Sherwood’s Notebook: Talking to the People About 2014

muriel bowser portrait

Even the most loyal members of former Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration -- to this day -- privately fault their boss for his re-election loss in 2010 to Vincent Gray.

They don't blame the illegal, $750,000 "shadow campaign" that prosecutors in court said "deceived" city voters.

It wasn't Fenty's unapologetic pressing of education reform with the tough-minded Michelle Rhee.

And it wasn't that people thought Fenty's day-to-day government wasn't good, or that his achievements were insignificant.

But somewhere into his four-year term, Fenty stopped talking.

He didn't talk to labor unions and he didn't talk to business leaders.

He didn't talk to civic activists and he didn't talk to his own department heads.

Fenty made his thinking clear: As long as he was doing a good job, people would appreciate the rebuilt libraries and recreation centers and other policies. He once told this reporter that he didn't talk to many people because "they always want something.” He believed his good works would carry the day. They didn't.

As a candidate for mayor in 2006, Fenty had made a fetish of talking to anyone anywhere anytime. He made people all over the city believe that he believed in them. Come primary election day, he carried every precinct, trouncing the respected veteran politician Linda Cropp.

We were reminded of this recent history this past weekend as Ward 4 D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser became the first announced candidate for the 2014 mayor's race. The Democratic primary is little more than a year away.

Bowser -- who owes the start of her political career to Fenty's support -- is modeling her campaign on Fenty's intense drive to "get things done” rather than talk about them. On Saturday, standing in front of her childhood home, she talked about how citizens "expect big visions and swift execution."

But Bowser, close as she may be to Fenty, was quick to steer clear of his reputation for going it alone.

In a detailed pre-announcement interview with Bowser, The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis asked about Fenty's damaging trait.

"I ask because people said Fenty didn't listen to anyone. He lost touch. How do you make sure you don't lose touch?" DeBonis said. He asked Bowser whether she has a circle of people she consults.

"Yes," Bowser responded. "There's a wide circle of people that I talk to. I don't think you're ever gonna find someone who says, 'She doesn't talk to anybody.' I don't think people will ever say that about me."

■ The campaign. Bowser bristles when people say or suggest she is a female clone of Fenty. She told DeBonis that people know "that I stand on my own; they know that I'm smart and hardworking."

Still, there are many similarities with the Fenty regime and its remnants.

First of all, Fenty is expected to endorse Bowser when the right time comes, providing a real boost in some sections of the city. By that we mean wards 1, 2, 3 and even part of 6, home to another likely mayoral candidate, Tommy Wells. Most believe Bowser is in good shape in her home Ward 4, which is also where Fenty began his career.

Bowser also uses the same green campaign color that Fenty used. Bowser throws in a little yellow here and there, but there is no mistaking the similarity. She even wears a plastic wristband of the same green color.

When Bowser made her announcement Saturday, she walked onto the front lawn of her parents' home with family members warmly surrounding her. Fenty had done the same thing in 2005, walking down the front steps of his family home.

More important than campaign colors and style, Bowser has snagged political consultant Tom Lindenfeld. He's a veteran of several city campaigns, including Tony Williams and, yes, Fenty.

Lindenfeld, among others, tried in vain to right the ship during Fenty's failed re-election bid. Fenty insiders say it was headed for the rocks because the captain of the ship didn't do his part.

"There's a lot of green here,” News4's Mark Segraves noted in a post-speech interview with Bowser. "We see a lot of the Fenty supporters."

Segraves said Bowser had struck many of the same themes Fenty has championed. "What do you say to people who say, you know, this is just Fenty 2014?" he asked.

"Mayor Fenty and I share a lot of ideals," Bowser said. "We share impatience with excuses. And that's what people have been missing."

Now we have a new race. Wells and Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans are plotting their mayoral campaigns. At-large Councilmember David Catania, who last year said he would like to be mayor but probably wouldn't run, is reconsidering. There may be others.

■ A final word. None of the candidates is well-known citywide, but they all should listen to the final question that DeBonis asked Bowser, one that could be asked of any mayoral candidate.

DeBonis said he'd heard many people praise Bowser, but also question her readiness. "Does she have what it takes to deal with the rigors of a citywide campaign -- the scrutiny of your political life, your personal life, the daily grind of it?”

Bowser replied, "I wouldn't be running if I didn't think I could."

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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