No clear front-runner in D.C. Council special election

A try-and-try again Republican, a lawyer seeking to legalize pot, a party-changing former council member, an incumbent Democratic insider, a reporter turned think-tank analyst, a former State Department official and a local activist.

With six weeks to go before next month’s D.C. Council special election, there’s no clear front-runner among the seven candidates vying for an at-large seat. It may come down to the ground games as political veterans and newcomers scramble in a contest that could be decided by a few hundred votes.

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“It’s wide open, and I think they are all viable,” said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who was first elected in 1991. “You have five people who could win this race.”

As in past citywide elections, education and affordable housing are major issues in the competition to fill the seat vacated when Phil Mendelson became council chairman. But population growth is also attracting attention as candidates debate how the city should absorb new residents.

The special election — the sixth citywide contest in three years — is expected to generate low turnout, and it presents an opportunity for Patrick Mara to become the first Republican to win a council seat since 2004.

The April 23 election also could lead to the D.C. Council’s having a record eight white members, underscoring demographic shifts in the District. And another woman could be elected to the council as Democrats Anita Bonds and Elissa Silverman compete after several years in which men have dominated citywide elections.

The race has Michael A. Brown attempting a comeback after his ouster from the council last year, and it features a debate over marijuana decriminalization because lawyer Paul Zukerberg has made that issue a campaign centerpiece.

At the near-nightly forums throughout the District, much of the debate has centered on the candidates’ positions on growth and transportation, including bike lanes, parking tickets and speed cameras. At a recent Ward 3 forum, candidates were asked whether the District is engaging in a “war on cars” by boosting traffic fines and designating bike lanes to encourage cycling.

“I agree, there is a war on cars, and I don’t understand why a city with a progressive nature wouldn’t come with a more balanced approach,” said Perry Redd, 48, the Statehood Green Party candidate.

“I think it’s important we not have a war,” said Zukerberg, 55, a Democrat. “I’m worried about the ‘war rhetoric’ because . . . we should all share the road.”

With about 50,000 voters expected at the polls, several candidates said they expect to win with as few as 10,000 votes. That’s one reason city GOP leaders hope to get many of the city’s 31,000 registered Republicans to the polls.

Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, also emphasized efforts to get out the vote. “I don’t think a lot of people out there are waiting to make up their minds about the candidates,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of these candidates having connections, and it just comes down to a good, solid ground game.”

Each candidate claims to have a superior campaign, but new finance reports suggest that they do not all have the resources to fund a competitive effort. According to documents filed with the Office of Campaign Finance, Democrat Matthew Frumin reported $97,000 in the bank, including $20,000 in personal loans he has made to the campaign. Frumin, a Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner, has about twice as much in the bank as his three closest rivals — Mara ($53,000), Silverman ($47,000) and Bonds ($46,000).

Frumin’s money advantage could be a red flag for Bonds, 67, who is running with support from the city Democratic establishment. In December, the D.C. Democratic State Committee selected Bonds, the local party’s longtime chairwoman, to fill the seat pending the election.

If elected, Bonds said, she will work to cut taxes for seniors and build more affordable housing. “I am the compassionate candidate in this race,” Bonds said.

Mara, 38, is mounting his third council bid in five years. Mara, a business consultant who used to lobby on Capitol Hill, said he is a socially progressive, fiscally moderate Republican who wants to keep an eye on the council’s Democratic majority and advocate for education.

“I understand education in the District more than anyone else running in this race,” Mara said.

In his unsuccessful bid last year, Mara racked up big margins in wealthy, majority-white areas of Northwest Washington, the quadrant with the city’s highest concentration of Republicans. But he could find less support there this year because Frumin and Silverman are aggressively competing for support in those communities.

Frumin, who worked as a State Department official in the Clinton administration, became active in city affairs in 2008 when he became a leader in the Wilson High School modernization project. He says the city needs to work harder to maintain “cultural diversity” even as it grows whiter and wealthier.

“We need to focus on strengthening communities, which means schools, which means affordable housing, which means the right kind of development,” said Frumin, 53.

Silverman, 40, a former Washington City Paper and Washington Post reporter, is on leave from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, a progressive think tank. She is making a first run for office, but observers said she has received diverse support that could help her overcome a lack of name recognition.

“I’m running as a candidate who believes in sensible, reasonable approaches to public policy,” Silverman said. “I have purposely tried not to be labeled, because I think that is part of our problem in the city: Everyone has a label.”

Meanwhile, Brown is running as a Democrat, only months after his bid for reelection to an at-large council seat as an independent candidate was thwarted by another independent, David A. Grosso. More than $100,000 disappeared from Brown’s campaign last year, and Grosso contended that it fit a pattern of missteps, including past failures to pay bills on time and five suspensions of his driver’s license in eight years.

Brown said he has been cleared by the campaign finance office in the matter of the missing funds. He also said he is needed on the council to continue his work on jobs and affordable housing. “I was unjustly smeared . . . and I have a lot of unfinished business,” Brown said.

Brown and Bonds, who along with Redd are the black candidates in the race, share the same base in the eastern part of the city. Bonds said she thinks voters still have questions about Brown’s character. “It’s not just one thing. It’s a lifestyle that voters may take issue with,” Bonds said.

Former council member William P. Lightfoot said the race could turn on how Frumin spends his money, which parts of the city turn out the most voters or whether voters who do turn out think the council is representative of the city as a whole. “The history of this town is, it’s going to be a very small turnout,” Lightfoot said. “The history of this town is also there will be a group of people who will vote no matter what.”

 
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