WASHINGTON — Washington, D.C., 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, painted “Black Lives Matter” in big yellow letters on Friday on the street leading up to the White House where some of the most volatile protests in Washington had taken place earlier that week.
Just 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-op 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 D.C. 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 does not have the same self-governing authority as other 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’s actions earned her immediate praise from the left for standing up to Trump.
But it wasn’t the first time that she has sparred with Trump over control of D.C. streets.
Trump announced last summer he planned to throw a military-style 4th of July celebration in D.C., accompanied by tanks and fighter planes, taking over the District’s traditionally non-political 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,” Boswer, 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.”
Bowser sent a letter to the Trump administration demanding it reimburse the D.C. government for the event. The city has yet to be paid back. Trump has floated holding a similar celebration again this 4th of July but official plans have not been announced.
Bowser signaled in May that Trump’s event might not happen this year, telling reporters that the city would not issue any permits for parades during phase one of the District’s coronavirus reopening plan.
And even though the tone of the protests has abated to more of a daily block party 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 that the president was left with no choice but to send in the troops after watching days of rioting and looting unfolding 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.
The youngest of six children, Bowser grew up in the District’s Michigan Park neighborhood. She received an academic scholarship to Chatham University in Pittsburgh, earning a degree in history before getting a Master’s 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 challenging incumbent 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 D.C. 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 his staff work.
In response to Bowser’s “Black Lives Matter” mural, her mentions were flooded with calls for her to be considered for a number two spot on the Democratic ticket, including one from rapper Pusha-T, a resident of suburban Bethesda, 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 Businesses Insider.
“I already have the best job in Washington, D.C.,” Bowser, who endorsed former New York mayor and businessman Michael Bloomberg earlier in the primary, told the Washington Post when asked if she was willing to be vetted for Biden’s running mate.
Despite the national spotlight on her during the Trump presidency, some Washington residents are not as quick to applaud the mayor.
The Black Lives Matter chapter of D.C. called Bowser’s mural outside the White House “performative” and said it was done 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 potentially redirect money from the police department, reimagining what policing might look like in D.C.
“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 D.C. families, especially black families native to the District who are being squeezed out of the rapidly gentrifying city.
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 felt she was abandoning her working class roots in favor of more development that catered to wealthier people in the city.
While a Washington Post poll last fall found that 67 percent of D.C. residents approved of the mayor and 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.