D.C. Council at-large race enters final weekend

The half-dozen candidates in Tuesday’s D.C. Council election all face considerable challenges as they head into the final weekend of the campaign, resulting in an unpredictable race that has so far attracted few voters.

After 10 days of early voting, only 1,900 residents have cast ballots. With only about 10 percent of voters expected to show up at the polls Tuesday, the candidates say that they may be able to win with as few as 15,000 votes.

The contest, a special election to fill the seat vacated last year by the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), represents the best opportunity in years for District Republicans to gain a seat on the council.

But Republican Patrick Mara has been hampered by questions about his finances and his support last year for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

A big chunk of the Democratic establishment is supporting Anita Bonds, the D.C. party chairwoman, who is filling the seat on an interim basis pending the special election.


Coverage of the D.C. Council special election.

Despite support from longtime Democratic activists, Bonds has struggled to distinguish herself on the council, critics say, and she has come under fire for what some view as her clumsy remarks about race. In recent weeks, Bonds has kept away from candidates forums and events, relying instead on face-to-face contact with voters.

Mara’s and Bonds’s stumbles are presenting fresh opportunities for two other Democrats in the race — former reporter Elissa Silverman, 40, and Ward 3 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Matthew Frumin, 53, although they have less institutional support from the two major parties.

“When you are talking about leaders citywide, I am not a new kid on the block,” said Silverman, who has worked for the Washington City Paper and The Washington Post and is on leave from the liberal Fiscal Policy Institute. “Many of the leaders across the city know who I am and know my commitment to the city.”

But Silverman is facing scrutiny for some inconsistent statements and her record in pushing for tax increases while working for the Fiscal Policy Institute. Earlier in the week, a pro-business political action committee supporting Mara made robo-calls noting Silverman previously stated that she does not think city voters mind paying taxes.

At a candidates forum Wednesday night on Capitol Hill, Democratic candidate Paul Zukerberg also accused Silverman of being a “tax-and-spend liberal.” Zukerberg, a lawyer pushing to decriminalize marijuana, noted that the Fiscal Policy Institute advocated in 2010 to broaden the sales tax to include new services, including health club memberships. The proposal, which was rejected by the council, became known as the “yoga tax.”

In an interview, Silverman said she should not be held accountable for all the views held by her employer.

“I was a reporter, and I reinvented myself, and I’ll reinvent myself again on the council,” said Silverman, who lives near H Street NE in Ward 6.

Frumin, who lives in American University Park, is an international trade lawyer and an advocate for public education with a vibrant base of support in Upper Northwest.

“I’m a grass-roots community person,” said Frumin, whose campaign has raised more than $150,000.

But despite his aggressive print and online advertising campaign, Frumin said it has been a challenge to raise his profile citywide.

On the campaign trail, he is trying to distinguish himself from Silverman, believing that many Democrats are trying to decide between the two of them.

“Elissa, her background is as an investigative reporter . . . who is going to ask the hard questions and get to the bottom of things, and there is a role for that,” Frumin said. “I come from a background of being a community activist . . . and mine is a very upbeat, positive vision about the city.”

Silverman counters that she has “more experience citywide” than Frumin has.

Mara, who represents Ward 1 on State Board of Education, ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2008 and 2011. As the only Republican in the contest, Mara says that he is the true “outsider” in the race.

“I will always be the outsider,” Mara, 38, said this week while campaigning at the Petworth Metro station.

But Mara has been dogged by questions about how he has made a living since he stopped lobbying on Capitol Hill in 2008. On Thursday, a progressive activist with a group called Working Families filed a complaint with the Office of Campaign Finance, saying Mara violated city laws and regulations when he was paid to raise money for a conservative think tank using his donor list.

Mara has said that he only had a casual arrangement with the organization, resulting in less than $10,000 in income, and has denied doing anything wrong.

Although he often stresses that he’s “socially progressive” and “very, very moderate,” Mara’s party affiliation has become more of an issue in this race than in some of his previous campaigns. Bonds, Silverman and Frumin all frequently note Mara’s support for Romney last year.

“He is a Republican, and that brings with it a party that is hostile to women receiving contraception, that is hostile to the District in some ways,” Silverman said.

Mara, who lives in Columbia Heights, said his opponents are wasting their time. “In a way, she is doing marketing for me,” Mara said of Silverman. “At the end of the day, she is letting them know in advance, so they are not surprised when they go in to vote.”

Bonds, who was selected in December to serve in the at-large post on an interim basis by Democratic Party members, is battling perceptions that she is too aligned with the city’s political “old guard.”

A veteran political activist who helped run several of Marion Barry’s mayoral campaigns, Bonds worked for Mayors Sharon Pratt and Anthony A. Williams, and has led the local party since 2006. She has touted her long history in city politics on the campaign trail. In mailings to voters and in a news conference Monday, the 67-year-old Bloomingdale resident has promoted her endorsements from six council members and several Democratic Party groups.

“I don’t think because you are a long-term resident, that you are somehow discounted,” Bonds said. “I’ve always been about good government, building coalitions.”

But critics point out that Bonds has failed to draft any legislation since she joined the council. And she ran into controversy last week when, during a radio appearance, she responded to a question about the racial makeup of the council by saying the body “should be representative of the people who live in the District of Columbia,” which is approximately half African American.

Bonds has sought to smooth over the remarks in recent appearances. “I really need every vote I can get, irrespective of where it comes from,” she said Monday.

Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd, an author and activist, is also in the race.

“This is your opportunity to do it differently and get it right,” Redd told voters at a forum Wednesday in Capitol Hill.

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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