Patrick Mara faces critics in D.C. Council bid


Patrick Mara responds to a question at Promised Land Baptist Church in March during a debate for an open D.C. council seat. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
April 3, 2013

Republican Patrick Mara likes his chances.

One of six candidates in the April 23 D.C. Council election, Mara has been endorsed by both the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and the local Sierra Club in his third bid for an at-large seat.

The support, from two groups that often clash, underscores Mara’s early success in cobbling together a coalition in a race with relatively unknown candidates.

“I am going to be the member of the council who’s able to buck the tide,” said Mara, 38, who promises to improve education and control spending and taxes. “Being a Republican, socially progressive, moderate Republican, is really the greatest form of independence on the D.C. Council.”

Despite his confidence, Mara faces a strong headwind in a Democratic city as he fights back critics and the perception that his party is hostile to African Americans, gays and the poor. Mara, who is running against four Democrats and a Statehood Green candidate, must also overcome division within the GOP over his candidacy.

“There are a lot of people in the party who question whether he’s a team player,” said Mary Brooks Beatty, who was the GOP nominee in last year’s at-large race but now supports Democrat Matthew Frumin. “I am looking at Matt Frumin as someone who has really served his community, and I don’t see that with Pat. I think he has been all about his personal ambitions.”

A former Capitol Hill staffer turned lobbyist, Mara left his firm in 2008 and became a business development consultant. He would name only one of his clients, a now-defunct wind turbine company.

Mara said much of his income is derived from selling political and sports memorabilia on eBay, including a “Rick Santorum virtual tie” and a “1997 New England Patriots Football Media Guide.”

Mara, who sold his share of a Columbia Heights restaurant this year, remains active in national GOP politics, serving as a delegate for Mitt Romney at last year’s Republican National Convention. And with city Republicans facing their best chance to win a council seat since 2004, Democrats are more deeply scrutinizing Mara’s record.

“Someone should ask him, ‘What have you done for the people of the District?’ ” asked Peter Rosenstein, a local Democratic activist and columnist. “And the answer is nothing. It’s all talk.”

Mara largely dismisses the criticism, noting that he finished second in a nine-person race two years ago, losing to council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) by only 1,700 votes. Mara said he is confident that voters will sift through the rhetoric and focus on his record.

“Since 2011, when I came in a very close second, people have had an opportunity to get to know me better and, quite frankly, I have been active everywhere,” Mara said.

Mara, who grew up in Rhode Island, came to the District in 1997 to work for then-Sen. John Chafee on the Committee on Environment and Public Works. Chafee was a liberal Republican from Rhode Island, and Mara said he specialized in clean air, alternative fuel issues and the Endangered Species Act, work cited by the Sierra Club in its endorsement.

He left Chafee’s office in 1999 and began working as a lobbyist for ML Strategies in 2001.

According to congressional disclosure reports, Mara had more than a dozen clients, including AT&T, Exxon Mobil, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and Sallie Mae. He also was listed as a lobbyist for Las Vegas-based Station Casino and Wall Street heavyweight Goldman Sachs.

Mara said he lobbied on clean-
technology issues for Goldman Sachs but denies working for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Station Casino, Sallie Mae or Exxon Mobil. He said his firm improperly listed those on his disclosure reports out of caution because it employed dozens of lobbyists who often shared clients.

“At firms like this, everybody may kind of chip in a little bit or a lot or not at all,” Mara said.

Under federal law, lobbyists must disclose clients for whom they devote at least 20 percent of their work time. Viveca Novak, a spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it would be unusual for companies to be listed as clients on Mara’s disclosure form without him having done some of the work.

Mara quit lobbying in fall 2008, shortly after he challenged former council member Carol Schwartz in the GOP primary. Earlier that year, Schwartz had pushed through a bill requiring paid sick leave for most workers in the city, prompting Mara to run against her with the support of business groups and council member David A. Catania (I-At Large).

Mara won the primary but lost the general election to former council member Michael A. Brown, who was defeated last year.

Mara continues to have the support of the D.C. Republican Committee, but his race against Schwartz left deep scars. Schwartz said in an interview that she won’t support Mara in the special election, recounting the attacks against her.

“Aside from his ending my service on the council, Mara waged the most mean-spirited, mendacious campaign in memory, largely funded with unlimited PAC money by people who opposed the modicum of sick leave for workers I enacted that year,” said Schwartz, who added that Mara’s past campaign tactics “speak volumes” about his “judgment and ethics, or lack thereof.”

Beatty, a former Ward 6 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, said she soured on Mara after he hesitated to support her campaign last year. Another high-profile D.C. Republican, former Ward 5 council candidate Tim Day, is working to defeat Mara this year.

In an interview, Mara said his GOP detractors are jealous that he has outperformed them in recent elections.

“They are good people, but they came up short, so I think they are just a little aggravated by that,” he said.

Mara is also facing fire from Democrats, who say he’s too close to the national Republican Party.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Mara donated $999 to Romney last year, and contributed to the presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and George W. Bush. And in 2008, Mara boasted that he signed Grover Norquist’s controversial antitax pledge.

Several Democratic candidates, including council member Anita Bonds (At Large) and former journalist Elissa Silverman, have sought to make Mara’s ties to national Republicans an issue in the race. Democrat Paul Zukerberg and Statehood Green Party candidate Perry Redd are running to the left of Mara in a city with 10-1 Democratic registration.

But Mara is asking voters to instead look at his record, including his service on the school board.

Although the board’s power is limited, Mara said he’s been working to bolster graduation standards and to ensure that parents have a choice between public and charter schools.

Several members of the board, which is nonpartisan but dominated by Democrats, said they have been impressed with Mara’s service.

“Pat is a Republican, but you would never know that sitting with him on the dais,” said former board president Ted Trabue. “Pat always did his homework.”

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.
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