D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) had an emphatic and detailed response to the question of why LGBT residents should vote for her over her two main opponents.
Mayoral rivals David Catania, an at-large Council member since 1997, and former at-large Council member Carol Schwartz, who served on the Council for 16 years, have a longer record on LGBT issues than Bowser by way of their longer tenure on the Council. Both are running as independents.
Bowser, who leads Catania and Schwartz in the latest polls, first won election to the Council in 2007.
“I’ve been as you know well regarded across the city for supporting the LGBT community and have done so from a leadership position from my Council seat,” Bowser told the Blade in an Oct. 17 interview.
“I was very proud to cast a vote in support of marriage equality and make sure that we’re opening up all of our institutions for people in the LGBT community.”
Bowser added, “What’s important now is what’s next to do. And that’s a lot.”
Using the mayor’s office as a platform for drawing attention to hate crimes targeting the LGBT community and their root causes, making sure LGBT people, especially LGBT seniors, are included in the city’s affordable housing programs, and strengthening the city’s job training program for transgender residents initiated by Mayor Vincent Gray are just some of the LGBT issues she will pursue if elected mayor, Bowser said.
LGBT activists following the mayor’s race say the LGBT community appears divided between Bowser and Catania, who, if elected, would become the city’s first out gay mayor. Activists say Schwartz, a longtime popular figure in the LGBT community, has a smaller but highly committed corps of supporters in the LGBT community.
Many LGBT Democrats, including Paul Kuntzler, co-founder of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, are supporting Catania, saying they believe he’s the best candidate on both LGBT and non-LGBT issues.
But Bowser points to her strong support among LGBT residents in all sections of the city. She is often accompanied at LGBT campaign events by her openly gay brother, Marvin Bowser, who serves as her campaign’s LGBT community liaison.
An LGBT campaign rally for Bowser Tuesday night at Hank’s Oyster Bar next to 17th Street, N.W., before the start of the annual Halloween High Heel Race on 17th Street, drew more than 200 people. Bowser was besieged by well-wishers when she waded into a crowd of mostly LGBT people waiting for the race to begin.
Catania and Schwartz also showed up for the high heel race festivities. People carrying Bowser and Catania signs could be seen up and down the street.
“As I see it I’m very proud of the broad base of support that I have in the LGBT community across all kinds of race and income and geographic areas,” she said. “I was never more proud — maybe a month ago we had a huge LGBT meet and greet and the diversity is what made me so proud. People were from every ward — gay, lesbian, transgender — all to support the agenda that remains.”
Bowser was also quick to challenge an allegation by Catania that her record on HIV/AIDS is non-existent. Catania told the Blade in an interview in early October that he cannot recall her ever mentioning HIV/AIDS during her seven years on the Council.
“That’s not a fair assessment at all,” she said. “But I know what is an absurd statement is that one person can claim to have driven down AIDS in the District of Columbia.”
Bowser was referring to Catania’s campaign statements that during his tenure as chair of the Council’s Committee on Health, in which he prodded city officials to strengthen the city’s AIDS office, the number of AIDS deaths in the city dropped by 69 percent and the number of new HIV infections dropped by 50 percent.
“So the idea, first of all, that a lot of people reject at the Whitman-Walker Clinic or in previous administrations – the executives who really put the money and the people in place to get prevention programs and treatment programs and testing programs in place – they have to have a big quarrel with the assertion that one legislator drove down the incidents of HIV in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said. “That’s just not true.”
Possibly for the first time during the campaign Bowser responded to rumors that have circulated in anonymous postings on Twitter and readers’ comments on the Blade’s website that she might be a lesbian.
“Well I’m not,” she said.
When asked about the social media postings where the rumors have surfaced, Bowser said, “They post a lot of wacky things. I think you know that. But as I said I’m very proud to have the support of a lot of people in the LGBT community who are posting on your newspaper as well.”
She added, “And they’re posting on things that matter – that I’m focused on how we build on the democratic values in this city and represent the large swath of Washingtonians who want to invest in our schools all across the city, who want to build a strong and growing middle class in the city, and who want to make sure that we’re attracting the talent in our government that’s going to allow us to get ready for the city’s growth over the next 25 years. And so that’s what our focus is.”
Washington Blade: Can you tell a little about your background growing up in D.C., what you did before getting elected to the Council, and how that might have prepared you for running for mayor?
Muriel Bowser: Oh, absolutely. I would love to. I think that my experience is directly related not only to how we’ve been able to bring the city back in so many ways but it directly relates to the challenges ahead. I have the wonderful experience of being born and raised here in the District of Columbia. And in my formative years especially we were a very different city, a city that was dangerous, a city whose schools were spiraling out of control. The school issues were spiraling out of control and the Congress took us over.
And so I have that context to know that the government and the community have to work together to make sure we never go back to those days. I’ve been trained in public policy, which is my passion. And I worked 10 years in local government before being elected to the Council — most recently in Montgomery County where I worked in downtown Silver Spring on transportation, downtown development in keeping the community engaged in all of those issues.
I was elected in 2007 to represent Ward 4. And quite frankly I think the experience as a ward Council member is the best experience to be mayor of the District of Columbia. As a ward Council member you have the responsibility to lead a discreet group of people and be held accountable by them. And that’s what we’ve been able to do. We moved an agenda focused on expanding quality school options, investing in our under invested corridors and also making sure we’re holding government agencies accountable.
So as such I have to know all of the directors, all of their budgets and how they’re working or not working. And that has given me the experience to lead the city.
Blade: Were you an ANC commissioner?
Bowser: I was an ANC commissioner. When I moved in my home I was lucky enough, smart enough I guess even at the time to buy a home in a neighborhood that I thought was a good neighborhood. It could be a great neighborhood. And I got a house for $125,000. I had a few criteria. I wanted three bedrooms, I wanted a finished basement and I wanted to be close to a Metro. And I was able to find that in Riggs Park and I’ve lived there ever since – for the last 14 years.
But I come from a tradition of ANCs. My father was elected in the first ANC class and I thought it would be the best way for me to serve my community as well. I was elected twice to be an ANC commissioner.
Blade: You and your two main opponents have each said that you strongly support LGBT equality and LGBT rights and you have a record on some of those issues. What would you say to an LGBT resident about why they should vote for you and not the other two?
Bowser: Well I’ve been as you know well regarded across the city for supporting the LGBT community and have done so from a leadership position from my Council seat. I was very proud to cast a vote in support of marriage equality and make sure that we’re opening up all of our institutions for people in the LGBT community.
What’s also important now is what’s next. A lot of people have worked long and hard to get us to this point. And I want to especially acknowledge the GLAA [Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance] and the Stein Democrats who really made sure that we had marriage equality in this city. And you know how — because they made it a prerequisite to get elected, to have people who were fairness based and would move and advance the ball in the District of Columbia.
But now we have to look at what’s next to do. And there’s a lot. As I see it I’m very proud of the broad base of support that I have in the LGBT community across all kinds of race and income and geographic areas. People in the LGBT community come out and support me in great numbers. I was never more proud maybe a month ago we had a huge LGBT meet and greet and the diversity is what made me so proud. People were from every ward – gay, lesbian, transgender – all to support the agenda that remains.
What we hear most is – I’ll start with how we make sure people are safe. We have to end hate crimes in the District of Columbia. It’s too much. We have to have a strong partnership with MPD so our officers are trained and know how to deal and respond to hate crimes. But more than that, the mayor of the District of Columbia has to use the perch that she has to tell people that hate and violence are not going to be acceptable in our city. And I’ve stood up and done that when people in our community have been harmed.
We also hear about housing issues and how important it is to get rid of discrimination for LGBT people in all manner of housing. I was proud to include in this budget funding to examine how other cities approached LGBT senior issues, for example, in housing. Those are important questions to consider. In our public housing, how are we approaching LGBT issues? So I think that’s kind of an untapped area that this government has to get in that space. By next year, 20 percent of our population will be over the age of 65. And that of course includes our LGBT community.
I think you heard when we were at Mary’s House – the groundbreaking for Mary’s House – when Dr. Woody said we don’t disappear at age 65. And I think for too long our housing strategies were not taking into account all of our community. Jobs are another area where we have to focus on. I was honored to host a tea at my home for the transgender community and their sole focus was on jobs. And what I heard loud and clear was that people thought that the Gray administration had done a lot in advancing the discussion and beginning the implementation of meaningful jobs programs. So I don’t think we need to start all over. And I want to build on some of those initiatives.
I know there was a focus on Project Empowerment. How can we build on that to make sure that people in the transgender community are being hired? I was really struck by what seems like on its face to be discrimination against the transgender community in employment practices. We have to make sure our own government is not doing that. As I understood it we could only account for transgender people who were working in D.C. government. Now there may be others, but I want to make sure that the D.C. government is a welcoming place. And so you’ll hear me talk about jobs a lot and how we can refocus the up to $100 million that is spent every year in job training – a hundred million dollars that doesn’t necessarily equate to jobs.
So I have a big focus on how to close the jobs and opportunity gaps in our community. We know that they exist in great numbers in the Ward 7 and 8 communities. And we know that they exist in great numbers in our returning citizens’ community. And we know that they exist in great numbers in our transgender community. So how can we refocus our efforts to help populations that really need it?
Blade: You mentioned how the problem of hate crimes is an ongoing issue. Most LGBT advocates have said relations between the LGBT community and the police department has improved significantly in recent years. But a recent report on LGBT-police relations prepared by an independent task force initiated by Chief Cathy Lanier found that the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit appeared to become less effective than it was under the previous chief, Charles Ramsey. Is that something you might look into and have you made a decision yet on whether to retain the chief?
Bowser: Well I have great confidence in Cathy Lanier. And I think that she has really helped to make sure we have a high quality force of officers who want to do the right thing. And when she’s found officers that were not doing the right thing she has acted speedily to make sure they’re not in a position to disgrace their badge or to harm the department. So I have great confidence in her.
And issues with the specialized units, including the GLLU, when it came up – I’m trying to think what year that was. It must be 2008 or 2009 when I had some very direct conversations with her about why she thought this was the best way to use her resources. And she’s been policing in the District of Columbia for a long time. She believes in equality and fairness and she believes in protecting all of our residents. But she also has to be held accountable. So we want to follow all these crimes. But she believes that the deployment of resources actually is making officers who are trained and sensitized to all of these issues in the gay and lesbian and the transgender community available all across the city.
I think that we’ve kind of gotten away from this notion that gay people only live in one place, right?
Bowser: And so we need a whole force that needs to be able to address issues in the LGBT community and they need to be responsive all across the city. The same is true — we used to think that Latinos in our city only lived in Ward 1. And we know that’s not true. So we have to have a force where it shouldn’t be the expectation that only a few officers know what they’re doing when dealing with issues in the gay and lesbian community. All of the officers should. So I want that to be my focus.
But what I’ve heard loud and clear is that there’s a model that worked under Ramsey and there’s kind of the adage if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But I think that what the chief found is that she could have a broader coverage all across the city if she deployed resources differently.
Blade: In the area of hate crimes, there is a consensus that the police respond quickly and do all they can to investigate those crimes but most agree that the police can’t prevent someone from committing a hate crime. Some in the LGBT community say they are worried just walking the streets.
Bowser: That makes me sad.
Blade: Is there anything the mayor can do to get at the underlying causes of hate crimes? Arrest records show that many hate crimes targeting the LGBT community are committed by young people.
Bowser: Yes. The one benefit of office is having a bully pulpit and leading by example and speaking out when things are wrong. Another advantage that the mayor has is that we can have partnerships with other leaders in the community that have a voice in people’s lives like our faith community and our non-profit community. And having real candid conversations with them about treating people fairly, ending the violence, and having a city that is safe for everyone can make a difference.
Blade: One thing that Councilman Catania said in his interview with the Blade earlier this month was that he cannot recall you ever mentioning the word HIV/AIDS – even once. I noticed AIDS-related issues are mentioned in your campaign platform booklet. But is that a fair assessment?
Bowser: Certainly not – certainly not. That’s not a fair assessment at all.
Blade: Do you think he was referring to Council meetings?
Bowser: You will have to ask him. But I know what is an absurd statement is — that one person can claim to have driven down AIDS in the District of Columbia. We know the seriously bad impacts that AIDS had on our community across a lot of our population. And it’s still having a bad effect for people who look like me – women in my age group. Where we haven’t seen a lot of attention is talking to women in my age group who are contracting AIDS and who are not getting tested and who may not be aware of all the dangerous situations that they’re putting themselves in.
So the idea, first of all, that a lot of people reject at the Whitman-Walker Clinic or in previous administrations the executives who really put the money and the people in place to get prevention programs and treatment programs and testing programs in place – they have to have a big quarrel with the assertion that one legislator drove down the incidents of HIV in the District of Columbia. That’s just not true.
We should also not congratulate ourselves too much because still too many people are getting infected. Still too many young people are involved in behaviors that will get them infected. There are still too many women who are involved. We have so many other issues in our health care community as well. And people in the LGBT community making sure they have access to quality care that they’re not being discriminated against in that setting either and that there are welcoming environments.
I strongly support removing the stigma around HIV. We know that people can live with HIV. And again I think that the mayor can play a role in helping to remove that stigma, especially in the African-American community where people are less likely to talk about it, get tested and get treated.
Blade: The Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, of which you are a member, voted unanimously on Oct. 15 to pass the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The bill calls for repealing a clause that Congress added to the D.C. Human Rights Act back in 1989 that allows religious educational institutions in the city to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Assuming the full Council passes this bill, as expected, do you think this could prompt Congress to try to step in again?
Bowser: Well there’s always the concern of Congress stepping in. That’s why it’s so important that we forge a new path to get autonomy – legislative autonomy, budget autonomy and a new path toward statehood. We have to always be concerned about the Congress stepping in. There are all kinds of riders that can be attached to our legislation and appropriations bills. And that has to change. We’ve seen it with reproductive health issues. And I think we should be concerned about seeing it again.
But that doesn’t stop us from doing the right thing. And we have a human rights law in the District of Columbia that we all should be proud of. We should look to every instance that we have to make it stronger. And so I will be voting for it.
Blade: Concerning the transgender community, would you support and continue a program started by Mayor Gray and operated by the D.C. Office of Human Rights that seeks to curtail hate crimes and discrimination against transgender people through public service announcements?
Bowser: The more public education the better. I tend to think – and I get this question a lot. In my experience in bringing communities together who are very diverse is that people tend to — if we take down these barriers — not to say let’s all get together to figure out how to end hate crimes, because mostly you will attract the people who are activists in that area, when, in fact, we need to have that message in everything that the city does. And so the city needs to be at festivals and parades where people are coming together for a whole other reason entirely to say that this government is diverse and we support all of our residents. So that’s important.
How can we have that message delivered at schools? How can we have that message delivered in the faith community? So I think it’s best – yes – to have public service, to have ad campaigns. But to also make sure that message is ever-present in everything we do when people are coming together for nothing to do with violence but everything to do with community.
Blade: A number of messages the Blade has received from readers through Twitter postings and email links have questioned your sexual orientation. They often mention that you are single and perhaps all single people, men or women, receive these comments. Would you like to comment on that?
Bowser: Oh, I’ve commented on it extensively.
Blade: Do you mean for you or the subject in general?
Bowser: What do you mean?
Blade: Well what they appear to be implying is that you may be gay.
Bowser: Well I’m not.
Blade: Most people would likely say who cares? But we don’t know if someone is putting people up to do this. But the messages keep coming up – sometimes as postings by readers as comments on our stories online.
Bowser: They post a lot of wacky things. I think you know that. But as I said I’m very proud to have the support of a lot of people in the LGBT community who are posting on your newspaper as well. And they’re posting on the things that matter – that I’m focused on how we build on the democratic values in this city and represent the large swath of Washingtonians who want to invest in our schools all across the city, who want to build a strong and growing middle class in the city, and want to make sure that we’re attracting the talent in our government that’s going to allow us to get ready for the city’s growth over the next 25 years.
And so that’s what our focus is. I’ve put together a wonderful committee of LGBT leaders, activists and have been a Council member who has made sure I have a gay-friendly office that people from all over feel very comfortable talking to us, bringing their issues to us, and being responsive to their needs. And that’s exactly the kind of mayor I will be.
Blade: One of the issues the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance has raised in an election year position paper is that the legal standing for protesting a proposed liquor license for bars, restaurants and nightclubs should be removed from ad hoc groups of five or more citizens and left solely with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which are elected by the residents. GLAA and others have said that the so-called ‘gangs of five’ have unduly blocked or delayed a liquor license application for months and sometimes as long as a year, causing an unfair burden on small businesses seeking to open a restaurant or bar. Is that something you would consider supporting?
Bowser: Well ultimately, of course the [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Board decides. And I have a neighborhood focus and have been an ANC commissioner. I do think and believe the ANC should be afforded great weight. And I’ve participated long and hard in that process with [D.C. Council member] Jim Graham on the reforms [liquor licensing reform legislation]. And I actually think we landed in the right place.
And I think the update has addressed – kind of streamlining the response times. But I think citizen input is important and that we have responsible business owners who have a liquor license. We have decided that having a liquor license requires an extra layer of scrutiny in this city. And I think we probably landed in the right place. We have I think about a year – a year and a half experience with it. And I want to watch it to make sure that the instances that you described, that the process isn’t being unreasonably hijacked. That’s not fair to the business community.
But we also have to say that, one, we can’t rely on one instance to determine what the law should be for everybody. So I can definitely, absolutely commit to looking at the experience with the changes that we recently made to the procedure – to see how they’re working and to see if they need to be tweaked.