Since being granted self-governance in the '70s, Washington, D.C. has largely been run by a comically corrupt and incompetent Democratic monopoly. The lone exception is Adrian Fenty, an ultra-smart former city councilmember who took over the mayorship in 2007.
Fenty's outspoken disdain for the capital's sclerotic municipal bureaucracy inevitably backfired and he lost his 2010 reelection bid to Vincent Gray, a ghoulish government lifer who's now under investigation for running an illegal slush fund during that campaign. Fenty has since decamped to an environment more suitable to his temperament— Silicon Valley, where an abrasive personality and big-think theatrics are the opposite of liabilities. But back when he first became mayor, Fenty made the curious decision of hand-picking a little-known regional neighborhood official to take over his seat on the council: Muriel Bowser.
Bowser didn't share Fenty's grit or outspoken antipathy for DC's broken administrative morass. She specializes in formless progressive promises and tinny nothing phrases like, say, "shaping the landscape of our future."
After seven years on the council, Bowser is now running for mayor. She trounced Gray in the Democratic primary in April. Historically, the general election has been a cakewalk for the party's nominee—just six percent of DC voters are registered Republican. Accordingly, Bowser's initial public relations strategy was to do as little relating to the public as possible and win by default.
But this election has gotten unusually interesting in the interim. Bowser's chief competitor is a gay ex-Republican named David Catania, who's running as an independent. A few months ago, she was leading him by 33 points in the polls. That gap has dramatically dwindled, making this DC's closest mayoral contest in two decades.
Voters are apathetic about Bowser. And for good reason.
DC is undergoing a remarkable boom. The Fenty administration made some smart improvements in transportation and education that significantly enhanced local livability. The federal government provides a permanent economic stimulus. And so the capital has become a mecca for young educated professionals.
The resulting prosperity is not uniformly shared. Split DC down the main thoroughfare of North Capitol Street. On the west side, the average annual income is over $80,000. On the east, the figure is a third of that. The capital is now a place where one in four homes sells for at least a million dollars—and one in four kids lives below the poverty line.
And these aren't parallel universes. Parallel universes don't eat each other. Neighborhoods inhabited with low-income black families for generations are getting flooded with mostly white, upwardly mobile college grads, driving up real estate prices and driving out legacy businesses. Bodegas, shelters and auto repair shops are turning into craft coffee houses, high-end condominiums and Trader Joes.
That's why it's no surprise that affordable housing is the biggest issue in the race for mayor. Bowser's preferred solution is huge new investments in public housing. This is the standard party line, but it's an awkward one for Bowser to take. Her campaign has been plagued by the scandal engulfing Park Southern, the largest public housing complex in the city. Park Southern is a paradigmatic case of a government initiative originally animated by genuine altruism inexorably devolving into a yawning sinkhole sucking down money and human happiness. And its managers are major contributors to Bowser's election bid.
A recent investigation revealed that Park Southern's 700 tenants have been forced to suffer in unimaginable squalor. Property administrators ignored complaints about flooding and mold for years. Rotting pigeon carcasses were left to fester in stairwells. The building's air conditioning was perpetually non-functional during DC's life-sapping swamp summers. Its managers owe over a million dollars in late mortgage payments and utility bills. And it looks like they straight-up pocketed tens of thousands of dollars in security deposits.
Bowser has refused to return the donations since these abuses came to light. As head of the council's housing committee, she declined to hold a public hearing on Park Southern. And there's evidence indicating she tried to prevent the managers from losing control of the property.
And Park Southern isn't an isolated incident. DC's government has demonstrated extreme incompetence in providing people with affordable housing. The city's main homeless shelter, which costs taxpayers $50,000 per family per year, is staffed with sexual predators. It took shelter management seven years to build a playground.
There's a better way to ease pressure in the local housing market. DC has some of the most stringent limits on building heights in the country. Its downtown is markedly circumcised relative to, say, Miami's, Boston's or New York's. Residential real estate near job-dense commercial hotpots is comparatively rare and expensive. Low-wage renters are pushed out to the geographic fringes and have to slog through expensive, time-consuming commutes.
Knock down these artificial restrictions on home supply, fully voucherize rent subsidies, and then let vulnerable Washingtonians live wherever they'd like, switching out the demonstrably ineffective oversight of central regulators for the organic accountability of the market.
Bowser has an equally ignominious record on school reform, one of the other major issues of the campaign. The sum total of her legislative record on education is a non-binding resolution "committing"the city to replicating the success of a popular public middle school.
This is unserious stuff. It's statecraft sourced from The Secret—as if just releasing good intentions into the ether will fix what has long been one of the worst school systems in the country. For most of DC's time under self-rule, such moist banalities have substituted for concrete policy, leaving an entrenched class of administrators and unions to keep crippling the lives of inner-city kids.
Bowser's inanity is all the most frustrating given that there are finally some limited successes to build on. The central act of Fenty's mayorship was seizing control of the schools and installing the all-world figure of Michelle Rhee as their chancellor. Among a long litany of effective reforms enacted under her tenure, Rhee fueled a rapid expansion of charters. DC is now tied with Detroit for highest concentration of charters among major American cities.
The capital is also home to the country's only federally funded voucher program. Installed during the early years of the George W. Bush Administration, it's subject to remarkably few bureaucratic entanglements. A major study led by University of Arkansas education professor Patrick Wolf found that within its first couple years of operation, DC's voucher initiative increased participating students' high school graduation rate by 12 percent. And as Wolf explained to me, researchers increasingly view graduation levels as the most important metric of improvement given the huge economic handicaps facing dropouts.
Competition cuts through the cheap talk about schools. And Bowser should be energetically embracing the emergent model—she herself is the product of two government workers that sent all five of their kids to parochial institutions rather than doom them to a DC public education.
Bowser is dangerously wrong on policy. But she'll probably still win. Elections are about voters reasserting their tribal identities. And one tribe still runs this city. Accordingly, Bowser has responded to Catania's rise by racking up a string of endorsements from elite members of the party establishment, including the repellent reptile creature that occupies the Virginia governorship and—as her new campaign literature will exuberantly inform you—the president of the United States.