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Muriel E. Bowser’s primary win could cement her legacy

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More than two decades after he was D.C.’s mayor, Marion Barry is still remembered for helping generations of youngsters get summer jobs. Anthony Williams is known for rescuing the city from near bankruptcy and bringing baseball back to Washington. Adrian Fenty’s tempestuous one term in office was defined by his takeover of the city’s public school system.

With her victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is on her way to becoming the city’s first chief executive since Barry to win a third term, an achievement that will no doubt help to define her legacy, along with steering the city through a pandemic and the volatility of President Donald Trump’s four years in Washington.

Bowser is within reach of that milestone not by connecting with voters on a deeply personal level, as was the case with Barry, but by projecting the image of a measured, centrist manager.

While her opponents, council members Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), sought to cast her as ineffectual and out-of-touch, Bowser, who has never lost an election, pushed back by citing her crisis-tested experience.

“She was selling stability,” said Ravi Perry, a Howard University political science professor. “During nationally turbulent times, she has done what in many peoples’ estimation is a steady job. It doesn’t mean they voted for her enthusiastically. But they were satisfied enough given the extraordinary conditions that they thought it was important for her to continue.”

2022 D.C. Primary results

A third term has proved treacherous for mayors far and wide.

In New York, for example, a wide-ranging corruption scandal, as well as two racially tinged killings, led voters to reject Mayor Edward I. Koch when he sought a fourth term in 1989. In Washington, Barry’s arrest for smoking crack in 1990 tainted his third term (a setback he overcame when voters in 1994 reelected him to a fourth term).

But a third term can also provide new opportunities to advance an ambitious agenda, as William Donald Schaefer demonstrated as Baltimore’s mayor for 16 years, a tenure during which he presided over the overhaul of the city’s Inner Harbor.

By 10 p.m. Tuesday, as ballots were still being counted, the mayor had captured just over 50 percent of the vote. As has been the case in the past, she showed particular strength in wards 2 and 3, areas that are predominantly White and the city’s most prosperous. Her weakest showing, at least according to the preliminary results, was in predominantly Black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Richard Bradley, the former head of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, said Bowser’s tenure has largely been defined by her capacity to govern during a period when the coronavirus shut down public schools and offices across the city.

A third term, he said, gives the mayor a chance to “reimagine the city” and tackle deeper challenges such as creating affordable housing, reforming the tax system, and remaking a post-pandemic downtown.

“What I think has been missing most is a greater capacity to be more visionary,” Bradley said. “I think she has a mandate to dream big and differently. The issue is, as you go into a third term, do you have the energy to do that?”

The mayor’s path to another term was not nearly as easy as her 2018 reelection campaign when she faced minimal opposition. This time she faced two challengers who criticized her for being too close to developers and for poor oversight of the school system.

But voters found enough to like in the mayor’s tenure to deliver her another victory. Even if they disagreed with her approach to homeless encampments, say, or policing issues, she got credit for making vaccinations and at-home coronavirus tests available with relative ease.

The mayor also staked out safe terrain during a period of escalating violence by calling for the hiring of hundreds of additional police officers, a push that “inoculated her against attacks about rising crime,” said Ron Lester, a veteran pollster. “Voters are willing to see what happens if you have a credible approach.”

“People don’t want to take chances,” Lester said. “They know Bowser, they know what kind of mayor she’s going to be. They may not agree with everything she does, but they know her decisions are going to be thought through. They didn’t know what they were going to get from these challengers.”

Tom Lindenfeld, a former Bowser strategist who also advised Williams and Fenty, said the mayor benefited from facing two opponents, who divided the opposition and failed to exploit the mayor’s vulnerabilities.

“Elections are about a contrast between candidates,” Lindenfeld said. “In neither case did Robert or Trayon White Sr. make the comparison compelling enough to change the outcome of the election. She conveys a degree of competence and stability that’s attractive to people right now.”

Chuck Thies, a strategist whose past client, former mayor Vincent C. Gray, lost to Bowser in 2014, said Bowser’s consistency gave voters confidence that the city was being well-managed. On problems such as managing the pandemic and issues such as education reform, he said, “She stuck with her plan; she didn’t bend with the wind.”

“She commanded the stage as a leader in a very difficult time,” Thies said. “She didn’t unravel.”

Looking forward, Thies said, Bowser’s greatest opportunity to shape her legacy is to dramatically reduce the city’s homicide rate. “Take the rhetoric of the far left and the rhetoric of the centrists and amalgamate it into a program that improves public safety,” Thies said. “That’s a huge opportunity.”


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