The candidates in the April 23 election — an off-year race to fill a seat vacated when Phil Mendelson (D) became council chairman — are entering the final scramble for votes in what could be a close and potentially polarizing contest.
In December, the D.C. Democratic State Committee selected Anita Bonds — the committee’s chairwoman — to temporarily fill the seat pending the special election.
But she has struggled to gain traction on the campaign trail, and some Democrats fear the seat could fall to Republican Patrick Mara, a Ward 1 school board member making his third attempt at a council seat.
The race also includes Democrats Elissa Silverman, Matthew Frumin and Paul Zukerberg — all of whom see paths to victory in a race that could draw fewer than 50,000 votes. Perry Redd, a member of the Statehood Green Party, also is running.
Bonds and Mara appear to have the broadest support, based on past city voting patterns and the crowded field.
Mara is banking on strong turnout among the city’s 31,000 registered Republicans, many of whom have been mailed instructions from the D.C. GOP about voting by absentee ballot. With Brown out of the race, Bonds, the only black Democrat in the race, is expected to do well both in her home base of Northeast and majority African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.
George T. Johnson, head of Local 20 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which endorsed Bonds hours after Brown withdrew from the race, said there is a strong desire within the black community to ensure the seat is held by an African American.
There are seven white and six black council members, including Bonds.
“People have perceptions about what this city is becoming . . . and they want this council to remain black, and if they don’t get out there and put black folks in there, there will be a white city council,” Johnson said. “That is a rough thing to say, but that is the truth.”
Bonds, an aide to several former mayors in the 1980s and 1990s, has the support of Democratic council members Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Vincent B. Orange (At Large) and Marion Barry (Ward 8). A mailing sent Friday shows Bonds with President Obama and says that she will “fight for anyone who has been pushed aside.”
Mara, who, if elected, would be the first Republican to win a council seat since 2008, is pushing to unite the “reform vote” behind his candidacy.
“I can be that fiscal and ethical watchdog,” Mara said.
At a forum Thursday night in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, Mara urged about 100 people in the audience to vote as a bloc. “Please don’t split the vote,” said Mara, who promises to improve schools while also controlling spending and taxes.
But Mara is battling considerable head winds: Local pollsters say surveys shows city voters hold deeply negative views about the GOP, even in wealthy neighborhoods such as Chevy Chase. That leaves an opening for the other Democrats in the race.
Silverman, a former reporter on leave from the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute, is targeting voters who agree with her message of building a progressive tax code, improving city services and strengthening government ethics.
“I don’t think D.C. voters mind paying taxes,” said Silverman, a Ward 6 resident who said she will campaign hard for African American votes. “What they mind are bad services, and I think D.C. voters want an honest, transparent approach to taxation.”
Frumin, a lawyer and Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner, was relatively unknown when he started the race . But he has raised more than $100,000 to fund a mail campaign promoting his vision of improved neighborhood schools and better-managed growth.
“The geometry of this race is tricky and in many ways unpredictable,” said Frumin, who has a base of support in Upper Northwest. “It’s all about this final two weeks and reaching as many voters as possible, and I think we have reached as many voters as anyone.”
Zukerberg, a lawyer who has made the legalization of marijuana the centerpiece of his campaign, also remains confident. His message appears to resonate at candidate forums and debates.
“My position cuts across all wards, all demographics,” said Zukerberg, who lives in Adams Morgan. “The message I am hearing is, ‘Keep going, don’t give up.’ ”
Redd is an author and activist who is pushing for more progressive tax policies. The Green Party, though, has been unsuccessful in recent elections.
Political strategist Tom Lindenfeld said the race will remain fluid.
“The real questions in this race are: Will the independent expenditures for Anita be able to promote her into the election?” he said. “And will Mara be an acceptable candidate for white voters? And if not, is there a place for anyone else in the race, and who would that be?”
The candidates will debate at noon Monday on “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on WAMU (88.5 FM).