How Bowser’s battles with Trump helped her in DC mayor’s race

Associated Press/Manuel Balce Ceneta
With the White House in the background, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks during the second March for Our Lives rally in support of gun control, Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Washington.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) gained national attention in 2020 when she ordered a block of 16th Street leading up to the White House to be emblazoned with “Black Lives Matter” in bright yellow paint.  

At the time, she was in a tense confrontation with then-President Trump, who days before had ordered federal forces with tear gas and rubber bullets to use against demonstrators protesting police brutality and racial injustice into D.C. streets.  

Now, with the D.C. primaries on June 21 fast approaching, Bowser appears to be the favorite as she faces off against Democrats Robert White, Trayon White and James Butler. Whoever wins the Democratic primary in bright-blue D.C. is all but certain to be its next mayor.

And experts say those public fights with Trump helped secure Bowser, a soon-to-be 50-year-old single mother and former D.C. councilmember, a likely third term.  

“[She’s] basically saying, I did all this additional work to keep the city safe,” said Andrew Ifedapo Thompson, professor of political science at George Washington University. “It was such a unique event, she’s literally the only person who has been in that role in the history of the country.” 

Yet Bowser’s relationship with the former president wasn’t always so headline-grabbing. While other Democratic leaders across the country had heaped on criticism of Trump following his 2016 election, Bowser initially remained silent. 

“The key difference here is that D.C. is beholden to the federal government in ways that other cities are not,” said Nadia E. Brown, professor of government and chair of women and gender studies at Georgetown University. “D.C. mayors always have to walk this fine line, representing their constituents and doing what is best for the District while also playing at this national level politics to remind the federal government, you have oversight over us.” 

D.C. does not control its own budget, has no votes in Congress and is subject to the Home Rule Act, which allows Congress to review all local legislation before it can become a law.  

By August 2018, however, Bowser had begun to push back against the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, especially after he started to publicly go after her. 

“The local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly) know a windfall when they see it,” Trump tweeted on Aug. 17, 2018. “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it.”  

Bowser promptly clapped back.  

 “Yup, I’m Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington DC, the local politician who finally got thru to the reality star in the White House with the realities ($21.6M) of parades/events/demonstrations in Trump America (sad),” she tweeted. 

Looking back, Bowser told The Hill that responding to Trump’s attacks showed her constituents she has “the backbone to stand up to a bully.” 

“What voters have told me over and over again is that they appreciate that I’m a strong voice for D.C.,” Bowser said. “I can speak for myself and a lot of America’s mayors who were facing this onslaught from the president attacking American cities: it was quite jarring in many ways because the president should be there to support American cities, not be at war with American cities.”  

Brown said Bowser’s 2018 tweet was “smart and savvy.”  

“There was only so much that she could stay silent for, or she had to speak up on for the best interests of the fiscal interest of D.C. residents,” said Brown. “Unlike other presidents, Trump was directly speaking to Twitter, so she had to make her claims as explicit to the general public as Trump was doing or else he would have dominated the conversation.” 

But 2018 wouldn’t be the last time the mayor clashed with Trump. In 2019, Bowser accused Trump of mimicking dictators when he announced a Fourth of July military celebration with flyovers and tanks. 

Speaking to National Public Radio, Bowser suggested Trump wasn’t “celebrating the military but glorifying military might.” 

But the Trump-Bowser feud really came to head in 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. Protests erupted around the country and D.C. was no exception.Trump threatened protesters in the capital with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons.”  

Bowser quickly responded on Twitter that D.C. police “always protect D.C. and those who are in it.” 

“While he hides behind his fence afraid/alone, I stand w/ people peacefully exercising their First Amendment Right after the murder of #GeorgeFloyd & hundreds of years of institutional racism,” she added in a thread. “There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone…”’ 

But it was the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to clear Lafayette Square on June 1, 2020, that led to the overnight painting of the Black Lives Matter mural. Americans woke up to the news on June 5, and the mayor received high praise from social justice advocates and Democrats around the country.  

“Trump calling people out in these ways was commonplace,” Brown said, “but what stood out for me was this Black woman was entering into this traditional masculine and wet-mud throwing, getting down and dirty the kind of way that we think about men in politics.”  

Bowser took the ideas of how Black women should be as leaders — empathetic and focused on building coalitions — and used it to send a message that she would not remain silent before the head of the federal government, Brown argued. 

“We educated thousands, if not millions, of people about why it’s so important that D.C. becomes a state,” Bowser added. “They learned that the D.C. mayor doesn’t really control the D.C. National Guard and that the president could really go on these local D.C streets with federal police.” 

Still, while many praised the mayor for her actions, Ravi K. Perry, chair of Howard University’s department of political science, pointed out that not all agreed with the mural painting or the national attention.  

“I think initially people were excited,” Perry said. “But when it became clear that the mayor’s budgetary proposals did not match the Black Lives Matter goals, then she lost that support.” 

Bowser has supported proposals that increase police funding, something many within the racial justice movement are vehemently against.  

“It’s very obvious that she’s a moderate,” said Thompson, the GW professor. “She’s trying to do a lot of things in terms of maintaining a rapport with the police while also expressing support for Black Lives Matter.” 

Despite the mixed feelings over BLM Plaza, Bowser has been using her confrontations with the former president as part of her current campaign. In her latest ad, she reminds voters, “When Donald Trump attacked us, I didn’t back down.” 

Perry isn’t convinced Bowser will have a smooth sailing into the top spot on June 21, arguing that national recognition isn’t something that’s important when it comes to mayoral races.  

“That says to folks that you’re not in my neighborhood, on my street corner, you’re not aware of my local issues,” he said. “Ultimately, the challenge of the mayor’s job is bread and butter, filling potholes and dealing with people with everyday issues.” 

And, he said, Bowser hasn’t been dealing with those everyday issues. Crime has been on the rise, the district is still facing high levels of homelessness and concerns over education are spreading, Perry said.  

Those concerns were echoed by Bowser’s top competitor Robert White in an interview with The Georgetowner in May. White said Bowser “has not focused on policies and not focused on people.”

“We hear a lot of slogans, a lot of hashtags, but when the rubber meets the road we’re moving in the wrong direction,” he added. 

And in the June 1 debate, Trayon White held the mayor responsible for increased gentrification over the last decade. 

“We spent almost $1 billion in the last 10 years on affordable housing,” said Trayon White. “The reality is, for Brown and Black people in this city, we haven’t felt that investment. We’ve seen 20,000 Black people leave this city in the last 10 years because that investment has become a slush fund for developers.”

In a new poll commissioned by Robert White, Bowser leads at 41 percent while Robert White sat at 37 percent and Trayon White got 6 percent. Fifteen percent were undecided.

To pull even further ahead, Perry said, Bowser “needs to give people a reason to vote for her again, and that has to be based on future goals and policy proposals.”  

But Bowser said that’s exactly what she has been doing without Trump in the White House — and what her third term will continue to do.  

“We had a quadruple crisis,” she said. “We had to deal with Donald Trump, we had COVID, we had a racial reckoning in our city and an economic crisis caused by COVID.”  

Bowser added that she is “putting our city on the trajectory we were on when we entered this pandemic” and will focus on public safety and crime prevention, including investing in police officers, creating and building affordable housing, homeownership opportunities for Black Washingtonians and connecting residents to good paying jobs and high demand careers.  

As June 21 approaches, Bowser said, “I feel incredibly strong, and I’ve gotten a chance to talk to voters in all eight wards who are focused on electing a proven leader and they know how important the next four years is. They know my track record, they know that I keep my promises and I have the record to show for it.” 

Tags Muriel Bowser Muriel Bowser Washington D.C.

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