Photographs by Darrow Montgomery

Muriel Bowser exits her black Lexus SUV after parking on Georgia Avenue, and a man approaches, shakes her hand, and tells her she has his support in next year’s mayoral contest.It’s an auspicious start to the Bowser tour. I had asked the Ward 4 councilmember to drive me around her haunts to help give me a better idea of where the District’s would-be next mayor comes from and what she’s really like away from the Wilson Building. Bowser told me she could give me an hour and instructed me via text message to meet her at the corner of Georgia and Randolph Street NW where a new Safeway is being built—a symbol, she’ll say right after the supporter is finished praising her—of the progress made under her watch on the D.C. Council. Once the man walks away, I joke that his timing was too perfect to be a coincidence and that she must have paid him.

As if on cue, a second man approaches Bowser.

“Our new mayor,” he declares.

“Only with your vote,” Bowser replies.

Welcome, D.C., to the 2014 mayoral contest, already well underway. Yes, this week just saw Councilmember Anita Bonds win a special election for an at-large seat, the latest in a seemingly endless string of citywide campaigns in the three years since Mayor Vince Gray beat his predecessor Adrian Fenty in the 2010 Democratic primary. But the real show starts now. Democrats—who still make up 75 percent of the city’s electorate—will pick their nominee on April 1, 2014, barely 11 months away. And while Bowser is the only declared candidate so far, it won’t be that way for long.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells has formed an exploratory committee and will likely run. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans says he’s running. (He hasn’t taken any formal steps toward a campaign yet.) Councilmember David Catania and former City Administrator Robert Bobb are also potential candidates.

And then there’s the guy who has the position now, Gray, who clearly loves his job and wants to run again. He misses no opportunity to tout the city’s remarkable growth as proof of good things happening in his administration.

Yet Gray’s been politically wounded almost from the beginning of his administration by allegations that his 2010 mayoral bid was comically and wildly corrupt. Three people associated with his campaign have pleaded guilty to felony charges for either lying about payments made to nuisance candidate Sulaimon Brown or playing a part in what federal prosecutors say was a straw-donor scheme and a massive “shadow campaign” that skirted campaign finance disclosure rules while pumping more than $650,000 into Gray’s election effort. The federal investigation is ongoing, and it would be shocking if more people aren’t charged. It’s just not clear who or when.

How all this factors into Gray’s decision whether to seek re-election is unclear. He’s refused to say whether he’ll run or even when he’ll announce his choice. From a strategic point of view, it makes little sense for an incumbent not to announce early, lock in campaign donors, and try and scare away competition. But he hasn’t done any of that yet.

As for Bowser, 40, she thinks the end result will be the same whether Gray decides to run or not.

“I just don’t think he’s the future,” says Bowser, who currently occupies a bizarre territory of being a presumptive front-runner while also being widely unknown to most of the electorate.

If you designed the perfect candidate for a D.C. mayoral election at this moment in the city’s history, you might come up with someone a lot like Muriel Bowser.

An African-American native Washingtonian who can appeal to longtime District residents who feel threatened by the city’s rapid growth? Check. Bona fides with white voters west of Rock Creek Park and in gentrifying neighborhoods elsewhere who supported Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee three years ago, many of whom now feel their votes against Gray have been validated? Check. A woman in a city where women tend to vote more often than men? Check. A home base in vote-rich, kingmaking Ward 4? Check. Scandal-free? Check.

“If I was building a candidate for mayor, you can’t do better,” says political consultant Chuck Thies, who supported Gray last time around.

But outside of political circles, Bowser’s still mostly unknown. A Washington Post poll from July showed that two-thirds of the city’s registered voters had no opinion of Bowser (which is a more polite way of saying they probably have no idea who she is). The “no opinion” view cut across races, ages, and incomes.

And many of those who do know her, including Council colleagues who have worked alongside her for the last six years, don’t know Bowser that well. Councilmembers say she’s as reserved behind closed doors as she typically is in public. When I mention to Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry, who has known Bowser since she was a child, that I found her to be a bit of a mystery, the four-term mayor quickly agrees.

“She is a mystery,” Barry says.

Which is where my tour with Bowser comes in. It’s an early step in what will likely be a sustained PR effort during the next year to introduce voters to their next potential mayor.

With her friend Everett Hamilton driving, Washington City Paper’s photographer riding shotgun, and Bowser and me in the back seat, we drive around parts of Ward 4 so Bowser can show me developments—the Safeway on Georgia Avenue, new senior homes on 14th Street—that she’s particularly proud of. Then it’s off to North Michigan Park in Ward 5, to the home where she grew up and her parents still live. Bowser is eager and engaging when it comes to talking up her hometown’s various neighborhoods. (If she were to quit politics for a career as a realtor, she’d probably do quite well.)

But when it comes to her personal and professional life, Bowser is much more guarded. Efforts to get her off the official script prove futile. And that’s a problem, because that script—youngest child of a loving home, good student, insurance claim representative, mid-level Montgomery County government bureaucrat, ANC commissioner, not-flashy Ward 4 councilmember—is kind of dull.

During its short history of self-rule, D.C. has tended to pick mayors with compelling narratives. Barry was a rough-and-tumble civil rights icon, Tony Williams was an adopted bow tie–wearing outsider who rescued the city’s finances, Sharon Pratt took on the Barry machine while seeking to be the first black woman mayor of a major U.S. city. Even socially awkward Adrian Fenty had his triathlons and his multiple BlackBerries.

The narrative peddled by Bowser’s critics and supporters of her potential challengers, though, is that she’s a bit of an empty suit—Fenty’s handpicked successor in Ward 4 whose ascension in city politics has more to do with luck than skill, who has an unremarkable legislative record, not much executive experience, and has never had to either take a punch or throw one in a tough campaign. Spending an hour with Bowser while she recounts how she never got in trouble as a child, won kudos from her bosses as a young State Farm employee, and is proud of all the recent development that’s occurred in Ward 4 during her term (even though a glance at all the construction sites around the rest of the District makes clear it probably would have happened no matter who was in office) don’t do much to dispel those critiques.

At one point as we drive around Brookland, Hamilton tries to be helpful and urges Bowser to talk about her varied tastes in music, which she has mentioned a couple of times in public speeches. “I love steak dinners, Jay-Z, the B52s, and Nirvana,” Bowser had said at her swearing-in ceremony earlier this year, just before revealing that her favorite movie was Forrest Gump.

Sheesh.

So dry was the Bowser tour that a few days afterward, her political advisor Tom Lindenfeld calls and says the candidate is not happy and wants to try again. Turns out that introducing herself to the city might be harder than Bowser thinks.

Bowser had been much more at ease during her carefully choreographed campaign kickoff last month. Speaking on her parents’ front lawn home in North Michigan Park, Bowser promised the crowd of 100 or so supporters that under her leadership, D.C. would have “the most responsive and the most innovated government in the entire world.”

The event felt like a class reunion for Fenty’s supporters, who milled about on the street outside the Bowsers’ house with big grins on their faces while Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” blasted over loud speakers. Bowser’s campaign chairman, former Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, and campaign treasurer, Ben Soto, had the same roles in Fenty’s campaigns. Lindenfeld was Fenty’s political advisor before working for Bowser. All that was missing was Fenty, who has all but disappeared from local politics since losing the 2010 election.

Even without Fenty around, the former mayor will cast a long shadow over Bowser’s campaign. He chose her to be his replacement on the Council when he was first elected mayor, back when he was wildly popular and won every precinct in the city in the 2006 Democratic primary. His campaign staff, including fundraiser John Falcicchio, went to work amassing more than $400,000 for the little-known Bowser in a special election in May 2007.

Bowser, who was twice elected as an ANC commissioner in Ward 4 (she’s lived in Riggs Park since 2000) and volunteered for Fenty’s campaign, became his Ward 4 campaign coordinator during the 2006 race. A product of Catholic schools, she graduated from Elizabeth Seton in Bladensburg before going to Chatham College, an all-women’s liberal arts college in Pittsburgh. After briefly working in insurance, Bowser moved back to D.C. and enrolled at American University, where she received a master’s degree in public policy. A job in government was always the plan, Bowser said; she just initially didn’t see it being elected office.

“Franky, I thought I would be in an agency somehow, directing the agency,” she says.

One former top Fenty campaign aide, who asked not to be quoted by name discussing a potentially sensitive matter, says Bowser didn’t distinguish herself as a great campaign worker, and Fenty’s top advisors were puzzled when he announced he was backing her for his seat in a special election.

“Our faces went like, ‘What the fuck?’” the former aide says. Fenty quickly curbed any possible dissent, the advisor says, saying, “I don’t want to hear another word about it. I’ve already made up my mind.”

Bowser won with 40 percent of the vote, beating 18 other candidates for the open seat. Though she’s quick to credit Fenty’s support for helping her win, she isn’t much more helpful in explaining how the former mayor became her patron, saying only that she and Fenty had a private meeting where they both decided that he would back her candidacy. What specifically did they talk about?

“I’m not going to tell you,” Bowser says, adding that there was nothing scandalous or shocking about the conversation; she just doesn’t want it made public. “I’ve probably not told anyone in six years.”

Once elected, Bowser was a solid Fenty ally on what was often a Council at odds with the mayor. Yet after Fenty’s defeat in 2010, in which Ward 4 went heavily in favor of Gray, Bowser was able to emerge from Fenty’s shadow with little difficulty. She faced no real opposition in her 2012 re-election contest, easily winning the primary with nearly 65 percent of the vote against five opponents. Bowser also showed that she can raise plenty of money with Fenty out of the game, pulling in more than $350,000.

But it’s one thing to raise money against a field of nobodies and quite another when potentially running against an incumbent mayor. Bowser recently sent out a fundraising email listing her early givers, none of whom are major donors whose names would scare Gray.

Bowser says she has no plans to minimize the influence Fenty has had on her political career. In her still-young mayoral campaign, Bowser has borrowed from past Fenty campaign themes and rhetoric, particularly when speaking about the need for a “laser”-like focus on improving the city’s schools and speeding up the city government’s metabolism. But she and her supporters are quick to try and draw distinctions between Bowser and her political patron.

Bowser, supporters say, is more approachable than the standoffish Fenty, who lost re-election in large part because of the dim view voters, particularly African-American voters, had of his personality.

“Her personality is just warmer than Fenty’s is,” says Josh Lopez, a former Council candidate who worked on both Fenty mayoral campaigns and is very close to Bowser. (He stood on stage with her as she was sworn in to her second Council term earlier this year.)

Bowser will likely need plenty of charm when she introduces herself to voters east of the Anacostia River. Longtime Ward 8 activist Phil Pannell says Bowser’s mostly an unknown entity in his ward, the city’s poorest, and should expect “healthy skepticism” from voters who feel that they are often ignored once a politician gets elected.

Bowser says she’s eager to convince the skeptics and that her emphasis on constituent services explains why she’s not as well-known around the city as some other politicians. (Whether or not she’s done a good job depends on who you ask. Her supporters say she’s been an ever-vigilant helpful ward representative; her critics say her office has been unfailingly unresponsive.)

And where Fenty—or more precisely, his consigliere, Attorney General Peter Nickles—launched a political war against the city’s old guard of operatives, lobbyists, union leaders, and others who have been hanging around District government for decades, Bowser is much more at home with that crowd.

A few weeks before she launched her campaign, Bowser went to a birthday party for Barry at his Wilson Building office. While there, she posed for a picture, flanked between Barry and lobbyist David Wilmot, which Barry promptly posted on Twitter.

“Nothing like celebrating another year with old friends—David Wilmot and @TeamMuriel,” Barry wrote.

Bowser’s father, Joe Bowser, was a longtime ANC commissioner who served as Barry’s Ward 5 campaign coordinator during the former mayor’s early races, according to Barry. Lately, Barry says he’s been doling out advice for mayoral candidate Bowser and says he may well support her campaign, which could help her garner votes east of the river. And Wilmot, one of the city’s top-billing lobbyists, has been a fundraiser for Bowser’s past campaigns and can often be found in her office.

For a candidate whose major campaign plank is restoring public trust in city government, being associated with that pair might prove uncomfortable. After all, few in D.C. associate Barry with good government these days, and Wilmot is the city’s ultimate powerbroker and lobbyist. He also has extremely close and unexplained financial ties to Jeff Thompson, the alleged financier of what the feds call the illegal “shadow campaign” that helped Gray beat Fenty. (Neither Thompson or Wilmot have been charged with any wrongdoing.)

But Bowser doesn’t see any dissonance between positioning herself as the reform candidate while maintaining close ties to the city’s longtime pols and powerbrokers, even those with less than stellar reputations.

“You have to respect the whole city, whether you’ve been here a long time or whether you just got here,” Bowser says.

Whether voters eager for change agree remains to be seen, but it’s not the only reason to question just how committed Bowser is to cleaning up District politics.

She hasn’t taken the lead on thorny ethical issues on the Council and is slow to criticize any of her colleagues. She did not join the initial chorus calling for former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. to resign, even after it was almost certain he had stolen city funds.

An ethics bill Bowser shepherded through the Council, which she lauds as a key legislative accomplishment, has been panned by good-government advocates as doing little to address the pay-to-play culture in city politics. The bill created a new ethics board that is supposed to be more aggressive in ferreting out political wrongdoing and put disclosure requirements on potential slush funds like inauguration and transition funds. But the real work of addressing campaign finance problems remained untouched. And the bill only fell to Bowser because then-Council Chairman Kwame “Fully Loaded” Brown reshuffled committee assignments as way to punish Tommy Wells for investigating Brown’s choice in city-funded automobiles.

Bowser’s also opposed efforts to limit the outsized influence a few deep-pocketed developers or business interests can have in campaign financing. During the 2010 race, she told listeners of the Kojo Nnamdi Show that she was “very proud” of her huge campaign hauls. But the city’s since come to learn that not all of those donors may have clean hands. At the beginning of her first campaign in 2007, Bowser received more than 50 donations of $500 (the maximum allowed) on a single day from individuals and corporations with ties to Jeff Thompson, including Jeanne Clarke Harris, who pleaded guilty last summer to being part of straw-donor schemes. Her 2008 campaign received at least 25 donations from donors with ties to Thompson, making her one of the top recipients of Thompson money currently on the Council.

When I’ve spoken to Bowser about an independent investigation or my own reporting that raise serious questions about whether Fenty’s associates Omar Karim, Sinclair Skinner, and Keith Lomax may have benefited from pass-through construction companies, Bowser’s been quick to dismiss those reports.

Ethics reform, for Bowser, appears mostly limited to getting Gray out of office.

It’s the Bowser tour, part deux. We meet at Ted’s Bulletin on Barracks Row for breakfast. Sure enough, a few minutes after we sit down, a man sitting at a nearby table blurts out: “I’m probably going to vote for you.”

This time, Bowser is ready to be far less guarded. Since a new poll has come out showing that the majority of District residents favor decriminalizing marijuana, I ask Bowser if she’s ever tried pot.

“I’ll just say once,” Bowser says, before adding “Oh my God!” to underscore the fact that she can’t believe what she just said. “It just made me fall asleep,” she adds.

That wasn’t the only confession. “I’m going to tell you something nobody knows about me,” Bowser says. “How’s that?”

Bowser then explains her master’s degree in public policy at American University was supposed to be something more. She’d completed all her coursework for a Ph.D., but took a break before writing a dissertation and never went back to do it. “I regret it a lot,” she says.

“I told you my deepest, darkest secret, are you happy?”

It may be the Forrest Gump of deep, dark secrets, but maybe it’s a start.

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