D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser stood before a standing-room-only crowd of city residents, government officials, employees and assorted luminaries Thursday and declared the state of the nation’s capital to be strong.
Bowser, who is running for another four-year term in November, painted a glowing picture of the progress the District has made over the past four years, highlighting her administration’s successes but tempering her enthusiasm with caveats and acknowledgement of some of the city’s most pressing challenges.
“We just welcomed our 700,000th resident. The last time we had these numbers was when I was a child,” Bowser said with pride during the March 15 event. “Washingtonians across the city want quality schools, child care and safe and affordable housing and jobs with good wages to enjoy their lives and give back.”
“In every part of our city, neighborhoods are strong. We’ve come a long way from the Control Board days. This is a city with something to be proud of. The state of the District is strong.”
Bowser was introduced by Janille Thompson, the mother of son Kooper, who was welcomed into the world three weeks ago as the city’s 700,000th resident. Bowser announced that Cooper will get a free ride from the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) when the time comes.
The mayor told the audience of several hundred at UDC’s Theater of the Arts that she’s the envy of other mayors around the country.
“We have a talented workforce, thriving neighborhoods, and a bustling nightlife,” she said. “But we have to stay focused on the important things like rat control and trash pickup while also working on big ideas.”
Bowser acknowledged some of the problems facing the city, including the high cost of living, the scarcity of affordable housing, troubling disparities between Black and White residents, an education system that she said has had some “pretty significant speed bumps,” and elderly residents who are being squeezed out of their homes by economic and market forces.
For more than 90 minutes before Bowser’s appearance, a thick crowd of demonstrators protested outside the building, carrying posters and placards while voicing their displeasure at the direction Bowser has taken the city.
The placards and posters criticized Bowser’s close ties to developers, the tax incentives the city is offering Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to bring one of his headquarters here, her oversight of rapid and widespread gentrification that has transformed Washington, and charges that she has done little to alleviate the struggles of the poor, working poor and middle class.
“My primary concern is the unbelievable affordable housing crisis. We’ve lost more than 40,000 affordable housing units since 2015,” said Eugene Puryear, a local political activist, author and the host of RT’s “By Any Means Necessary.” “Washington D.C. is in the top three for income inequality. I’m very concerned with the haves and have-nots. She claims to have worked on these issues but four years later, the situation is worse.
“People see the ‘pay-to-play,’ culture, feel disconnected and don’t know anyone who’s rich. But because we organized and mobilized, we have had some successes like Paid Family Leave, the NEAR Act — which she didn’t want — and fair elections,” Puryear said. “The influence and power of these people is immense but we have to continue to organize and mobilize because we’ve seen some big wins.”
Fellow organizer and activist Yasmina Mrabet agreed.
“There is a housing crisis and the massive displacement of residents because of the commodification of housing which is an international issue,” said Mrabet, who came with residents from Brookland Manor “to represent the voices of the people.”
“We need to organize and build in the grassroots because these are the same attacks on working class communities and people of color across communities and class,” Mrabet said.
Inside the theater, Bowser spoke of her pride in presiding over a city that is in extraordinarily good financial shape with a $14.6 billion budget, a burgeoning population, educated residents and the promise of greater growth.
In keeping with her stated push to create and maintain a “pathway to the middle class,” she announced a series of initiatives, programs and legislation she said will bolster existing programs:
• The construction of a new state-of-the-art hospital on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital
• The intention to contribute $178 million which is the District’s share of a dedicated fund for Metro
• A new refundable tax credit of $1,000 per child to help lower the costs of child care
• A $10 million allocation to help child care providers
• $9.5 million to “right size” salaries and IT, and an additional $132 million in capital funding for UDC administrators to make a significant investment in infrastructure
• Expansion of the Safe at Home Program for seniors
• A new senior center in Ward 8
• A 50 percent reduction of seniors’ property tax assessments
As a part of what she called “smarter solutions and more inclusive policies,” Bowser also announced that the city is funding a partnership with a community-based nonprofit that will allow clinicians to respond to cases of individuals with mental health issues with a clinician and get them treated and diverted rather than jailed.
As her successors have done, Bowser was sharply critical of Congressional interference in the District’s affairs. She singled out Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and President Donald Trump for scathing criticism, particularly Trump’s elimination of the DC Tuition Assistance Grant in his most recent budget.
“We have challenges despite our growth such as the lack of representation and a vote in Congress — the House and Senate — and over-the-top requests like the unnecessary military parade,” she said. “If he spends $30 million on a parade, he certainly can spend $40 million on sending our kids to college. The White House has tested our values but [D.C. Council Chairman] Phil Mendelson and [D.C. Attorney General] Karl Racine are fighting back.
“Led by those courageous students, we’re saying enough is enough,” Bowser said. “The so-called leaders in Congress have accepted the status quo. Those in power think that sending condolences is enough. I called out Sen. Rubio for legalizing assault weapons. He’s the worst example of saying one thing and doing another. He wants to legalize assault weapons and lower the age. He continues to push it forward. He is a legislator without values. We say to Rubio, leave us alone and keep your hands off D.C.”
Bowser was occasionally interrupted by hecklers, which mystified Andre Lee, political chairman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ District 20 chapter.
“I think it was great. It’s everything she’s promised and more. She’s doing a fine job,” he said of Bowser’s speech. “I don’t get why they were heckling. She’s putting $100 million into affordable housing, and she has projects slated for Ward 8. At some point, we have to do for us.”
“She’s a hell of a lot better than Donald Trump,” Lee said. “She stood up to Trump because we’re a sanctuary city and because of what he’s done to healthcare. She’s one hell of a Black woman.”