Carol Schwartz, the District’s perennial mayoral candidate, tries again


Carol Schwartz, 70, right, receives the support of Vallorie Forte, 51, from Ward 7, while gathering signatures at a Safeway supermarket to get on the ballot for mayor. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

“Remember me?” The voice, nasal and deep, is instantly familiar. “I’m trying to come back.” The rolling waves of salt-and-pepper hair, big blue eyes, flowery print dress (“Go shopping!” she counsels several distressed citizens) — they can mean only one person, one mainstay through all five decades of D.C. home rule.

“I’m Carol Schwartz,” she says, and one after another, the people of Northeast Washington tell her to save the introduction.

“I know who you are,” they say. And “We all know you, Miss Schwartz.” And “You been coming here my whole life.”

She’s 70 now, reemerging after five years in the political desert, standing in front of the Safeway at Hechinger Mall, no security, no handlers, no aides, a clipboard in each hand, pens falling out of her pocketbook. Somehow, she manages to hug and hold hands even as she collects signatures to get herself on the November ballot. For mayor. Again. A surprise entrant last month, this is her fifth run in 30 years.

With Mayor Vincent C. Gray out of the picture, soundly defeated in April’s Democratic primary, Schwartz saw an opening in a swiftly changing city with sharp divisions between rich and poor, new residents and old, blacks and whites. She sees her opponents — council members Muriel E. Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) — as weak and ill-prepared to lead. They see her as a nostalgic figure, out of touch with today’s issues.


Carol Schwartz, 70, receives a friendly welcome from Earl Jones, 65, while gathering signatures to get on the ballot for mayor. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Schwartz asks Kim Hunter, who lives in Trinidad, for her vote. Hunter responds by confiding her troubles — her search for adequate housing, her daughter’s lupus. The candidate offers not policy prescriptions, but a different kind of support:

“Honey, these things happen. You tell your daughter to watch her weight. Tell her to eat some 2 percent cottage cheese with blueberries, with a little substitute sugar. It’s just like ice cream, and she’ll keep the pounds off. And you hang in there.”

After a hug, Schwartz moves on, and Hunter pronounces herself a supporter. “Who’s better?” she says. “Who else is out here with the people?”

‘My forced retirement’

Schwartz served four terms on the D.C. Council before losing her at-large seat in 2008 in a bitter Republican primary. A political novice half her age rode to the nomination on a wave of support from business leaders angry at Schwartz’s successful drive to force employers to give workers paid sick leave.

She returned to her apartment in one of Kalorama’s most glorious buildings for what she calls “my forced retirement.” She traveled. She doted on the grandchildren. It didn’t take.

“I tried to retire gracefully,” she says. “I missed the game, terribly.” The city and its politics were always her passion; for years, she donated her government salary to charity (she took her pay only after her husband committed suicide in 1988).

Without politics, “there was something missing from Carol’s life,” says her longtime friend Elsie Smith. “She needed this.”


Carol Schwartz, 70, left, hugs her longtime friend and supporter Elsie Smith, 78, while leaving Langston Golf Course on Benning Road in Northeast, where they spontaneously stopped to collect more signatures to get Schwartz on the ballot for mayor. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

She’s back, running because she believes the District’s economic boom has “left behind or pushed out too many Washingtonians. I want to make sure people don’t get priced out. It can’t be survival of the fittest here.”

That message plays well on streets where voters twice rejected Schwartz for Marion Barry back in the day.

“Our city is more advanced now; we’re not just black and white,” says Terrance McMichael, a former advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5 who prefers Schwartz to Bowser because the Democrat doesn’t spend enough time in local communities.

Tooling around east of the Anacostia River in her 1994 Jaguar XJ6, Schwartz draws outstretched hands, pledges of support and plenty of criticism of her opponents.

“I don’t know how that young lady’s going to run the city,” Khalid Eltayeb says of Bowser.

“So choose this old lady,” Schwartz replies.

“At least I know you will ask the tough questions,” Eltayeb says.

Outside the Benning Road NE Safeway, Charlene Pierce tells Schwartz: “This is your time, because Muriel Bowser is too young and I don’t agree with Catania’s values. It’s not that I dislike gay people, but the values he represents are just totally different from mine.”

Schwartz calls herself a fiscal conservative, saying the city remains addicted to giving out contracts without proper competition. But she also proudly wears the social liberal label: “With all this money in the city now, why are we not taking care of homelessness and drug treatment?”she says.

Longtime friends say Schwartz’s devotion to the needy is of a piece with her early, vocal support for gay rights and her popularity with black voters. A special education teacher before she entered politics, she spent much of her youth helping her only sibling, Johnny, who was intellectually disabled.

“Growing up in Texas in a very small population of Jewish people, and not being blond, and not being wealthy, that all sensitizes you to being different,” says Cornelius Baker, a policy adviser at the National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition who worked for Schwartz in the 1980s and remains a close friend.

“Carol’s parents lived on the other side of the tracks, in a very poor area, where blacks lived,” says Ann Wylie, a geologist at the University of Maryland who went to high school with Schwartz in Midland, Tex. “The experience left her with a deep empathy for anyone who has faced a lot of difficulty.”

Falling out with Catania

Schwartz is back because she believes the other two candidates don’t have it — Bowser because she’s inexperienced (“She hasn’t done anything,” Schwartz says) and Catania because “his personality would be lethal to this city.”

Schwartz avoids even uttering his name. “I was running for mayor when that person was a teenager,” she says.

Catania worked on one of Schwartz’s early campaigns. Later, after he was elected to the council, she mentored the dynamic young Republican, who shared her passion for trying to hack hunks of fat from the city’s notoriously bloated budget. They went to dinner together. Friends say Catania even named a cat for Schwartz.

“They truly were friends,” says Carl Schmid, who worked on both candidates’ campaigns and now supports Schwartz. “Their falling out was a matter of personality and temperament. She opposed things in a constructive, nice way. Some other council members don’t have that ability.”

Some say the falling out came over earmarks, a longtime Schwartz bugaboo. Schwartz says the friendship ended when Catania opposed her sick-leave legislation. Catania isn’t talking about Schwartz. His campaign manager, Ben Young, wouldn’t comment either, although he earlier told Washington City Paper that Bowser had somehow put Schwartz up to running, to dilute Catania’s support.

The allegation, which Bowser vigorously denies, brings tears to Schwartz’s eyes.

Some in Schwartz’s opponents’ camps question her motives. “She’s just doing this for revenge against Catania,” says a Bowser strategist who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign.

Marie Drissel, a longtime political activist who is supporting Catania, believes Schwartz is running to settle a grudge. She says Schwartz told her a year ago that “I’m enjoying my life and I don’t get involved in politics anymore.”

In March, at a memorial service for former mayor Anthony A. Williams’ mother, Schwartz asked whom Drissel was supporting for mayor. At the mention of Catania, Drissel says, “She raised her voice really inappropriately: ‘He is the one who made me lose, he’s the one!’ ”

Schwartz says: “I didn’t really raise my voice at her. I just didn’t share her enthusiasm.” Schwartz vehemently rejects the idea that she holds grudges, calling herself “a very forgiving person.”

But even supporters say she’s been known to freeze out people she thinks have crossed her. “Both David and Carol are personalities that just hold grudges,” says Robert Kabel, a past chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee. “She is pretty thin-skinned, no doubt about that.”

Kabel, who has not yet chosen between Catania and Schwartz, discouraged her from running: “I told her, ‘Carol, you’ve got grandkids and a nice life.’ ”

Schwartz’s daughter, Hilary, 44, a stand-up comedian in New York who has come back to the Districtto help the campaign, said her mother has always made friends with rivals. Schwartz and Barry, for example, have a warm, teasing relationship. “This is the one exception in her entire career,” Hilary said of the friction with Catania. “It’s really about him and his attitude. It’s pretty intense. For two years, she’d walk by in the hall and he wouldn’t even speak to her.”

“Carol’s feud with Catania could be part of her reason” for running, says council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), “but the main thing is that she misses it. She’s a person like myself who always wanted to be mayor.”

Schwartz has a following, but in a heavily Democratic city, it’s limited, he says: “I’m glad she’s in the race — she’ll force the other candidates to focus on the fact that although we’ve got money raining down on us now, that won’t always be the case. But she could very well come in a very distant third. Look at me.” Evans, preaching fiscal conservatism and social liberalism similar to Schwartz’s, came in fourth in April’s mayoral primary, with 5 percent of the vote.

Schwartz has made little effort to raise money. She and Hilary are running the campaign out of her apartment. “The prices for offices are astronomical,” she says.

She has no paid staff and isn’t sure she needs any. “I once had a campaign manager, and I paid him a lot of money to argue with me about how to run my campaign,” she says.

Critics who say Schwartz is running to get at Catania point to her lack of detailed positions on issues. She admits that she has not yet studied up on some hot topics.

Has the city spent too much on the long-delayed effort to reintroduce streetcars? “I cannot speak to the specifics,” she says.

She says she’ll finally get the city full voting rights in Congress, but asked how she might accomplish that, she says, “Just wait and see.”

‘A little old blood’

Six years ago, in her last council campaign, Schwartz asked audiences not to be taken in by the novelty of new candidates. “What we need is a little old blood, people who know where the bodies are buried,” she said.

This year, her appeal is similar. “We all know that people don’t really change,” she wrote in her campaign announcement.

Greeting voters in Anacostia, Schwartz beams. “You see, people know me,” she says. “They miss me.”

But those who know her best weren’t certain this campaign was the right move.

“Those of us who love her were very conflicted,” Baker says. “We didn’t want to see her lose again. It’s always difficult when you lose.”

Daughter Hilary says Schwartz’s three children were “all a little cautious about this idea. We didn’t want her to get beat up. But she feeds on people’s love for her, and she loves the work. It’s weird — it does seem to give her a real purpose and drive.”

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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