Fissure Between DC Council And Bowser Threatens Mayor’s Legacy

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ambitious plans to reform the District continue to be rejected by the D.C. Council, threatening the mayor’s legacy and ability to effectively govern the city.

Major planks of the the Bowser administration have either been rewritten by the Council or outright ignored. The Council failed to vote on the mayor’s tough crime reform package last fall, and voted down a bill backed by Bowser in January increasing criminal penalties on public transit. Bowser finds herself at odds with the Council since her term began a little over a year ago.

After District voters approved marijuana legalization in a ballot measure, Bowser fought the Council on reforming D.C. laws further, leaving legalization in limbo. District regulators also challenged the mayor, going around her to approve a historic utility merger for the city.

The largest blow to Bowser’s policy agenda is the recent defeat of her plan to close D.C. General Hospital, currently the city’s only public homeless shelter, by a deadline of 2018. Bowser proposed opening new shelters in every ward of the city and attempted to push her proposal through the Council as emergency legislation, exempting it from various zoning laws. Her proposal involved leasing private land to her own campaign donors at an enormous cost to taxpayers, sparking fierce community and Council opposition.

Bowser reluctantly approved the Council’s version, despite unleashing on Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in May for rewriting her proposal and jeopardizing the 2018 deadline. (RELATED: DC Mayor Throws F-Bomb At Council Chair Over Homeless Shelter Derailment)

“You’re a fucking liar!” Bowser shouted at Mendelson down a hallway after an initial vote in May, according to WAMU. “You know it can’t close in 2018!”

Critics charge the mayor’s often combative relationship with the D.C. Council is hampering her ability to turn rhetoric into legislative results, arguing the homeless shelter battle left Bowser’s ability to govern in question. (RELATED: DC Residents Want Answers As Rising Violence, Shootings Plague The District)

“For her, it’s personal,” reads a recent editorial in The Washington Post. “But her mode of operation is along the lines of ‘Those who aren’t with me are against me’ and ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ These approaches to governing are right out of former mayor Adrian Fenty’s playbook – a perfect prescription for becoming a one-term mayor.”

Adding to Bowser’s trouble is the District’s current struggle with out-of-control crime. The District is off to a violent year, with over 50 confirmed homicides across the city. D.C. saw a staggering 53 percent spike in the murder rate in 2015, the highest rate in eight years. The alarming spike in homicides is spilling into 2016, tracking closely with last year’s figures.

After the Council rebuked the mayor’s efforts to crack down on city crime, the Council proposed a program to pay criminals not to commit crimes as a response to the troubling murder rate. The plan failed, however, and the Council blamed Bowser, who did not allocate funds for the program in her budget for 2017. (RELATED: DC Marijuana Advocates Target Bowser Allies Running For Reelection)

“Missing, at least thus far in her term, is any indication that Bowser has mastered the ability to motivate, influence, communicate and negotiate,” read The Washington Post editorial. “Four tasks essential to forging cooperation with the D.C. Council and, equally important, getting voters behind her ideas.”

Bowser is forging ahead on her agenda items, however her current causes may be little more than symbolic efforts. The mayor, with the support of the Council, is fighting Congress for budget autonomy and D.C. statehood. The issue will be put to a vote on the ballot in November, but Congress will simply block statehood from materializing.

Council primary elections Tuesday threaten to fill seats with more potential adversaries to the mayor. Vincent Gray, the former mayor whose reelection was derailed by a campaign finance scandal, is poised to take back his old Council seat in Ward 7. Gray is very critical of Bowser’s progress as mayor, particularly when it comes to addressing the crime rate.

Gray’s term as mayor was hampered by the specter of his campaign corruption scandal, but his political rebirth will give Bowser a high profile opponent to deal with in the future.

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