Everyone wanted a selfie with the mayor. One month after Muriel Bowser's inauguration, the leader of the nation's capital held an open house at her new professional home. More than 2,500 men and women of all ages, races, and religions trekked downtown to the John A. Wilson Building after work on a cold, dark Monday in February for a chance to meet Madam Mayor, as many people formally address her. Along with the calypso sounds of a steel drum, a strand of pure optimism particular to a new administration filled the air.
"Call me Muriel," the 42-year-old said while people swarmed her as if she were a rock star.
In some ways, she is. A native daughter of DC, Bowser, SPA/MPP '00, is the second woman and second-youngest person elected to the District's highest office since Congress oh-so-generously began letting residents of the capital of the world's strongest democracy choose their own mayor in 1974. Virtually unknown in political circles a decade ago, her meteoric rise has invigorated a city where her two predecessors proved wildly unpopular.
"It didn't seem like such a novel idea, but people left so energized," Bowser said of the open house 10 days later, during an interview with American. It was past 7 p.m., and she'd just come from a marathon of meetings that included interviews with potential fire chiefs. Ten hours into her workday, which usually runs about 12, she took a seat on one of the two white couches in her new office, which she moved from the sixth floor to the third to be closer to her staff and constituents.
"We had people who had never been in this building," she said. "For us to have a building as beautiful as this one, on Pennsylvania Avenue, a stone's throw from the White House, is a remarkable thing for the people of the District of Columbia."
As is Bowser's ascent to office No. 310H from the North Michigan Park house she grew up in. Her father, Joe, was a school facilities manager who dabbled in local politics, and her mother, Joan, was a nurse. She attended a small women's college in Pittsburgh and AU's School of Public Affairs before she got into politics. In 2000 she bought a row house in Riggs Park (where she still lives), and four years later was elected as an advisory neighborhood commissioner. When Ward 4 councilman Adrian Fenty won the 2006 Democratic mayoral primary (and later the general election), Bowser was working as an assistant director of an economic agency in Montgomery County, Maryland. It was then she began to feel an unmistakable pull toward public office.
Q. People call you Madam Mayor. Have you gotten used to that yet? People call me a lot of things: Muriel, Miss Mayor, Madam Mayor. I answer to them all.
Q. What, if anything, has surprised you about the job one month in? It's interesting, I'm not all that surprised by the job. Maybe because I was running for so long that I eased into the type of decision making and the type of accountability that go along with it. But, at the end of the day, when you're a candidate or when you're on the council, you can point out all the problems. When you're the mayor, whether you're the cause of them or not, they're now your responsibility. That's not a surprise, but it is a heavy reality.
Q. When did you first know you wanted to be a politician? It hasn't been a lifelong aspiration, but I certainly saw while working in the community and in government that going the elected route was the fastest way to make change.
Q. Why did you decide to go to AU for your master's degree? I wanted to come home. At the time I was living in Philadelphia, and I was looking for a top program. I knew that I wanted to be in a policy program that was really substantive. AU fit all of those criteria.
AU stretched me in some ways because of the quantitative focus. I enjoyed looking at government decisions from an economic policy model. That really shaped the way I deal with a lot of the issues and problems that I interact with. It's made me realize how important data are to evaluate how we're distributing resources.
Q. You really jumped into politics when you ran for Adrian Fenty's Ward 4 seat. How influential was he and is he to your political career? He's a great friend and mentor, and I think we share an energy and vision for how government should serve people in our hometown, and a restlessness about getting things done. We also share a passion for how we pull along people who are like-minded. Part of my political career has been trying to find talented, hardworking people who share my energy and restlessness about change.
Q. Your dad ran—unsuccessfully— for city council in 1994. What have you learned from him about politics? I think my father represents the best of grassroots politics. In DC, as much as we're known for being the capital city and the home of Congress and the White House, we're really a small town in some ways, and grassroots politics matter here. My father was very good at them.
Q. Do you enjoy the process of campaigning? I do. I really love every aspect of it, but mostly because when you're on the campaign there's really no filter between you and the people you serve.
I campaigned from the ground, so knocking on doors, being in churches and with community groups, talking to people about what their real concerns are. When you're in government, sometimes you can get isolated from what real people are saying, especially in this time when there's so much focus on 24-hour news and social media. Sometimes the insiders just get busy talking to each other.
In governing, my style is also open and transparent and close to the ground. That's one huge difference between how we have set out to govern and how others have. This [February] we have the whole senior team out in community meetings.
We're going to upend the budget process so that we're getting feedback from people before we actually go "pencils down" and submit it to the council. People thought it was kind of funny that I said we're going to have a fresh start, but we really do mean that we're looking for ways to start fresh across the whole government.
Q. Is feeling filtered or isolated something you're experiencing now that you're in office? Is it tougher to interact with people? You have to be intentional about it. I lead a government of 30,000 people, so it's not my job to do everything that needs to happen in government. My job is to hire great people, set metrics for them to reach, hold them accountable. It's important for me to listen to the community and be the voice of the community in this building. I also realize that it's the mayor's job to make the big asks. Be the salesperson, be the recruiter, but ultimately be the person that holds all the leaders accountable.
Q. What are some of your priorities for your first year and term? We are right now really looking at the things that are important to accomplish in the first 100 days. What I've told everybody is that like every other mayor in the history of mayors, you inherit the successes of your predecessors, but you also inherit the overdue promises and everything else that could go wrong in a city. We inherited a city that's growing. Business is coming, people are coming, but we've also inherited the stresses of growth. Soaring housing prices, homelessness, especially family homelessness. We have systems that aren't working the way they should be in our public safety sector, but on balance a lot of cities would like to be in our position.
I promised that I would continue growth in this city while being very intentional about expanding our middle class. Our first budget will be due on April 4. Affordable housing and jobs are what we'll focus on. I'm committed to putting $100 million toward affordable housing.
Q. You also inherited a sizable budget deficit. How does that impact your agenda? I'm not a sky-is-falling type of person; I think that we have a manageable gap. This year is about $80 million, next year is about $240 million out of $12 billion. We have to be prudent, but we can get our priorities met. I've asked the agencies to go through an exercise of cuts that will allow us to meet the gap but also fund new initiatives. We're going to meet our commitment for $100 million for the housing, we're going to meet our commitment to change the way we do job training, and we'll meet all of our commitments around schools.
Q. We've seen what happened in Ferguson and New York. How would you assess the state of relations between District citizens and their police force? I think they're very good, especially relative to the incidents that you reference. I wouldn't have said the same thing 20 years ago. A lot of great police leaders and officers and community members and elected officials have improved the state of relations between our department and our communities. We have improved our ranks, and we're holding our officers accountable. They're getting the training and support that they need. We have stable and very good leadership at the top with [Chief] Cathy Lanier; she's done a great job of promoting, within the ranks, really talented leaders in the department.
We've built a lot of trust between the police and the community. The thing I see that tells me if communities are working with police is when crimes get solved, especially violent crimes.
When there's a homicide in your city and somebody's getting arrested, it's because, nine times out of ten, the community helped the police. Nine times out of ten, in this city, when there's a homicide, somebody knows who did it. The improvement in closing cases like that demonstrates to me that the community and the police are talking and that trust has grown and we're a much safer city because of it.
Q. DC is the only major city where the mayor, the chief of police, and the schools superintendent are all women. What do you think it says about the city, if anything? I'm very proud of it. I don't think any of us aspire to be the woman chief or the woman mayor or the woman schools chancellor, but I think it's fitting for the nation's capital to say that we are appointing and electing the most qualified people that share our values. I think that's why I was elected; people wanted a mayor whom they could trust, a mayor who had a vision for how the city grows, but a mayor who also wanted to expand who is participating in that prosperity.
Q. Your first week in office, there was a threat of snow. It seems like snow removal is the holy grail for a big-city mayor . . .Yes, it is.
Q. What can you do about that short of picking up a shovel and digging out yourself? How do you ensure that city services like trash removal, snow removal—these things that affect people on a day-to-day basis—run smoothly? We have to have the right people. Period. We have to have good information and rely on that information, and we also can't make excuses. If we get something wrong, we gotta say we got it wrong, figure out what happened, and fix it for the next time. I regard clearing the snow and removing the trash as one of my top jobs. People pay taxes, the least they can expect is to get their trash picked up. It's not a small matter at all.
I can't say that I was happy about the first snow. We've had six since then—I don't think anybody has mentioned those. We reinstituted an accountability system called CapStat. The last administration went away from it; the Fenty administration was big on it. It's a way to look at the data, look at the responses, and figure out what happened.
Q. You have a unique perspective because you're a lifelong Washingtonian. What would a 10-year-old Muriel Bowser think of the city right now? The city is almost not recognizable from when I was 10 years old. When I was 10 years old, this city was dangerous. When I was 10, my world was my North Michigan Park home with my family, so you couldn't tell me that I didn't have a great life. Great family, I had a great education, and I lived in a great neighborhood where people looked out for each other.
I would wish my life as a 10-year-old on all the 10-year-olds of today. Now, knowing what I know as an adult, looking back at that time, I think it was not a very stable time in our city's history.
Q. When you go to other cities and people sneer at the mere mention of Washington, DC, what do you tell them about why it's such a greatactual place, not a conceptual nightmare? I've never really understood it, to be honest with you. You couldn't tell me that I didn't live in the greatest city in the world. I left home in 1990; I went to school in Pittsburgh. At that time, we were the murder capital of the world. We were on the nightly news for all the wrong reasons. Even then, I enjoyed Washington a lot. I worked in the counties for a good part of my early career. It was a different kind of sneer. It was "Why is DC so screwed up?" They were talking about DC government, not the Congress and the White House.
Actually, we weren't getting it right. We weren't picking up the trash. Ambulances were taking 45 minutes. It really bothered me a lot. I felt strongly that I should be in my city making the changes that my city needed.
Q. Four years from now, or whenever your time in office comes to an end, how are you going to know whether you've been successful? There's a lot of different metrics, but I think that people will say that "She kept her word, she did what she said she was going to do, she was honest and had an open government, and we see an appreciable difference in how the middle class is growing in DC."
More with Madam Mayor
Q. You can have one great meal in DC. Where are you going? I take a lot of people to Acadiana. I love the low country. I get criticized sometimes, but I'm a big fan of Ruth's Chris. I also love Lauriol Plaza. It has good neighborhood food.
Q. What's your favorite landmark? That's tough. It's not necessarily a building or a statue. I would say Rock Creek Park. It's so calming, it's such a beautiful resource. It's a well-used park, and we should feel very lucky to have it.
Q. Who's your favorite Republican? I like Connie Morella.
Q. What's your favorite season? Summer. I was born in August. I'm over winter.
Q. Should DC become a state? Yes.
Q. Favorite sports team? You're gonna get me in trouble. I do support all of our teams, but I didn't grow up with baseball. My father is a huge baseball fan; he did grow up with baseball in Washington. I have caught the Nationals fever. The thing that I really like about our sports teams is the social aspect of it. Going to the games, seeing people, and eating a hot dog. The games themselves are kind of secondary.
Q. Should the Redskins change their name? Yes.
Q. If you weren't in public service, what do you think you would have done? I would have liked to have owned a flower shop. I still might.