When Muriel Bowser was running for District of Columbia mayor six years ago, she told the Washington Post that having the eyes of the city trained on her was “unnatural”. But the African-American mayor could never have imagined the spotlight she would face over the past two weeks in the US capital.
As an antiracism movement has erupted across the US following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, Ms Bowser has felt both compelled and empowered to take on President Donald Trump over his handling of the protests in Washington.
After federal police tear-gassed peaceful protesters to allow Mr Trump to walk to a church near the White House for a photo-op, she commissioned huge letters spelling out the words “Black Lives Matter” to be painted in yellow along two blocks of road nearby and renamed the area “Black Lives Matter Plaza”.
“The Black Lives Matter mural was a big punch in the face for Trump,” says China Dickerson, a Democratic strategist who knows the mayor. “She put the thing right outside his house. That’s pretty ballsy.”
The attention has catapulted Ms Bowser into the ranks of possible running mates for Joe Biden. The Democratic presidential nominee has vowed to pick a woman — and the protests have raised the odds that she will be African-American. “We are amazed at how much attention she has gotten,” says another person who knows the mayor. “It was the PR and political genius of painting three words on a street.”
When the protests hit, Ms Bowser was facing her biggest challenge since re-election in 2018: coronavirus. Until then her tenure had been fairly uneventful. The dual crisis created a tough test that many mayors are facing, with the additional complexity of having the tweeter-in-chief in her city.
Ms Bowser, a single mother who adopted a baby in 2018, grew up as the youngest of six children in a middle-class family in Washington. She attended a private Catholic girls’ high school and graduated from a women’s college in Pittsburgh. After working in insurance in Philadelphia, she returned to Washington and earned a master’s degree in public policy from American University. She then had a stint on the city council, before being elected as only the second female mayor in the history of the city.
Fans and critics see her as a pragmatic technocrat. Ed Lazere, a progressive running for city council, credits her with improving the situation for homeless people, but says she has not done enough to provide affordable housing for African-Americans. “She can rightly say ‘I’m doing more than any mayor before’, but it is clearly not enough in a city that is gentrifying and displacing black residents.”
One acquaintance says her response to the protests has added pizzazz and provided the kind of signature issue some felt had been lacking. “She’s a bit like the first [president] George Bush — fine job, but no idea what she stands for.”
The national debate over racism and fight with Mr Trump has given the 47-year-old mayor a megaphone to drown out any sense that she is not fired up. John Lewis, the Georgia lawmaker and civil rights leader, called her mural a “powerful work of art”. Basketball star LeBron James retweeted a video of the work with “BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!!!!! TOGETHER we shall prevail!!”
But while the art has inspired copycats from Oakland to Seattle, not everyone has been impressed. Some members of Black Lives Matter who view Ms Bowser as weak on police reform added the words, “Defund the Police”. One activist believes the mayor just wanted to “piss off Trump”.
But Ms Dickerson believes that Ms Bower’s calculations were a little more sophisticated. “The mayor has national aspirations as a black woman in power in one of the most powerful cities in the country,” she says. “It was definitely for show. But I wouldn’t say that the mayor doesn’t care about black people and only did it for show.”
John Falcicchio, Ms Bowser’s chief of staff, explains that she was furious as Mr Trump was trying to take control of the city’s police force via a law that is unique to Washington DC because it is not a state. The same situation allowed the president to call in National Guard soldiers and other federal law enforcement officers, which raised concerns about the militarisation of the capital. Even Ms Bowser was blocked from the streets.
“A fifth-generation Washington resident could not walk down her own streets as mayor,” says Mr Falcicchio. “That’s where the idea came to create a plaza . . . She wanted to make clear that it was the district saying it was a safe place.”
Another key moment came when Mr Trump conjured up an image of brutality from the civil rights era — the unleashing of dogs on African-Americans. The morning after taking refuge in a bunker, the president said any protesters who breached the White House fence would face “vicious dogs and . . . ominous weapons”.
“There are no vicious dogs & ominous weapons,” Ms Bowser tweeted back. “There is just a scared man.”
But she kept her best punch for an interview with Lil Wayne, the rapper. “When you’re the president, you’re supposed to swing up. You’re supposed to be beating up on foreign leaders, not swinging down on chick mayors.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson