In early power struggle with council, D.C. mayor could win battle, lose war

D.C. Politics

In early power struggle with council, D.C. mayor could win battle, lose war

By Aaron C. Davis, Washington Post, May 16

In her first budget — and her first major test of wills with the D.C. Council — Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has sought to invest heavily in affordable housing and to expand the power of her office.

And as council members gear up for final negotiations this week, their actions have made clear that she is almost certain to get the former but not the latter.

In a spending plan that Bowser said would set the tone for her four-year term, the mayor declared a mandate to focus on the city’s widening income gap. And council members have said they support that goal. From increasing spending on social services and education to replacing dilapidated shelters for the homeless, the two sides agree on more than 90 percent of the District’s $13 billion spending plan.

But in the last week, council members have also clearly signaled that they are unwilling to give Bowser more power, as she has requested, to rewrite the rules for how she can tackle her priorities.

Bowser entered office with the momentum and purpose of an overwhelming win at the polls — and with an ambitious agenda to tackle anew the vexing issues that haunted her predecessors. But early in her term, Bowser is facing a council willing to define the boundaries of her agenda more assertively than she had hoped.

The council’s Judiciary Committee last week struck down Bowser’s request to consolidate power in her office — and away from the District’s first elected attorney general — to review contracts, legislation and land deals signed by her administration to build new housing and other projects.

The Finance Committee rejected a quarter-cent sales tax increase that she proposed. With city revenue rising almost 3.5 percent, members said, Bowser’s rationale for needing the money for homeless services seemed flimsy.

The council also took a first step to nix Bowser’s request to hire and fire at will several top city bureaucrats, saying it could create a perception that legal and scientific decisions were subject to political influence from the mayor.

And Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) pressed pause on the mayor’s budget request for $5 million to outfit every patrol officer with a body camera. He said that he couldn’t go along with Bowser’s demand to shield the footage from release under public records laws.

Disputes ‘on the margins’

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who has broad power to shape the final $13 billion budget plan, said the mayor would get the overwhelming majority of funding she requested.

But on controversial issues, including those involving mayoral authority, there “would be disagreements on the margins,” Mendelson said “We can go to the mat on those.” The chairman said he was girding for a battle with Bowser before the May 27 vote because “every indication is that the mayor is going to resist any change” to her proposed budget.

Indeed, the Bowser administration is forcefully lobbying council members to move closer to her original proposals — and not to undercut others.

Bowser’s city administrator, Rashad M. Young, said he is worried about how Mendelson and the council will close a roughly $30 million gap between the mayor’s proposals and the council’s if the sales tax increase and other revenue generators are off the table.

In addition to rejecting the sales tax increase, Finance Committee Chairman Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) last week cut Bowser’s proposed tax increases on parking and on vapor cigarettes.

“I’m quite concerned,” Young said. “It’s not clear yet how that revenue gets replaced or what other reductions are going to be made to offset those,” he said.

The council is on board, however, with Bowser’s proposal to put $100 million toward affordable housing projects next year and to direct $40 million to begin constructing replacements for the troubled family homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital campus.

The administration is also closely guarding money to continue long-term welfare payments to about 6,000 families for one more year, a major concern of advocates for the poor. Bowser is also adamant that the council retain $7 million she has proposed to allocate for students to ride free to and from school not just on Metro buses, but also on Metro trains.

‘Creating real problems’

Bowser’s administration has made exceedingly clear that it’s not done pushing for its priorities.

Young and other aides pointed to cuts Mendelson proposed late last week as reason to be concerned that he may further whittle down the mayor’s initiatives. Mendelson’s committee shaved a million dollars or more from each of several redevelopment projects, including a few dear to voters in Bowser’s home Ward 4: the rehabilitation of the former Walter Reed Army base and the new town center planned for the site of McMillan sand filtration site.

“I don’t quite understand the thinking or the logic of what that will accomplish,” Young said. “It’s creating real problems for us in terms of what we had planned and . . . isn’t going to help get those projects off the ground.”

One area that seems settled for now is continued autonomy for Karl A. Racine, the district’s first elected attorney general. Bowser had proposed making her in-house attorneys her prime counsel for land deals and other high-stakes city contracts.

After a backlash, the mayor’s office proposed tabling the issue. The council last week also backed Racine in his request to revive a consumer protection fund in his office, to direct $15 million to the effort, and to give him subpoena power to conduct investigations on that front.

Young said the administration supports the idea, just not the funding source, which would come from money earmarked for Metro, he said.

Young said the administration will also keep pressuring the administration to go further on body cameras.

McDuffie, the judiciary chairman, proposed halving Bowser’s request for 2,400 cameras. His plan, which now goes before the full council, would require the administration to work with civil liberties advocates, the police union and others toward a plan to share the footage with the public.

In a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, Bowser last week called McDuffie’s move “two steps backwards” from her “bold” proposal to increase police accountability. She also urged the full council to reject McDuffie’s proposal. On the mayor’s official Twitter account, a Bowser spokeswoman last week urged voters to “hold Councilmembers accountable” on backing the mayor’s plan on body cameras.

In an interview, McDuffie dismissed the criticism and the tough talk from Bowser. “The whole idea is to enhance transparency and promote accountability within law enforcement,” said McDuffie, a former federal prosecutor. “You don’t do that when you say, essentially, that MPD [Metropolitan Police Department] and the executive are the only ones to decide who gets the footage.”

Abigail Hauslohner and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.

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