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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s inner circle has a mantra that its members utter only partly in jest. It comes from the movie Fight Club, which is also the nickname of this confidential cadre: “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”
It’s a hard rule to live by and a harder one to enforce. It raises numerous questions: Who is in the club? What do they talk about? If the mayor says something in public, does she say something else with Fight Club?
After all, in politics there’s what the public sees and what it doesn’t—the inside game and the outside game, as it were.
Every mayor has an inner circle that is more in tune with mayoral priorities than everyday citizens. But in D.C., the public demands a seat at the table for discussions of major issues such as schools, public safety, and housing.
So it’s a fine line to walk when the mayor moves ahead without public input on, say, a lease arrangement with her preferred developers to build homeless shelters in wards throughout the city.
Or runs a campaign promising transparency while launching a Super PAC awash in contributions from those same developers.
Such topics naturally arise as the civic conversation shifts from Bowser’s first two years in office to the prospects of her re-election in 2018. The conversation hovers in terms of who she is, compared with who voters thought she was. That’s where it gets tricky.
Her mentor, former Mayor Adrian Fenty, branded himself the education mayor who was going to take over D.C. Public Schools. Mission accomplished. Vince Gray ran on “One City,” a vague slogan meant to convey that his was an agenda of unity in a city fractured by class and race. The slogan stuck, but the results did not. With Bowser, “Pathways to the Middle Class” was even more vague and told the public little about what she planned to do.
As D.C. councilmember from Ward 4, Bowser was known as somewhat of a loner, occasionally poking her head out from under Fenty’s shadow. She had a reputation then for being cautious and aloof, not prone to conflict. But everything changes when you become mayor, especially with D.C.’s profile—and revenue—on the rise.
Since being elected two years ago, Bowser has come into her own, observers say, with a ken for pulling the levers of power, associating with people of money and influence, and enjoying the trappings of the office. She and her entourage—including Fight Club members, if one were to speculate who is in Fight Club—have gone to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia as well as China and Cuba. Next week, she will make her second trip to South by Southwest, where a who’s who of the music and tech industries will mingle.
And why shouldn’t she? Thanks to a booming local economy, Bowser took over a city in 2015 that was flush with cash. No longer a sleepy political town, D.C. was establishing itself not just as a great American city, but as a global one. “When I came into office I realized the city had been off the national and world scene,” Bowser tells City Paper. “I promised to get us back. … We’re the capital of the free world, and we should act like it.”
Yet despite $7 billion in annual revenue last fiscal year, one of the highest percentages of college graduates nationwide, and a per capita income among the highest in the country, the city still suffers from a stubborn achievement gap in its schools, stark unemployment in its eastern wards, and persistent and alarming crime in those same areas.
Forget who deserves credit or blame, the Big Truth about D.C. is that, aside from the ominous challenge of how to stave off the District’s Republican overlords, socio-economic disparity is the story of the city, and it figures to determine whether Bowser deserves a second term.
It also figures to get messy. Two years into her first term, with the political comeback of an adversary in Vince Gray, and other elected officials who could challenge her in 2018, it’s fair to ask if she is delivering on her pledge of rebuilding the middle class in a city of haves and have-nots.
And as with building consensus, seeking compromise, or engaging in negotiations, success in attaining such a goal—or at least the perception of it—is most likely when people know who someone is and what she stands for, and believe she will do what she said she would.
Which, as it turns out, is not an easy case for Muriel Bowser to make.
There are two political narratives most often applied to Bowser. The more favorable one is widely espoused by the business and political elite—power brokers and insiders who are more likely than not to be in Fight Club or have one of its members on speed dial.
That narrative says Bowser is intelligent, organized, and committed to helping all residents of her city. “You have to be called to politics, if you do it well, and if you’re passionate about change in neighborhoods,” she says. “I only got into elected office because I thought it was the fastest way to help the most people, and that’s why I do it.”
The image that 44-year-old Muriel Elizabeth Bowser projects is that of a good Catholic girl from a solid middle-class family who has done well in her hometown, which she represents in a righteous, self-possessed manner.
Chief among her fans is D.C. lawyer William Lightfoot, campaign chairman to both Bowser and Fenty. One of Lightfoot’s more memorable lines was inspired by Fenty’s losing 2010 campaign, when he characterized Fenty’s opposition as a “minority of longtime residents who had grown accustomed to the old, patronage-fueled style in the District.”
After four years of the Vince Gray administration, which was hindered by scandals, Bowser was going to be Fenty without the arrogance. She was going to bring people together and listen to competing views. “Her key skill is to motivate people with a common goal, and keep them focused on that goal,” Lightfoot says. “She’s committed to bettering the lives of people who live here. She wants to create jobs and help people in need, but deep in her heart she’s also a builder.”
Bowser, like any mayor who takes her legacy seriously, wants to build great things, Lightfoot says. Yet he also credits her with bringing in a new schools chancellor who will continue the reforms of Michelle Rhee and Kaya Henderson, expanding the summer jobs program created by Marion Barry into a year-round program for youth of all ages, and investing $100 million in the Housing Production Trust Fund to bankroll affordable housing. “These are campaign promises,” he says of Bowser’s agenda.
Civic patrons like the way she balances these economic development and social policy issues. “Governing is always about competing priorities, and Mayor Bowser is striking an excellent balance, embracing growth and creating opportunity,” says philanthropist and education reform advocate Katherine Bradley, co-founder of the influential CityBridge Foundation. “She is clearly backing policies that will support employment growth that [attracts] residents and businesses to our jurisdiction, and at the same time, she is taking bold steps on education, housing, and wage policies.”
Bradley also gives Bowser high marks for being an education reformer—part talent scout, part bridge builder. “The issue I know best is education, and Bowser deserves significant praise on that front. First, she has chosen excellent senior education officials. … I think her choice of Antwan Wilson from Oakland to succeed Kaya [Henderson] as chancellor is bold—taking the risk of bringing in an outsider to follow such a highly successful leader. But she clearly thought this through, choosing someone with a solid track record, a reputation for real empathy, and a willingness to think in [terms of] cooperation between charter and traditional public sectors. If we get the charter-traditional public relationship right in D.C., we will be a model for the nation.”
A heightened national profile in the face of a hostile federal government couldn’t hurt right now. But Bowser is facing entrenched local problems. She took over a growing city that was fiscally sound, with a robust and resilient real estate economy, but she inherited a socio-economic disparity gap akin to a crisis, according to native Washingtonian and nationwide real estate developer R. Donahue Peebles.
“It’s a challenge that no mayor since Marion Barry has dealt with on the same scale, when he helped create a stronger and deeper black middle class in the 1980s,” Peebles says. “Muriel inherited this disparity and the frustration that comes with lack of opportunity and upward mobility.”
Peebles, based in New York, has deep ties to D.C. In addition to having a home and family members who do business here, he owns a hotel, an Anacostia office building Anacostia, and is developing four projects in D.C. He’s done business with District mayors for decades and is with Bowser as well.
“There are no easy or swift solutions,” he says. “The culture in her administration is that it’s important to provide economic opportunities, and a big part of changing industry culture is conveying an agenda from a position of power, by setting a tone and leading by example. It says, ‘It’s important to us, and should be important to you too.’ If she changes that culture, then it’s a lasting legacy.”
Peebles rates Bowser a “solid eight” out of 10 on the mayoral success scale, “trending up to being a 10.” But where she really shines, he says, is in representing D.C. on a bigger stage. On Sept. 16, she spoke before about 800 people, including members of Congress, at a reception for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. The next night, she became the first D.C. mayor in the foundation’s 45-year history to deliver opening remarks at The Phoenix Awards Dinner and was followed by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Robert Smith of Vista Equity Partners (and the wealthiest black man in America) and Peebles, who chairs the foundation board. In the audience were all 47 African-American members of Congress as well as black business leaders, mayors, and governors from around the country.
“Every comment without exception has been high praise over how she presents and conducts herself,” Peebles says.
Case in point, Peebles says: After his election, then-President-elect Trump met with just two mayors—Bowser and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio. When DeBlasio emerged from the meeting, he told reporters he talked to Trump about how snarled traffic had become around Trump Tower as a result of the president’s security needs. “Muriel came out and indicated that she spoke to Trump about how to advance the quality of life for Washingtonians,” Peebles says. “She let him know who we are and that she will protect and promote the interests of people in D.C.
“What’s the [Henry] Kissinger saying?” he continues: “‘America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.’ She demonstrates that her interests are the people of the District of Columbia.”
But then there is narrative No. 2. Outside the upper echelons of business and power, Bowser rubs people differently. Some see her as willing to bridge gaps—between traditional schools and charter schools, for example—while others think she should be more collaborative. Some view her as careful and deliberate, while others believe she is too willing to bypass the steps needed to build consensus. She is credited with restoring integrity to the mayor’s office, yet some view her as too chummy with developers who serve as fundraisers, friends, and confidantes. Fight Club, essentially.
The case for Bowser, known as a detail-oriented, hands-on manager, goes something like this: She has made significant progress toward decreasing a $250 million budget deficit; coming up with a plan to retain police officers; advancing Congressional voting rights and statehood; taking several agencies out of receivership; filling vacant board positions; hiring an operator for the overwhelmed Office of Unified Communications; getting the DNA crime lab accredited; restoring an aging FEMS fleet; and making investments in affordable housing and ending homelessness.
Not exactly sexy stuff, and some of it is debatable if not unquantifiable. For all the vacant board positions Bowser has filled, a similarly large number of agency heads have inexplicably left her administration mid-term. Ending homelessness seems more vision and promise than reality. Gaining statehood and voting rights? It’s a principled position, but it is clearly not going to happen anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the deeper and more disturbing problems are as entrenched as ever. The Metropolitan Police Department has gone without a fully vetted and confirmed chief for six months, and despite Bowser’s claim, police retention has become a political quagmire for her. Despite her much touted investment in affordable housing—as gentrification marches on—violent crime in neighborhoods where gentrification is not taking place is out of control. Activists say police not only lack the ability to stop violence before it occurs, but also there is no coordination between MPD and outreach, intervention, and social services agencies that could play a valuable role—regardless of who is mayor.
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Brazen daytime killings and the unsolved mass shooting at a neighborhood picnic near Barry Farm last year are disturbing enough. But MPD has recently begun publicizing the alarming number of missing children in those same neighborhoods who are at risk of being drawn into prostitution or sex trafficking. “They ain’t doing [nothing]. Where’s the plan?” says peace activist Ronald Moten. “If this was some white children being snatched up off the street, it’d be, ‘Oh, no, we’re not having it.’ Everything’s being swept up under the carpet making it seem like D.C. is so great. I get there’s a lot of good [stuff] going on, but the dots aren’t getting connected. We’re not reaching a lot of these young people.”
And despite her claim of restoring integrity to the mayor’s office, Bowser’s more high-profile problems point to the issue of political skill and judgment. Her critics recite a familiar list of transgressions:
• FreshPAC, the political action committee formed by Bowser’s campaign treasurer Ben Soto to help elect her allies to the Council and advance her political agenda. The fund included contributions from developers and their partners who received board appointments and who frequently benefit from deals involving city-owned land. Some of them have accompanied her on economic development trips and have her ear.
• Announcing her strategy, without community input, for closing D.C. General Hospital and relocating some 270 homeless families to shelters to be built in each of the city’s eight wards—by some of the same FreshPAC developers who were going to lease to the District for 30 years in an arrangement that would increase property values exponentially.
• The firing of Department of General Services employees who refused to award contracts to Ft. Myer Construction, a major city contractor and Bowser campaign contributor. It followed the sudden resignation of the department director amid the alleged contract interference.
City Paper interviewed more than two dozen sources for this story. Few were willing to allow their critical remarks to be attributed to them for fear of retribution. One such veteran political observer offered a sweeping critique of her administration thus far in terms of a golden rule of politics: You’re never as popular—or powerful—as you are on your first day in office. “The way it usually goes is you use that capital to accomplish something,” the observer says. “If you don’t take advantage of it, you drift, and you continue to drift.”
Bowser came to office without much to show from her years on the D.C. Council, and she failed from day one to establish a clear identity, he says. “She was going to accelerate school reform, improve ethics and transparency, and bring services to communities east of the river like no other mayor has ever done. Fact of the matter is that she’s got nothing to show for any of those things.”
In year two, he continues, “she decided she had to do something, so she said she would end homelessness in five years and promote statehood for D.C. It polled well, but it was not at the top of anyone’s list of concerns. And on the homeless shelters, it looked more like a power grab for her developer friends than a solution to anything.”
Asked to define her signature goal for the city, Bowser struggles to clearly articulate what “pathways to the middle class” means. “I campaigned across the city to make investments across all eight wards,” she says. “They don’t need the same things, but they need their fair share. Our campaign was about making sure people got the fresh start they deserved. We just had our best fiscal quarter ever. Nobody will argue that the city is prosperous. It’s just not prosperous for everyone.”
Interviewing Bowser can be challenging. If she is uncomfortable, she will respond with a vague soundbite, or argue the premise, or flash a piercing look that expresses irritation. Last fall, City Paper reported on glaring achievement gaps between schools in economically and socially disparate neighborhoods that have persisted for years despite being identified by the former chancellor in 2012 as a top priority. When asked why she has yet to publicly address this as a renewed priority, Bowser objects to the observation: “That doesn’t reflect our focus on moving schools so that the lowest performing can move to a higher level of performance. Schools are a top priority. Period.”
Former Chancellor Kaya Henderson branded this effort the “40/40 initiative,” intended to improve achievement scores in the 40 lowest-performing schools by 40 percent by the end of 2017. Bowser deflects when asked about the shortcomings of the program. “If you are expecting a silver bullet that is going to take an underperforming school and make it a top performer, then you don’t know a lot about how you move schools,” she says, emphasizing a steady investment “in not only buildings but in people and curriculum.”
Yet according to funding data, proficiency scores, budget experts, and education watchdogs, investment in the 40 most underperforming District schools has ranged from non-existent to inequitable to compromised. Even as resources have been re-allocated, Bowser’s claim assumes that a “steady investment” can keep up with the pace of gentrification and the disparities it produces. And it ignores the D.C. Auditor’s findings of waste and lack of oversight over hundreds of millions of dollars invested in school modernization.
Asked about criticism from parents and teachers of the decision to extend the school day at 11 of the city’s worst-performing schools, Bowser again bristles. “Criticism? I think it’s more important to listen to the people who are craving and calling for intervention.”
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, questions Bowser’s governing style and does not believe the mayor is a “listener.” “The mayor has a good PR campaign,” says Davis, who found the secretive selection of schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and the decision to give charter school preference to students within walking distance to be examples of how Bowser puts superficial structures in place to solicit input from education stakeholders. “She has fine-tuned the art of appearing that she’s listening and respecting the voice of others,” Davis says.
Bowser’s willingness to work with others is challenged in other quarters too. Her relationship with the council speaks to defensiveness bordering on arrogance. Multiple members tell City Paper that they would like to see her demonstrate more cooperation and less confrontation. At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman points to the mayor’s homeless initiative—derailed by revelations that FreshPAC donors would profit from building new shelters—as an example of both Bowser’s strength and weaknesses. “She identified a big challenge and held herself accountable, but she took a defensive posture when faced with controversy or criticism,” Silverman says. “Like ‘you’re for me or against me.’ It did not serve her well.” (When the Council struck down her plan and Chairman Phil Mendelson accused her of spreading misinformation, the mayor famously barked at him, “You’re a fucking liar.”)
Expressing views echoed by her colleagues, Silverman says Bowser’s executive authority would be more effective if she was more collaborative with the council. “She needs a shift in approach because she doesn’t have enough support,” she says.
Asked about her relationship with her former colleagues—and new members elected since she became mayor—Bowser says she visits councilmembers more than other mayors and is always looking for partners with whom to cooperate. “Oh, I have plenty of friends on the council,” she says unconvincingly.
If Bowser the former low-key legislator avoided conflict, Bowser the mayor has come to relish it. “I have a reputation for fighting for the things I believe in, and that’s different than not responding well,” the mayor says. “Some people don’t respond well to somebody who is passionate and willing to fight for what they think is right, and that’s my job. My job is to not roll over, and fight for what is right, all the way through the process.
“This is how I see it: I feel like when there is resistance, it makes you stronger. I’ve had the opportunity to prove myself the whole time I’ve been in [the Wilson Building]. That resistance … I could have it easy, I could have no critics, I could have people falling all over me. Or I can get some things done. I actually think that always having to prove [critics] wrong has benefited me.” Toughened her, perhaps? “Sharpened,” she replies.
As a woman, a black woman at that, Bowser is a rarity in mayoral politics. And she is well aware of the challenges that come with it. Yvette Alexander, the former Ward 7 councilmember and a Bowser friend, says that women in politics have to work harder, are scrutinized more, and criticized more readily than their male counterparts. “What I like to say is we are judged more quickly, more harshly, more wrongly,” Bowser says.
But one group that doesn’t give Bowser any flack is Fight Club. And her need to keep a close retinue of advisors, friends, and informal consultants around her even as she travels abroad on economic development missions is an area where many believe Bowser is creating trouble for herself. And again, much of it derives from FreshPAC and a perception that to do business in D.C. you need one of her friends to be involved.
In some ways, the development community in D.C. is like an extension of the government. Bowser is realistic about this and the fact that there are limits to what government can do to fully leverage the revenue potential of the city. “The government doesn’t build things,” she says. “And the business interests of the city don’t have to be counter to the public.”
She’s talking about the need for affordable housing, jobs, and economic opportunities for D.C. residents and small businesses. But she seems indifferent to her reputation for inserting herself into development deals and dictating terms and partnership decisions that involve members of Fight Club—or FreshPAC.
Being in that exclusive club does not come free of charge either. Local developers know what is expected of them. “It’s a well-known fact: If you are not contributing to the mayor, or this councilmember or that, or if you are not a friend, or a friend of a friend, then you’re not getting in any deals,” says a small business owner who works in the construction industry. “I know people who write checks to everybody. It’s crazy.” Adds another local small businessman: “Nobody gave to FreshPAC because they wanted to. They gave because they were afraid not to.”
Which is why FreshPAC left such an indelible mark on Bowser’s first term. It revealed the rules of the game and identified key players—many of whom also surrounded Adrian Fenty when he was mayor.
Some who know Bowser say such control over her loyal subjects has gone to her head. Fellow politicians who do not play in that same space see her from the public’s perspective, and they find it unappealing. “On the issue of cozy deals with developers, I think the mayor may have been tone deaf,” Silverman says.
Perhaps Bowser has become too enamored with the art of the deal—if not the trappings of the office. Bowser demurs on the latter, insisting there are not many perks that come with the job. Yet she is known to dine out frequently, attend Wizards games and boxing matches, enjoy a good cigar, travel around the country and the world, and rub elbows with billionaire investors.
And she often brings members of Fight Club along for the ride. As just one example, Bowser went to China and Cuba on economic development missions within four months of one another from late 2015 into 2016, according to sources and news reports. Bryan “Scottie” Irving, a FreshPAC donor with Blue Skye Development, accompanied her to Cuba. Buwa Binitie of Dantes Partners, also a FreshPAC donor, and Joshua Lopez, a Ward 4 politico, went with her to China.
Bowser embarks on these journeys with the goal of bringing large-scale investment to the city for the benefit of people across all eight wards, according to members of the business community who are willing to cut her some slack. But cynicism can trickle down to the grassroots level where developing communities are concerned. And it stings.
Parisa Norouzi, executive director of Empower D.C., says she was never optimistic about Bowser as mayor. Citing her ties to Fenty and the those who surrounded him when he was mayor, Narouzzi says she was braced for a “developer-driven agenda.”
“My definition of progress is how much did you improve the lives of the people who have the least?” Narouzzi says. “It’s hard to look through that lens and see the progress. You see the amenities, but you don’t see the higher paying jobs, or the deeply affordable housing, or the achievement gap in schools being decreased.”
Narouzzi is particularly disappointed with the outcome of a bidding contest at Crummell School, a historic site being developed in the Ivy City neighborhood. Narouzzi says she worked in Ivy City for 15 years advocating for community-minded redevelopment. She partnered with community members—including youth just out of high school who were running out of options—philanthropists, and a prominent local developer to bid on the mixed-use project.
“The principle is to break from the last three administrations that privatized public land to promote gentrification,” she says. “We were going to build affordable housing, day care, a gym, establish a community land trust, green space. Instead, we got a high-end density building on a cherished site that’s a national historic landmark, that the black community fought for for decades in the heart of a working-class black neighborhood.”
The winner of the bid was a developer with connections to a councilmember and Bowser’s top advisor, sources familiar with the deal say. Narouzzi says it was a blow to the spirit of innovation and community involvement. “They chose gentrification. They chose to line the pockets of multimillion dollar developers.” (Bowser’s staff says the selected developer was also the preferred bidder of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.)
Asked about her philosophy of economic development amid such competing interests, Bowser is coldly pragmatic. “The renaissance of a city demands that we build throughout all eight wards,” she says. “Safe places that attract business and amenities that people have been longing for. We have almost all the retailers we want. We just don’t have them everywhere we want them.”
Bowser also says she’s comfortable among those at both ends of the economic spectrum. “I resonate across a lot of different sectors. What I reject is the idea that developers and communities can’t work together to get things done.”
As for Crummell School and the grassroots group that poked its head out of the shadows of poverty to propose a more community-minded project, Bowser harbors no misgivings. “I think they were competitors and they lost. At the end, their project did not win the day.”
Crummell fittingly illustrates the story of the District, the enduring disparity between the haves and have-nots, which may influence voters more than anything else when re-election time rolls around.
Fight Club may be prospering, but Darren, a barista from Southeast, is skeptical that less connected D.C. residents are. And he might be among the more fortunate ones, all things considered. Steaming milk for a cappuccino one day last week, serving Capitol Hill residents on their way to their white-collar jobs, he pauses half a second when asked whether Bowser is doing what she said she would. “I’m still waiting,” he says.
This story has been updated to correct the host city of the Democratic National Convention.