Jaffe Report: Facing Bigotry on Steps of City Hall, Mayor Bowser Plays It Safe - NBC4 Washington
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Jaffe Report: Facing Bigotry on Steps of City Hall, Mayor Bowser Plays It Safe

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    D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser attends the opening celebration of the women's coworking space The Wing on April 10, 2018 in Georgetown.

    Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

    What we’ve got here, with a nod to "Cool Hand Luke," is a failure to lead.

    The prison boss in the iconic 1967 film finished his line with a “failure to communicate” after he clubbed Paul Newman, a recalcitrant prison gang member. In our current live-action drama, what we have here is a mayor who has failed to take a stand when her city aches for moral leadership. By failing to lead, she’s effectively taking a club to the city’s moral standards.

    The real-life consequences of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s failure will be further erosion of basic decency and a proliferation of racial discord.

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    On Thursday, a Nation of Islam member took the microphone at a “unity” rally on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building and spewed a few signature lines of hatred, bigotry and anti-Semitism. He called Jews “termites” and referred to D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman as a “fake Jew,” whatever that means. It was not a compliment.

    The rally was not an isolated event. It was organized by longtime mayoral insider Joshua Lopez, whose purported purpose was to bring people together after Ward 8 Council member Trayon White hit a nerve when he publicly blamed the Rothchilds, a prominent Jewish family, for manipulating the weather and benefiting from climate change.

    Turns out White’s bizarre comments were rhetorical stink bombs from Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s arsenal of anti-Semitic demagoguery. Trayon White, we came to learn, apparently donated $500 to Farrakhan from his constituent fund, which might run afoul of the law.

    As White tried to make amends earlier this month by meeting with Jewish leaders and visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Lopez called his rally. Few showed, but one attendee was Abdul Khadir Muhammad, a mid-Atlantic representative for Farrakhan. He railed against Jews and derided Silverman. No one objected.

    Silverman had had enough. She fired off a long letter calling for city leaders to repudiate Farrakhan and for Lopez to be relieved of his mayoral appointments.

    “The hateful words spoken yesterday outside the Wilson Building have no place in our city,” she wrote. Lamenting the fact that city leaders are prone to “either ignore, look the other way or even accept these remarks," she added: “This is vile.”

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    Bowser tried to look the other way. She phoned Lopez and advised him to apologize, which he did by calling political insiders and attending a synagogue. Bowser did not contact Silverman, the Council member said.

    Lopez and Silverman did meet Monday afternoon in a tense meeting at the Wilson Building attended by Trayon White; Rev. Thomas Bowen, the mayor’s head of the Office of Religious Affairs; businessman Felix Sanchez, Bowser’s appointee to the Commission on Latino Community Development; and others. According to two sources, some attendees insinuated that Silverman would lose Latino support if she continued to call for Lopez’s removal from the D.C. Housing Authority Board.

    Rather than speak from the heart, Bowser issued a statement on the rally that said: “D.C. residents do not tolerate anti-Semitism and hate in any way, shape or form.”

    Can you say tepid? Better yet, anodyne, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “not likely to provoke dissent or offense; inoffensive, often deliberately so.”

    Matching Bowser for blandness, on Monday, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson told reporters in his legislative briefing that the Council would take up hate speech in Tuesday's legislative session.

    "It's not so much to be in response [to the recent events], but to be an affirmative statement that we embrace diversity in all of its forms and we condemn intolerance," he said.

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    Bowser's comments are right out of her playbook. She rose from Ward 4 Council member to mayor by playing it safe. She avoids controversy, sidesteps political potholes and survives on a sea of platitudes.

    This crisis cries out for a leader who stands up, speaks out and firmly draws a line condemning hate speech. Sometimes a leader has to confront bigotry and corrosive comments face to face. Now is that time.

    Oddly and ironically, Bowser is up for re-election to a second four-year term. The Democratic primary is less than two months away, on June 19. You would think the incumbent would want to state her moral repugnance in a forceful way, but this incumbent is running unopposed. Absent a challenger, Bowser can run out the clock.

    When an incumbent president plays it safe and keeps to the White House during re-election, we call it a Rose Garden campaign. Bowser is running a fifth floor campaign, staying in her lair atop the Wilson Building. She ventures out only to cut ribbons.

    We know what scares the mayor. The Nation of Islam has a small but vocal following in the District. Back in the 1980s, when the crack cocaine wars pushed the murder rate toward 500 deaths a year, Nation of Islam members pitched in to stem the bloodshed. The group still operates out of Muhammad Mosque #4 in Penn Branch, but its strength in D.C. has declined.

    Still, the Nation can be venomous, especially if Farrakhan brings his brand of hate-mongering to the nation’s capital. Perhaps that’s what Bowser is hoping to avoid.

    Mistake.

    When I asked on Monday for a more forceful response, the mayor’s press office referred me to her milquetoast comments last week. Her absence of leadership leaves the people of the nation’s capital city vulnerable to more division and demagoguery.

    I can see where keeping silent is politically safe for a careful politician, who has risen by not stirring the waters. But this seems to be the perfect time to step out of her comfort zone. She has no opposition for a second term. There’s little downside. She’s cruising to a coronation.

    Bowser has nothing to lose, except for the soul of the city.

    Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

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