After four years of having a mayor with strong ties to GW, the University will no longer be the alma mater of the District’s top leader.
Council member Muriel Bowser will follow in the footsteps of an alumnus who attended basketball games, held campaign events on campus and helped local neighborhood groups find guest speakers for their events. Experts say GW has benefitted from having Vincent Gray as mayor because the relationship helped cut tension on issues like often-complex zoning codes and city construction.
When Bowser, an American University alumna, takes office in January, she’ll have to show GW and Foggy Bottom residents that she’ll maintain that connection, those experts say.
“He’s a super cheerleader for the school,” said Council member Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3 and also teaches at the GW Law School.
Gray graduated from GW in 1964, and was the first black member of the University’s chapter of Tau Epsilon Phi, of which he later became president. After graduation, Gray kept his ties to GW, creating an office of policy analysis that involved GW students in research for the city while he was chairman of the D.C. Council.
Last year, Gray appointed University President Steven Knapp as chair of the D.C. Age-Friendly Task Force, a group aiming to improve the lives of the city’s elderly. Last February, Gray and Knapp also spoke at an event together to present a plan to make the District a more sustainable city.
GW officials are looking forward to working with Bowser, University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said in an email. Bowser, who spoke to a group of students at Freshmen Day of Service in 2012, is a “passionate proponent of Washington D.C., who will bring strong leadership to the region and beyond,” he said.
“We look forward to furthering our partnerships with her,” Hiatt said. “We wish her the best as she takes office early next year.”
Long-time Gray adviser Mark Plotkin said when Gray became mayor in 2011, the University held an event during halftime of a men’s basketball game where Gray was reunited with brothers in his fraternity. GW also held a breakfast for the mayor when he was first elected.
Plotkin, who is an alumnus as well, said he wasn’t confident that Bowser would spend any time as mayor on campus, a place he calls the most “strategically located university in the world.” Gray has visited GW’s campus at least four times since becoming mayor.
“I don’t expect much from her,” he said. “I hope she surprises me.”
Chuck Thies, who managed Gray’s campaign in the primary, called Foggy Bottom the “squeaky wheel” of D.C. politics – a part of the city that doesn’t have much weight in the elections, but the voice of the residents of the area is often heeded by politicians because they have “leverage.”
“The voice of the Foggy Bottom residents is larger than your electoral muscle,” Thies said.
Still, Thies said, in terms of votes, “it’s not as important as it once was.”
At least five faculty members and administrators donated to Bowser’s campaign, including Senior Associate Vice President for Safety and Security Darrell Darnell, who gave $500.
Eugene Kinlow, an external affairs expert who hosts a radio show about D.C. politics, said a mayor who can create a strong bond with local universities can give a city an economic boost, since universities act as large private employers.
“Working with the university helps create the workforce to satisfy the needs for the city, whatever needs the city may have,” he said.
He added that because universities have to be “long-range thinkers” when they look to expand and develop their properties in the area, forming a connection with the mayor’s office can also help make those deals go more smoothly.
Gray has kept close political ties with neighbors and residents through local advocacy groups like the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission. Patrick Kennedy, who chairs Foggy Bottom’s ANC, said he and other chairs from across the city meet with Gray each quarter to discuss issues that local areas are having, like traffic or zoning problems.
“Given the demands of the job, there’s a lot that’s delegated,” Kennedy said. “But he’s a community guy. He appreciated community concerns. That intent always shines through.”
In the future, Kennedy said he wants to focus on ensuring government agencies are aware of the smaller issues in Foggy Bottom, like deteriorating sidewalks. He added that he’s confident Bowser will continue the open forum with members of the ANC.
For GW, one of the largest private landowners in the District, name recognition is important when it comes to the zoning process. Kennedy said in the past, he’s discussed zoning issues and liquor licenses in the quarterly meetings with Gray, usually collaborating with other chairs to point out the larger impact of local problems.
Gray also has ties to other residents in the area, like Barbara Kahlow, who said she has remained close friends with the mayor. Kahlow, a member of the West End Citizens Association, said Gray has helped bring in guest speakers for the group, like the city’s chief financial officer, and that he has connected her with the D.C. Department of Transportation.
Doug Guthrie, who was fired from his position as dean of GW’s business school, also spent eight months working with Gray on an economic plan for the city. And School of Medical and Health Sciences Dean Jeffrey Akman is part of Gray’s HIV/AIDS commission.
In March, federal prosecutors found that Gray had asked for the help of D.C. businessman Jeffrey Thompson, who illegally funneled more than $650,000 into Gray’s 2010 campaign for mayor.
Bowser beat Gray in the Democratic primary in April with 44 percent of the vote. Later that month, Bowser went to the dedication of a new map that listed small businesses in the Foggy Bottom area, an event that former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg also attended.
Joseph Cordes, an economics professor, was involved with research projects on security and drug offenses that were started in the office Gray’s administration created. Cordes, who has worked at GW since 1975, said he has a solid relationship with the mayor.
“There was a somewhat greater connection to GW than what there was with his predecessor,” he said.