp—despite a string of road bumps and scandals over the past three-plus years that have muddied her record.

The most damaging among them may be the most recent. In February, Bowser’s appointed public schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, resigned after it was revealed that he broke the very rules he created by circumventing the competitive school lottery process for his daughter, transferring her from one desirable high school to another. 

Now the former chancellor says Bowser knew about this transfer because he informed her of it. The mayor has continued to deny knowledge of Wilson’s purported notice. On Tuesday she told the Washington Post editorial board that she won’t testify at a yet-unscheduled emergency Council hearing on the matter because it will probably be a “political circus.”

Welcome to election year. Wilson Building watchers say a viable opponent—if one were to emerge—would do well to point back to the beginning of Bowser’s tenure and draw a line to her current missteps. This is a story of the major blunders on her watch, and why no one seemingly wants to hold Bowser to account. 

Cora Masters Barry, widow of Mayor Marion Barry, and Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery

From #FreshStart to FreshPAC

Bowser entered the mayor’s office with pledges of a “#FreshStart” for a city tainted by misconduct. But within months, a well-connected, pro-Bowser political action committee called FreshPAC arose and stirred controversy.

The PAC exploited a loophole in campaign finance law that let donors in Bowser’s orbit contribute unlimited amounts during a year when the PAC was not supporting candidates. It stockpiled more than $330,000 to aid the D.C. Council bids of Bowser allies.  

Then the PAC fell. In late 2015, FreshPAC shut down under scrutiny about pay-to-play politics. 

Former Bowser campaign treasurer Ben Soto and attorney-lobbyist Earle “Chico” Horton III ran the PAC. Two of its donors traveled with Bowser to China for an economic development trip and enjoyed direct access to the mayor, and some joined her on a trip to Cuba three months later. When the PAC closed, it returned the unspent funds to contributors.

“I do agree that FreshPAC had become a distraction, and I very much support their decision to move on,” Bowser told reporters on a conference call while in China. Earlier, Soto had disputed “the notion that contributors gave because they expected something in return or that the Mayor would ever even entertain such thought.”

In the 2016 elections, Bowser lost three reliable votes on the Council.

Give Them Shelters

Though FreshPAC wilted, the kind of influence it represented didn’t. In early 2016, after years of chaos for the families living there, Bowser announced a plan to close DC General, the District’s largest family homeless shelter, and replace it with smaller facilities in each ward. Many activists and residents hailed the effort as humane and long overdue. Terrible conditions persist at DC General.

But to some, Bowser’s plan smacked of some of the same favoritism as FreshPAC. Major donors to Bowser’s campaigns would have profited handsomely through land leases and her selection of sites for the new facilities. Altogether, the payments would have cost up to $300 million.

Citing the costs of the proposed land leases, the Council amended Bowser’s plan in May 2016 so the replacement shelters would all be built on D.C.-owned sites. Chairman Phil Mendelson spearheaded the changes and marshalled a unanimous vote.

He also criticized the administration for “obfuscation and misinformation” surrounding the plan, saying the process could have gone better “if there had been more collaboration.”

Bowser shot back with her own choice words, vexed over how the changes might have delayed the closure of DC General. “You’re a fucking liar!” she screamed at Mendelson—within earshot of reporters in a Wilson Building hallway. “You know it can’t close in 2018.”

In January, Bowser recommitted to shuttering the former hospital “this fall,” even though some of the replacement shelters won’t be open yet. The city says it’s making appropriate accommodations to house families. In a statement, Bowser said, “We believe that this citywide challenge demands a citywide solution.”

Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Contractual Fracas

Later in 2016, a sudden personnel change in the mayor’s Cabinet morphed into a slow-burning contracting scandal. The saga involved one of D.C.’s most dominant contractors, Fort Myer Construction.

That August, ex-D.C. Department of General Services Director Christopher Weaver—a Navy veteran—resigned. DGS manages the District’s real estate portfolio and the construction of public projects like the DC General replacement shelters.

In an outgoing memo to the agency’s staff, Weaver wrote that his motivations for leaving were “personal” and did “not reflect in any way dissatisfaction with the work of this department.”

“I wish each of you ‘Fair Winds and Following Seas,’” he wrote, borrowing an old Navy phrase.

There was more to it than that. As WAMU first reported, Weaver’s departure followed a dispute over two lucrative infrastructure contracts for the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Southeast and the D.C. United stadium in Southwest. Fort Myer bid on both contracts, but did not win them.

That’s when Rashad Young, Bowser’s city administrator, intervened at DGS, reportedly asking Weaver to fire two senior staffers involved with the contracts. Weaver didn’t do that, but he did step down. The District placed the staffers on administrative leave. “A fundamental change in rules without discussion with the mayor or with me is not something we take lightly,” Young said at the time.

Young and the administration denied any favoritism toward Fort Myer, which has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Bowser campaigns and is linked to a firm that donated to FreshPAC. He said DGS had altered the scoring system for contracts and weakened the usual preference given to local businesses like Fort Myer. 

As chair of the committee that oversees DGS, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh launched an inquiry into the shakeup. As it was pending, a lawyer for one of the canned staffers claimed that the Bowser administration had ousted his client “to appease a campaign contributor that lost out on city contracts.” (The former employees also pursued legal action.)

Cheh is a not-infrequent critic of Bowser. In June 2017, she reported that the administration had taken steps, many technical, to favor Fort Myer in the bid process. She also found circumstantial evidence indicating that a D.C. government employee had leaked confidential information about a competitor’s bid to the company, but no smoking gun.

Bowser declined to further investigate that finding, calling it “a wild accusation.” “We don’t have any reason to think that it’s true,” she said. (Fort Myer maintains that it did nothing improper.)

Emergency Room

Another contracting problem emerged on Bowser’s watch toward the end of last year—this time, around D.C.’s only public hospital, United Medical Center. It serves many low-income residents.

The hospital is in such a state of disarray that, in August, a patient living with AIDS had a heart attack and died—but not before he laid for 20 minutes on the floor in his own waste, according to a Post report. UMC’s obstetrics ward shut down that month. In December, its board decided to permanently close the ward, leaving no hospital east of the river for women to deliver their babies.

The board is chaired by LaRuby May, a former Ward 8 councilmember and an ally of Bowser’s. The mayor nominated May to the board in February 2017, less than two months after May had packed up her Wilson Building office. Following a contentious race, May lost to current Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, a protégé of Marion Barry’s, in the 2016 Democratic primary.

“If confirmed, I will roll up my sleeves and get to work helping to make UMC a shining example of community partnerships,” May testified to the Council’s health committee, chaired by former Mayor Gray, at a hearing on her nomination. Gray became the Ward 7 councilmember and received the committee after a 2016 comeback win against then-Bowser ally Yvette Alexander.

Gray didn’t resist May’s appointment to the UMC board. But he did rally the Council to boot the consultancy managing the hospital from a D.C. contract in a 7-6 vote last November. The firm is called Veritas, and its executive chairman Corbett Price is a major Bowser donor whom the mayor also appointed to the board of Metro.

Veritas had helped run UMC into a “functionally” bankrupt state, D.C.’s chief financial officer told the board in January. Now, Gray is poised to use his health committee to continue an inquisition into the board, in part by examining its decision to shield from public view the meeting where it voted to shutter the obstetrics ward. 

May stated that she could not remember the vote count at a recent Council hearing. “Maybe I had too much fun in college, and, you know, my brain cells are gone,” she said. Afterward, the UMC board secretary told Gray’s committee the vote was 6-2.

Late last month, the Council greenlighted the contract for a new hospital operator, Mazars USA. That consultancy is working to turn around UMC.

The past mismanagement of UMC could harm Bowser’s shaky support east of the Anacostia River. In the 2014 Democratic primary, she lost Wards 7 and 8 to Gray by double-digit percentages. 

But as the pressure on the UMC board was building up, Bowser also gestured toward a future east-of-the-river hospital at the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8. She released the results of a site-selection study for the prospective hospital in September, saying it “move[d] the District closer” to ensuring residents “in every ward” have access to high-quality, affordable health care.

Schools Daze

Earlier this week, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso called for an “emergency hearing” on the circumstances surrounding former public schools chancellor Wilson’s departure. Grosso chairs the legislature’s education committee.

First Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles, and then Wilson, resigned after news broke that Wilson’s daughter had transferred high schools outside of the mandatory lottery process for out-of-boundary schools. Bowser denied any involvement, but days after his dismissal, Wilson claimed that she’d known about it for months.

Grosso had said he planned to ask Bowser, Wilson, and Niles to testify under oath. The mayor told FOX 5 that she would talk to Grosso and that D.C.’s Inspector General would review the circumstances, but didn’t commit to testifying. On air she said, “At no time was I told there was a discretionary transfer, and I am pretty disappointed that we are kind of talking about one child instead of all the children in DCPS.” Thousands of children are on waitlists for high-performing D.C. schools.

Even the original scandal of Wilson violating his own DCPS policies appears to have damaged Bowser’s support among residents. In a February poll administered via Public Policy Polling by What’s Going On PAC, a political action committee founded by Gray’s close associate Chuck Thies, about one-third of likely Democratic voters said they were “less likely” to vote for Bowser’s re-election due to Wilson’s “rigging the school lottery.” 

Wilson was Bowser’s most significant recruit, whose hire followed a national search for a new chancellor that some education advocates criticized for a lack of transparency. He moved from California with his family.

Although his ousting was rare for a Bowser appointee, his transgression was like déjà vu for close observers. Last year, revelations that former DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson had given special school placements to the children of Rashad Young and of Courtney Snowden, Bowser’s city administrator and deputy mayor for greater economic opportunity, respectively, angered parents. Unlike Wilson and Niles, both Snowden and Young remained in their jobs.

In that context, Wilson’s actions stunned some residents all the more. Bowser quickly appointed an interim chancellor and an interim deputy mayor, seeking to shift the conversation forward. The chancellor, Amanda Alexander, has said she foremost wants to finish this school year strong.

Alexander now sits at the helm of a school system where successively unearthed failures are fueling a crisis of confidence. The flood that broke the dam came in November, when NPR and WAMU found that more than half of Ballou Senior High School’s 2017 graduates missed over three months of school and received diplomas anyway. 

This sparked an official review of DCPS graduation and attendance data. It determined that one-third of all 2017 graduates did not meet graduation requirements.

Before February was over, though, news of a quiet audit of student residency at the prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts showed that over half of roughly 100 students sampled may live outside the District though their families claimed residency, thus avoiding out-of-jurisdiction tuition. 

Worse for Bowser, an attorney within the state superintendent of education’s office allegedly told investigators to slow-walk the audit because 2018 is an election year. Hanseul Kang, the state superintendent, said she had “no knowledge” of such a directive and would get to the bottom of things.

Bowser said she had only learned of the investigation the day the story broke. Of the allegation, she told reporters “people say all kinds of crazy things.”

The deeper structural issues plaguing DCPS took root long before Bowser took mayoral office. But as the incumbent in charge of the city, her supporters realize these issues could make her vulnerable: Within the past several weeks, Bowser’s campaign removed language about growing graduation rates from its website.

***

Bowser’s office referred comment for this story to her campaign team. In an interview, her campaign chairman Bill Lightfoot, an attorney who chaired Bowser’s first as well as both of Fenty’s mayoral campaigns, defended the mayor’s record. 

He said she has “moved to address and correct” problems when they have arisen. He added that Bowser’s “goal is that everyone participate and share in the opportunities in the city”—an admittedly “difficult” one. 

“Sometimes what the media calls a scandal is an overstatement, when in fact what the media should be reporting is the solution proposed by the mayor,” Lightfoot said. “But the media attracts more followers by scandal than they do by objective reporting.”

In her time in office, Bowser’s economic development team has closed on major deals for new fire stations, libraries, and school buildings, thousands of units of affordable housing across mixed-use projects, and sports facilities. She’s poised to tear down the decrepit DC General shelter as new, more-dignified shelters go up around the city.

She’s presided over significant overall declines in homelessness and violent crime as well as a downtick in unemployment. She was even able to get the much-maligned, long-delayed streetcar up and running.

If she continues skating to victory, Bowser would become the first D.C. mayor to win re-election since Anthony Williams won a second term in 2002. She would earn four more years at the helm of a booming city whose population unofficially reached 700,000 residents last month and that currently has a $13.9 billion budget.

But it is also a city that confronts a troubled public education system, a housing crunch, a stubborn homelessness crisis, and a higher level of income inequality than any American state.

Bowser’s September campaign kickoff followed welcome news for her prospects. A Post poll last summer determined that 67 percent of residents surveyed approved of her record, up from 58 percent in 2015.

The poll also found that Bowser would garner almost double the support of Gray in a theoretical three-way match, and that D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, a rising Democratic Party star, would get one-tenth of the votes.

Racine is running for re-election as the District’s top lawyer this year instead. Gray, who some councilmembers and observers speculate is mulling a bid, would face steep odds because of the investigation into his 2010 campaign. He was not indicted, but several of his associates pleaded guilty to crimes.

That makes it difficult, but not impossible, for Gray to mount a significant challenge against Bowser. None of her ethical lapses has risen to the level of, say, a federal investigation where the mayor or one of her associates is a known target. 

“To take down an incumbent, the scandals have to be really overwhelming—and not just inside baseball,” explains one Wilson Building expat who has worked on several D.C. campaigns and requested anonymity to speak freely. “Ethical issues are always going to be tough. Unless you have a U.S. Attorney with a plea agreement or an indictment … you’re going to move forward.”

The source also notes that key election constituencies such as unions and business and trade associations typically get behind the incumbent in city elections because “they have to kiss the ring.” (That took place when Gray was running for re-election in 2014.)

Add to this the fact that Bowser’s Green Team is an intensely loyal group with a far-reaching fundraising network, the source says, and she has a reliable—if not always foolproof—“retail-politics” recipe for success.

Indeed, the Green Team turns out in droves for public events like parades and Bowser forums. They do so wearing green scarves, green jackets, and green t-shirts and beanies with Bowser’s name emblazoned in white letters.

“These folks know at the end of the day [Bowser] is loyal,” the source continues. “It’s a mafiosa thing: ‘Show me undying loyalty and we’ll survive this—as long as you continue to pledge your loyalty to me. Scandals will come and go.’”

And in large part, the meat-and-potatoes functions of local government that the average voter cares about are running normally under Bowser. The trash is still getting picked up.

This is not to say there aren’t entrenched problems, or that the District’s 21st-century prosperity is shared equitably among all four of D.C.’s quadrants. 

“Some say the District of Columbia is doing well, but the residents across the city who are less affluent aren’t seeing it,” argues Trayon White, the councilmember who represents D.C.’s poorest voting district and filled Marion Barry’s former Council seat. “In fact, it is getting harder for everyday working people. I hear and feel their burden every day.”

Asked at a legislative press conference this week about the mayor’s apparent glide to a second term, Mendelson, the Council chairman, initially deflected. “You know, elections are an opportunity for elected officials to face the public, and where there’s competition, to defend their record or put forward why their record has been very positive,” he said. 

“So you can look at races where there’s little opposition and say it’d be great if there was more robust discussion, or races where there is competition and say this is exactly what the democratic process is about,” he continued, smirking slightly. “That’s my answer.”

***

Last Saturday, the mayor cut a confident figure at a ceremony unveiling the new bronze statue of Barry outside the Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. “‘I will never forget where I came from,’” said Bowser, a native Washingtonian who was raised in North Michigan Park, quoting Barry. 

Growing animated, the mayor also said Barry accomplished something “no man had ever done, and no woman or man will ever do again—four times elected mayor in this town.”

Is Bowser already considering her plans for 2022 and beyond? Where does she go from here?

Daniel Ridge, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Hill East and a vocal critic of Bowser, says one reason no viable challenger has declared to run against her is because being mayor is yeoman’s work. “I don’t think any of our councilmembers have to work anything like as hard as the mayor does,” Ridge says. Being D.C.’s boss, he explains, requires major “lifestyle” changes.

“My biggest concern is that if a late challenger does emerge, if we try to make this a referendum on transparency and they lose, what does that mean?” he notes. “Then she realizes she has a blank check.”

The Wilson Building expat and campaign veteran has a different take. “At this point, there’s no one who will really be able to compete,” they said last week. “And that’s a shame. What does it say about us as a city that no one will be able to hold the most powerful person in office accountable?” 

Cuneyt Dil and Tom Sherwood contributed reporting.