By keeping her cool under presidential pressure, the D.C. mayor won a national following.

By Maya Rhodan
Aug 13, 2020 @ 8:45 am
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Shan Wallace

Like most Americans, Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser, 48, has spent a record-breaking amount of time at home during quarantine. The most since her career as a public official really took off roughly 13 years ago. When we speak over the phone in mid-July, she is waiting to drink the McDonald’s coffee that she just had delivered via Uber Eats. Things have slowly begun to creep back to life in the region, but the threat of the coronavirus pandemic still lingers, leaving Washington in an eerie state of limbo. The day before our conversation, she’d visited her parents’ house for the first time since March. (“My mother let me go in for a second to get something,” she says.) Her 2-year-old daughter, Miranda, has been missing her usual playdates and activities with friends. To help pass the time, Bowser redid Miranda’s room and also got into gardening. “Just all the things that I see my neighbors doing,” she says with a laugh.

As a politician, Bowser, a D.C. native, took a traditional path to leadership, working her way up the ranks in public office. In 2004 she ran for advisory neighborhood commissioner (basically a neighborhood representative). She served in that position until 2007, when she replaced then-mayor Adrian Fenty on the D.C. Council representing Ward 4. She was reelected twice before running for the top job. She’s now comfortably in her second term as mayor, having become the first incumbent in 16 years to win reelection in D.C. (and the first woman to ever do so). Polling has shown a majority of voters would support her for a third term, but, historically, few have held strong feelings about her either way. That is, until she went head-to- head with the president in June.

Bowser considers herself a fighter, and though she comes off as more of a pragmatist than an activist, her very public response to the violence the Trump administration unleashed on peaceful protesters showed just how tough she can be. The chaotic and dystopian scene in which law-enforcement officials, at the behest of Attorney General William Barr, used batons, shields, and pepper balls to clear unarmed throngs of demonstrators so that the president could pose for a photo at St. John’s Episcopal Church incited an uproar across the country. Bowser responded quickly by having the Department of Public Works plaster “Black Lives Matter” in bright yellow paint along 16th Street NW, just steps from the White House. “I mean, I’m not going to lie down and let someone take over our city,” she says. “We had the opportunity to push back and also send a very affirming message about what our country was dealing with.”

It was received loud and clear. Crowds flocked to the area in the days and weeks that followed, and the mural became international news. In what would end up being one of his last public appearances, Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis visited the mural with Bowser on June 7, calling it “moving and impressive.” After his passing, Bowser issued a formal statement acknowledging the breadth of his influence: “Our appreciation for his life will be demonstrated in the work we do to build on his legacy.”

Within weeks, copycat murals began popping up across the country. Bowser says she didn’t anticipate that it would have such a ripple effect, but she is not surprised. “Art has the power to convey all kinds of emotions,” she says. “To see artists, everyday artists, express those feelings is not only going to be powerful for this moment, but we are going to be able to look back at this time and see how people were feeling and what they were doing.”

While plenty of people praised the mural, some activists derided the move as toothless and symbolic. “Mayor Muriel Bowser must be held accountable for the lip service she pays in making such a statement while she continues to intentionally underfund and cut services and programs that meet the basic survival needs of Black people in D.C.,” Black Lives Matter D.C. said in a statement at the time. The day after the mural appeared, activists had amended it to include an equal sign and “defund the police.” Residents amped up pressure on the city council to reduce funding for police and invest instead in mental health and social services. (Bowser’s budget had proposed a 3.3 percent increase in police spending for 2021.) The pressure seemed to work — in late June a panel of lawmakers voted to cut $15 million from the police. [The entire council was expected to vote on the budget in late July after this story went to press.]

Bowser says she will do what needs to be done with the resources available, but she does worry about the possibility of residents not having the policing resources they need or expect. “If citizens are dialing 911, they expect to have a police response. And if we have fewer police, they’re not going to get a quick response. At a time when we see violent-crime numbers across America going in the wrong direction, you don’t want to be lacking police officers. So I think that we are going to be having some serious conversations about policing in America, and none of that in my view should be a knee-jerk response.”

When criticisms are hurled in her direction, Bowser, having emerged as a reliable leader, takes them in stride. Still, it’s hard to shake off the volume of incidents plaguing her city and the country at large. “I’ve always been pretty confident in making decisions and being nimble and calm,” says Bowser. “But this period of time has had multiple crises all at once. And some pretty devastating things to manage, including people being scared just to go outside. So this has been a lesson in crisis management, and also in communication. I don’t know that that’s my strongest suit, but it has been the thing that has been most critical in making sure that D.C. residents have all the information they need.”

All of which brings to light D.C.’s unique, and arguably unjust, predicament as a territory in this country. In the midst of all this turmoil, Bowser has also been fighting for D.C. statehood. Despite outnumbering the populations of Wyoming and Vermont — and paying more, per capita, in federal taxes than any other state — D.C. does not have full representation in Congress. Congress also has final say over the city’s budget and laws, which has often led to tension between the liberal city and more conservative federal lawmakers. For decades residents have tried to advocate for themselves, to no avail. “My family has endured the indignity of no representation for my entire life,” Bowser says. “This time has given us an incredible platform to talk about how we don’t have two senators who vote for us and, you know, how we ended up being shortchanged by the Federal Cares Act.” Being excluded from the COVID-19 relief bill meant that D.C. lost out on about $750 million in federal funding. “We also have limited Home Rule, and that means there are some things that the president can do legally in D.C. that he can’t do in any other place in America.”

On June 26 a bill granting D.C. statehood passed the Democrat-led House of Representatives for the first time ever. It’s unlikely to pass the Republican-led Senate (and Trump has already said he would veto it), but the political winds have begun to shift in the city’s favor. And if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the general election in November, Bowser says he must make statehood a priority in his first 100 days.

“What’s going on has been described as a racial reckoning. And I think it’s important that it is embraced on a national level to harness that energy and turn it into real action,” says Bowser. “The one thing that excites me about Biden is that I know he will be partners with cities. So much can happen at the city level.”

Though Bowser’s name was floated as an early possible contender for Biden's VP pick, he ultimately chose Kamala Harris. But, Bowser says, that's not a problem — she already has her dream job. “I’m mayor of my hometown.”

For more stories like this, pick up the September issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Aug. 21.