During her eight years on the DC Council, Muriel Bowser was known as a cautious, even meek legislator. Campaigning for mayor last year, she stuck to well-rehearsed lines and ducked questions with the agility of Muhammad Ali.
Meek no more. In her first few months in office, the mayor has morphed into Boss Bowser. In special elections this spring, she endorsed two former aides, Brandon Todd and LaRuby May, to run for her own empty council seat and the late Marion Barry’s. The pair then received nearly half a million dollars in campaign donations from many of the same sources Bowser had counted on in the mayoral election. Todd handily won her vacated seat in Ward 4. In Ward 8, Barry’s seat narrowly went to May.
While shoring up support on the council, Bowser is also cementing her power elsewhere. In her 2016 budget proposal, she’s pushing to shift the terms of office for the DC medical examiner, procurement director, chief administrative-law judge, and other top appointees, effectively putting those posts under her control.
“I need a good argument for each,” says Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh. “So far, I haven’t heard one.”
The largest stick DC mayors wield may be their say over development, and Bowser hasn’t been shy about wielding it. A month after her inauguration, she canceled a plan to turn the crumbling Franklin School, at 13th and K streets, Northwest, into an art museum, citing shaky financing. She had already put four other major deals on hold, promising a “top-down review.”
“That was a shot across everyone’s bow,” says a developer unaffected by the action.
The first land deal Bowser signed is for a large, multi-use complex to be built on an underutilized city-owned plot along the Anacostia, known as Reservation 13. As chair of the council’s economic-development committee, Bowser opposed the deal because a team of two developers, Donatelli and Blue Skye, was the only bidder. The number of bids hasn’t changed, but in the closing days of last year’s primary campaign—as polls showed Bowser in a tie with Vincent Gray—Chris Donatelli contributed $8,000 of a $64,000 final push.
Deputy mayor of planning and economic development Brian Kenner tells Washingtonian politics had nothing to do with Bowser’s turnabout, which he says was motivated by council and community support for the project.
But real estate is also at the core of a brewing battle with DC’s new attorney general, Karl Racine. Now that the AG is an elected position and not a mayoral appointment, Bowser wants the legal authority to review land deals—long the AG’s task—transferred to her office, along with legal authority over city contracts and laws.
Insiders figure Bowser is trying to drain power from a future rival. Racine, who says he has no desire to be mayor, charges instead that Bowser doesn’t want his office examining deals she has awarded. “That’s why they’re fighting so hard to reduce our authority,” says Racine.
However it ends, the fight shows that Muriel the Meek has become Muriel the Machine.
This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.