For many Americans, Washington D.C. personifies much that is wrong with governance in the United States. In the eyes of Bernie Sanders, "Washington is dominated by big money," or those of JFK describing D.C. as "a town of Southern efficiency and Northern charm." Many view this relatively small city of 675,000 people as the ultimate emblem of waste, fraud, abuse, incompetence.
Remember that famous quote attributed to Horace Greeley, circa 1865, "go west young man, go west?" Well, the first part of that comment could have come from somebody's Yelp! review last week: "... Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable."
Well, as a native Washingtonian who went West to embrace bi-coastal tendencies, I'm here to tell you that leadership in this city evolved over time. (I might add that Mr. Greeley's advice to flee D.C. morals came well before Los Angeles became, well, Los Angeles.) Also, many overlook the fact that D.C. was created as a bifurcated city where the federal government and the federal district co-exist, and not always harmoniously. How would you like Congress to help run your town?
We mostly operated like our prodigal Uncle Sam: inefficient, unbalanced, and beholden to conflicting interests, special and otherwise. However, D.C. is more or less redefining itself, not only in how it manages its finances, but also in the type of leadership qualities we seek in our mayor.
Which brings me to Muriel Elizabeth Bowser. She is only the eighth mayor of D.C., and credits diversity as helping her set a new tone. After having the opportunity to interview Mayor Bowser, some trends of that new tone emerge.
Born and raised in Washington D.C., Mayor Bowser knew that a career in public service was in the cards: "I always knew that I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others and help people. I've been interested in politics and governing ever since I was a little kid," she said. The mayor actually followed in her father's steps, becoming an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner herself in 2004 and 2008.
After serving Ward 4 on the City Council, the mayor realized she could have a more lasting impact as mayor and was elected to office in 2014.
"Sustainability of a middle class" is the cornerstone of her agenda, according to the mayor.
"When I came into office, I committed to creating pathways to the middle class," explained Mayor Bowser. "Those pathways come in different forms - to a stronger education system, to more good paying jobs for District residents, to the kind of services and programs that ensure every Washingtonian gets a fair shot."
However, it's perhaps not only the access to opportunity but making the actions of government more transparent. Bowser stated that "Over the last year, we have worked to make the government more open and transparent by hosting forums on everything from budget to homelessness, civil courts and issues facing our youth."
While some will doubtless question her on transparency issues, there's no doubt the mayor has been out and about. From controversial new homeless shelters to budget forums to hospital plans, she has held neighborhood discussions - and not always amid adoring fans.
On immigration, Bowser echoes the words of President Obama: "Washington D.C. stands with President Obama's executive action to fix what he can to build an immigration system that lives up to our proud history as a nation of immigrants." This position is directly tied to her plans to expand the middle class: "We need to create pathways to the middle class inclusive of immigrants. That starts with undocumented workers in the District and across the country have a fair shot."
Washington has been largely able to avoid the civil unrest that has plagued many municipalities such as her neighbor to the northwest (Baltimore) and west (Ferguson) by embracing a divergent staffing model.
Bowser credits a "diverse police force," reflective of the district's population, as key to maintaining harmony among her constituents.
Said the mayor: "...cities are stronger when we build trust between our community and the folks who have signed up to protect our neighborhoods. We have a police chief who understands that it's important to build a culture of respect and understanding."
She noted how district police officers were recently successful in deescalating a situation by challenging some teenagers to a "dance off." According to Bowser, "the video went viral and served as a refreshing counterpoint to some of the negative interactions we've seen play out across the country."
As a native and fifth generation Washingtonian, it's no surprise that the mayor is "committed to statehood" for the District of Columbia as the majority of its residents are strong supporters of the Budget Autonomy Act of 2012. This act allowed for more autonomy with respect to how the district disposed of local revenue.
She states that "...the 650,000 residents who call D.C. home deserve full democracy and an equal voice. The families, veterans, seniors, and business owners of D.C. pay their fair share of taxes and have a right to their fair share of representation."
At the end of the day, House Speaker Ryan's objections and legal opposition to D.C. Home Rule may well be the stumbling block to Mayor Bowser's legacy and may eventually test her gamble on greater budget and legislative authority before the U.S. Supreme Court. So here's a suggestion for continued progress: After supporting many of his policies, maybe Bowser should consider enlisting Kalorama's future resident, President Obama, to represent his neighbors in seeking their full rights to representation?