Meet the mayor who took on Trump in his front yard

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser clashed with the president over his response to George Floyd's death, with implications for everything from the name and control of city streets to the presidential race.
WASHINGTON,DC-JUNE6: Mayor Muriel Bowser walks down 16th Street
Mayor Muriel Bowser walks down 16th Street NW in front of the White House on Saturday, June 6, 2020, during the ninth day of protests over the death of George Floyd.Evelyn Hockstein / The Washington Post via Getty Images

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to leave a message for the most powerful man in the world right at his front door.

In response to President Donald Trump's actions in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Bowser, mayor to roughly 700,000 Washington residents, had "Black Lives Matter" painted in big yellow letters Friday on the street leading up to the White House where some of the most volatile protests in Washington had taken place earlier in the week.

A few days before, police had forcibly removed peaceful protesters from the area — firing rubber bullets, pepper spray, tear gas and flash-bang grenades into the crowd — so Trump could walk across Lafayette Square for a photo opportunity in front of St. John's Episcopal Church.

Bowser renamed the intersection where Trump stood outside the church "Black Lives Matter Plaza."

Throughout the week, Bowser and Trump clashed over the protests in Washington. Trump threatened to bring in military force, while the mayor accused him of "inflaming" tensions and urged him not to bring in any additional law enforcement. Washington is a federal city, and it doesn't have the same self-governing authority as states.

When Trump threatened protesters who came too close to the White House with "vicious dogs" and "ominous weapons," Bowser shot back.

"There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons. There is just a scared man. Afraid/alone," Bowser wrote on Twitter.

Bowser won immediate praise from the left for standing up to Trump. But it wasn't the first time she has sparred with Trump over control of Washington's streets.

Trump announced last summer that he planned to throw a military-style Fourth of July celebration in Washington, accompanied by tanks and fighter planes, taking over the District's traditionally nonpolitical celebration on the National Mall. The event cost the D.C. government millions of dollars, and Bowser let her frustration with the president be known.

"I don't think we get anything out of it," Bowser told National Public Radio ahead of the event, adding that she had "some concerns about a president not celebrating the military but glorifying military might."

"That scares me the most," she said.

Bowser sent a letter demanding that the Trump administration reimburse the D.C. government. The city has yet to be paid back. Trump has floated holding a similar celebration again this Fourth of July, but official plans haven't been announced.

Bowser signaled in May that Trump's event might not happen this year, telling reporters that the city wouldn't issue permits for parades during phase one of the city's coronavirus reopening plan.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

And even though protests have turned almost entirely peaceful with a significantly decreased law enforcement presence on Black Lives Matter Plaza, the war of words with the Trump administration doesn't appear to be letting up. Late Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr responded to Bowser's letter from last week, saying the president was left with no choice but to send in the troops after watching days of rioting and looting unfold outside the White House and in the streets of Washington.

"The television footage of the events — viewed by people across the Nation and around the world — conveyed the impression that the United States was on the brink of losing control of its capital city," Barr wrote.

"Surely you understand that the President could not stand idly by when unrest at the seat of the federal government threatened the safety of federal law enforcement officers and the operations of the United States government," Barr's letter continued.

Bowser, the youngest of six children, grew up in the District's Michigan Park neighborhood. She received an academic scholarship to Chatham University in Pittsburgh and earned a bachelor's degree in history before getting a master's degree in public policy from American University. Bowser began her political career in 2004, when she ran for a spot on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission for the Riggs Park neighborhood.

After serving three terms on the D.C. Council, Bowser, 47, was elected mayor in 2014 after she challenged Mayor Vincent Gray, whose candidacy became mired in a campaign finance scandal.

She easily won a second term in 2018, becoming the first mayor in 16 years to be re-elected and the first woman to serve multiple terms. In 2018, Bowser also became the first single mother to serve as mayor after she adopted her daughter, Miranda.

With no mayoral term limits, Bowser could run for a third term in 2022.

But some hope that Bowser will trade her city government office for a suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the vice president and the vice president's staff work.

In response to Bowser's "Black Lives Matter" mural, her mentions were flooded with calls for her to be considered for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket, including one from rapper Pusha T, a resident of suburban Bethesda, Maryland, who wrote, "I think we've found @joebiden a worthy running mate."

Some Democratic insiders are also eyeing Bowser as a potential running mate, according to a report from Business Insider.

"I already have the best job in Washington, D.C.," Bowser, who endorsed former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg earlier in the primary, told The Washington Post when asked whether she was willing to be vetted to be Joe Biden's running mate.

Despite the national spotlight on her during the Trump presidency, some Washington residents aren't as quick to applaud the mayor.

Black Lives Matter D.C. called Bowser's mural outside the White House "performative" and said it was produced for "white liberals." On Saturday, protesters spray-painted the yellow lettering with messages for the mayor, such as "F--- the 'Mural,' Change the System" and "Not Enough."

Local activists added to the mayor's mural, painting "Defund the Police" next to it in the same big block yellow letters.

"It's not a part of the mural," Bowser said Sunday in an interview with ABC News, sidestepping questions about whether she would remove the activists' message.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council unanimously passed sweeping police reform measures despite Bowser's call for the council to slow down and hold public hearings. The council is expected to debate the budget in the coming weeks and could redirect money from the police department, reimagining what policing might look like in Washington.

"What I know is public safety in Washington, D.C., and what our needs are in Washington, D.C. And we have invested not a penny more, and certainly not a penny less, than what we need for safe neighborhoods in our community," Bowser said Sunday on Fox News, suggesting that she felt the budget was where it needed to be.

Some critics have also accused Bowser of being out of touch with working-class Washington families, especially black families native to the District who are being squeezed out of the rapidly gentrifying city.

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Bowser has at times given her critics plenty of ammunition.

Shortly after she was first elected, the mayor moved out of a brick duplex she shared with a family of Colombian refugees in Northeast Washington, a diverse working-class neighborhood, to a larger home in the Northwest quarter, a much wealthier part of the District. The mayor's move frustrated some who said she was abandoning her working-class roots in favor of more development that catered to wealthier people in the city.

In 2018, Bowser wrote on Facebook that she was "annoyed" by mumbo sauce, a condiment important to African American food culture in Washington, enraging some black constituents.

While a Washington Post poll last fall found that 67 percent of D.C. residents approved of the mayor and that 52 percent wanted her to seek a third term, there is some evidence that the support she enjoys is soft.

Only about a fifth of D.C. residents said they felt strongly about the mayor, suggesting a lack of enthusiasm that could raise a red flag in the vice presidential selection process and could prove to be problematic if the mayor is faced with a competitive challenger should she run for re-election.