WASHINGTON — Over 16 years in politics, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser cultivated a reputation as a measured, pro-business technocrat adept at the less flashy aspects of government: managing the budget, spurring development, and addressing the concerns of a city which is home to transient federal workers and a thriving — and largely Black — middle-class constituency.
But in a matter of months Bowser, 47, has catapulted toward the front of the national stage, as she has grappled with the pandemic, pushed for D.C. statehood, and become an outspoken critic of President Trump and his aggressive response to protests against racism and police brutality. Her boldest retort — “Black Lives Matter” painted in bright, yellow capital letters on two blocks of asphalt leading up to the White House — has been imitated in other cities.
For the Black women who see themselves or their dreams in her political journey, she is a powerhouse and fellow sister in the fight against the racism and sexism.
“I applaud her wholeheartedly,” Baton Rouge, La., Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said of Bowser’s efforts to take on the president and the racism that permeates society. “As an African American woman, I don’t think you tolerate it, you have to confront it, which I think is what Mayor Bowser has done.”
And yet, Bowser is also part of an old guard of Black mayors and city officials who came of age politically in another season of the civil rights struggle and find themselves now on the front lines in a time of protest that is, and feels, very different. Focused on ensuring economic growth, low crime rates, and other broadly beneficial policies, this seasoned cohort of leaders is increasingly out of sync with energized multiracial and multigenerational coalitions of young people and progressive activists demanding that they do more to uplift the most vulnerable, rein in police, and overthrow policies that are disproportionately depriving Black and Latino residents of their livelihoods.
Some are calling her out. Bowser “must be held accountable for the lip service,” read a statement from the local chapter of Black Lives Matter in response to the street mural, pointing to her refusal to disinvest in police and cuts made by her administration to “services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in DC.”
In an interview, Bowser called the past few months a lesson in crisis management and said that as D.C. pulls its way out of the “belly of the beast,” city officials would be looking for ways to “change our normal to create better equity.” In April, she unveiled plans to build two new hospitals with city funds.
“Every city doesn’t start this conversation from the same point, and leaders have to be open to re-imagining how we do things,” she said. “But we also have to tell our residents the truth — that you don’t always just flip the switch and completely change how you do things because that won’t lead to better outcomes.”
Bowser’s father, Joseph, was a longtime volunteer neighborhood commissioner who took her along on campaign excursions and inculcated in her a sense of local politics. The youngest of six children, she grew up in a middle-class Washington neighborhood of red-brick duplexes and maple-lined streets that is home to mostly Black families. Her mother, Joan, was a nurse.
Bowser graduated from Chatham University, an all-women’s college in Pittsburgh. She earned her master’s in public policy at Washington’s American University, became a mid-level administrator in neighboring Montgomery County, and entered politics in 2004 to serve as a neighborhood commissioner, like her father. She was elected to the D.C. City Council in 2007.
Since 1973, when Congress allowed for a popularly elected D.C. mayor for the first time in modern history, city leaders have wrestled with their relationship to the president and a federal government that has kept the city from full autonomy and fair representation in Congress. The most confrontational was Marion Barry, mayor from 1979 to 1991 and again from 1995 to 1999, who was the first Black Power activist to lead a major US city. He placed the economic struggle of Black residents squarely at the center of his administration.
But Barry became entangled in a cocaine scandal as D.C. was labeled a murder capital and crack epidemic hot zone. What emerged from the controversy was a hunger for post-racial, centrist politics, as embodied by Bowser, former D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, and other prominent Black politicians nationwide, most notably Barack Obama.
“Their focus was on making sure the trains ran on time, and they were less concerned with whether every poor person had a ticket,” said George Derek Musgrove, a D.C. historian and coauthor of “Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital.”
Bowser and Fenty were so closely allied that Bowser’s own mayoral odds appeared to narrow when he lost his reelection to another opponent. But Bowser won in 2014, with vows to restore integrity to the office, improve public schools, manage the city’s growth, and fight to make D.C. the 51st state. In 2018, she became the first D.C. mayor to win reelection in 16 years. And political analysts said her careful stewardship of the city ― and the budget — has allowed her to take on Trump in way that not even Barry could.
“Her dad was a fighter, and she is fighter,” said Rick Lee, owner of a Washington flower and card shop and longtime friend and political ally of Bowser’s father.
There was a time when the idea of a Black woman in power such as Bowser was radical. The Black Power and Chicano movements of the 1960s centered on increasing the ranks of Black and Latino elected officials. In those days, scholars said, simply having a seat at the table was the goal.
For Black men, it was a difficult one to obtain. For Black women, it was even harder.
Black female candidates often went into election contests without a political network, financial means, or a receptive ear for their racial and economic justice platforms. Without social media savvy, they had limited means to tell their own stories, all while confronting higher levels of skepticism, racism, and sexism from some in the public and the press.
Not until 1971 was a Black woman elected mayor — Ellen Walker Craig-Jones of Urbancrest, Ohio. Black women who followed in her steps in the 1980s and mid-1990s were usually teachers and nurses and tended to represent majority Black cities. Sharon Pratt became the first Black woman to lead D.C. when she became mayor in 1991.
Now Bowser is among seven Black women in charge in one of the country’s 100 largest cities, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She and other mayors are helping a newer crop of Black women of all ages rise in city offices, politicians and scholars said. Newer mayors are increasingly leading cities with white majorities and hail from different backgrounds, including tech, law, and business industries once closed off to women.
The numbers are nowhere near parity. But with more Black and Afro-Latina women in leadership, greater attention has shifted to the needs of Black and Latino communities. It also has put into sharp relief a difference in approach, as younger leaders and progressive activists have tired of post-racial politics and piecemeal tactics, particularly amid widening income inequality, affordable housing shortages, and growing homelessness.
Younger Black women in office “are just asking different sets of questions,” said Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University.
Sharon Wright Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida, examined the backgrounds of 24 Black women serving as mayors of cities with at least 50,000 residents and found all have pursued the same economic development strategies as their white male and female counterparts, believing them beneficial to their cities, even as they have contributed to the displacement of less affluent Black and Latino residents. She traced a similar path on their stances on crime and policing.
“These women know that if you support defunding the police department, it is going to turn a lot of people against you, and it doesn’t help with the crime rate,” Austin said.
Broome, who launched her first bid in 1988 and went on to become the first woman to lead both the House and Senate chambers of the Louisiana Legislature, said she could feel the political landscape changing under her when she ran for mayor in 2016. The city reeled from the killing of Alton Sterling at the hands of Baton Rouge police and a retaliatory ambush over Sterling’s death a week later that left three officers dead.
The coronavirus pandemic and the death of George Floyd have, together, exposed and exacerbated the divisions. But Broome embraces the new outside pressure.
“We move the needle more distinctively when we work together,” she said.
In D.C., where the mayor’s office estimates 80 percent of coronavirus deaths have been among Black people, Bowser has sought to straddle the line as she has stepped into the national spotlight on a coronavirus response that has fallen to mayors and governors in the absence of a cohesive federal strategy.
Bowser texted and e-mailed with other Black female mayors as they rushed to shut down businesses, boost hospital services, and provide food, shelter, and rental assistance — all while juggling the duties of a single parent to her adopted daughter, Miranda. When Washington took on the look of a war zone, a “show of force” put on by Trump in response to the social unrest after Floyd’s killing and allowed because of the federal government’s broad powers in D.C., she drew acclaim for what supporters called a superb troll of the president with the mural on the street leading to the White House.
“You don’t live on Pennsylvania Avenue, you live on Black Lives Matter Plaza,” Yvonne Spicer, mayor of Framingham, Mass., and the state’s first popularly elected Black female mayor, said of Bowser’s message to Trump. “I took great joy in that.”
Trump has called Bowser “grossly incompetent.” But she hasn’t backed down. When Trump criticized her and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at his Tulsa, Okla., rally, Bower responded on Twitter that “I see @AOC and I are living in his head, and apparently there’s a lot of empty room in there... just like tonight’s half empty Tulsa arena.”
A week after the mural was painted, Bowser successfully helped shepherd legislation to establish D.C. statehood through the House for the first time in the nation’s history. She called the disenfranchisement a blatant civil rights violation rooted in slavery, and pointed to how a Republican-controlled Congress had stiffed a city whose 700,000 population is larger than Vermont and Wyoming of some $750 million in stimulus funds by wrongfully treating it as a US territory.
But even as her approval ratings remain strong, Bowser has increasingly been at odds with activists, advocates, and newer council members demanding that she do more to address the public housing, homelessness, and policing issues displacing Black residents from a once majority Black city. Protesters chanted outside of her house over her proposal to increase the police budget.
Lawyers with the ACLU of the District of Columbia have blasted the mayor for allowing the use of force by police officers in the District to almost double under her watch, despite decades of complaints over the department’s disproportionate targeting of Black residents.
“I think she is listening to a specific segment of the population in D.C. and discounting individuals who have been severely impacted by policing in the district,” said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU chapter said.
One day after the Black Lives Matter street mural was painted, the message received an addendum. A Black Lives Matter artist collective turned the D.C. flag image on the street into an equal sign and added the words, “DEFUND POLICE.” It was a move Bowser has called “smart” but a message with which she does not agree.
“I would argue that we don’t need divestment in any [city services] — not in police .. .not in job training, not in violence prevention,” she said. “We need balance in all of them.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the reason for criticism of Bowser by lawyers with the ACLU of the District of Columbia. The lawyers criticized her for allowing officers’ use of force to almost double under her watch.