Primary Pits Schwartz In a GOP Showdown

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Democrats dominate politics in the District, but the race to watch in next Tuesday's primary is on the GOP side of the ballot. Veteran Carol Schwartz, the only Republican on the D.C. Council, faces an aggressive, well-funded challenge from a young former congressional staffer who says Schwartz has strayed too far from Republican principles.

Patrick Mara, a former staff member for the late Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), arguably is Schwartz's biggest primary challenger since her defeat of incumbent Jerry Moore in 1984.

"I realized this person on the council was not representative of core urban Republican values," said Mara, 32, describing his decision to run.

Schwartz, 64, is taking the race to retain her at-large seat seriously. She has lent money to her campaign and for the first time has hired professionals to help prepare campaign materials rather than relying on homemade products. Mainly, though, she is counting on support built through more than three decades in District politics.

"I have a history, a good history," she said.

That support was evident one recent day when Schwartz could hardly make it down U Street for all the well-wishers. "Carol!" a man yelled, flashing a thumbs-up. People blasted their car horns, and others waved as they recognized her.

Schwartz waved back and soaked it all in. She has made a career out of being the council's contrarian, a fiscal watchdog and nemesis of former mayor Marion Barry -- and now of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. She has prided herself, too, on being a voice for all kinds of people, regardless of race or politics.

At her campaign headquarters, which overlooks U, the famous corridor in the historic Shaw neighborhood, Schwartz greeted her half-dozen volunteers. They were busy trying to salvage what they could from old campaign posters by cutting the dates off the bottoms. Strips of bright yellow poster board were on a table. "Nov. 7," they read.

"I never waste anything," Schwartz said. Also, with the election weeks away, they were still waiting for new posters. The posters being cut were from 2000, when Schwartz defeated five other candidates, capturing 29 percent of the vote in the general election. It was enough then to retain her at-large seat in a Democratic-dominated city where the GOP accounts for 7 percent of the electorate.

Schwartz did even better in 1994, getting 42 percent of the vote in her unsuccessful mayoral bid against Barry.

But not everyone is impressed by Schwartz's longtime might as a Republican in a Democratic town. Mara is trying to turn that popularity against Schwartz. He notes Schwartz's endorsement of Democrats in past elections, her Democratic staff (seven out of eight are Democrats) and her support of legislation that he calls "anti-business."

Schwartz, he said, has gotten a pass all these years from Republican voters. "They know she has an 'R' by her name and she ran against Marion Barry for mayor," he said.

Mara, an alternate delegate for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has been knocking on doors and getting the financial backing of major developers and business people who aren't happy with Schwartz. He has matched her dollar for dollar, with both marshaling more than $100,000.

With Mara getting a big hand from the business community, Schwartz has lent her campaign $40,000. Schwartz said she has lent money to her campaigns before. She said she might not raise enough to pay herself back this time. That would be a first.

There is another first: Schwartz has enlisted the help of professionals to assist her in crafting campaign materials.

She entered political life in 1974, when she won a school board seat. In the past, she has made her own leaflets and letters, with no gloss and little oomph. "This time, there's a designer, but the wording is mine, most of the wording is mine. I want it to be absolutely accurate," she said.

The contest worries the D.C. Republican Committee. The group, long the underdogs of Washington despite a Republican president, has endorsed Schwartz.

Paul Craney, the party's executive director, questions who is supporting Mara. Parking magnates and developers, as well as other business people, have pumped $1,000 checks into Mara's coffers. Citizens for Empowerment, a political action committee operating with $100,000 in contributions from Miller & Long Construction and the engineering firm M.C. Dean, has sent out anti-Schwartz mailings.

One glossy four-page ad criticizes her endorsement from "big labor," tax increases she has supported and her opposition to open meetings. The business community's interest in helping Mara has stirred a conspiracy theory, said Craney: "Is this support for Patrick Mara or is it against Carol Schwartz? Are they trying to knock off the last Republican in office?"

Privately, some of the city's political operatives are already talking about the "what if," mainly about which independent candidate to back in the general election should Mara defeat Schwartz. The District's home rule law requires two of the four at-large council members to be of a minority party. That's a non-Democrat. Through the years, that has meant independents, Statehood Greens and Republicans.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could win the general," Mara said.

Schwartz said she has made enemies in the business community in recent years, particularly this year, when she pushed the Accrued Sick and Safe Leave Act. The bill, unanimously approved by the council, requires businesses to give paid sick days to workers. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce aggressively lobbied against the legislation. The chamber and the Greater Washington Board of Trade have endorsed Mara. Schwartz's support of the legislation, however, won her the enthusiastic endorsement of the Service Employees International Union.

Schwartz said developers have turned against her because of her proposed legislation that could significantly curb the sale of public property to private developers.

"I really think our assets are our assets. When they're gone, they're gone," she said.

Brett McMahon, a vice president at Miller & Long and treasurer of Citizens for Empowerment, said there is no interest in plotting to get Republicans out of office, just Schwartz. "We should have one real Republican to bring some insight," said McMahon, who lives in Maryland and is a registered Republican.

Schwartz used to be supportive of business interests, but she has changed, as many incumbents do, he said.

"They're up there so long, they forget who brought them to the dance. . . . Sick and Safe Leave is just the straw that broke the camel's back."

McMahon, 41, added that his contingent of developers and construction firms consider themselves employers and that many were born in the District. "It is our town," he said, adding that Schwartz's opposition to the schools takeover has been his group's biggest concern.

Mara says he would "cut taxes, improve our schools, keep our neighborhoods safe."

The oldest of two boys, Mara was reared in Rhode Island, where his mother was a school librarian and his father worked for IBM. He said he was a Boy Scout and a do-gooder, volunteering at soup kitchens and helping with the Special Olympics. "For some reason, I felt the need to be involved in the community," he said.

At Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Mara was student body president and began visiting the District, where he moved to work for Chafee. He took a job at the government consulting firm ML Strategies and has lived in Foggy Bottom, on Capitol Hill and in Columbia Heights, where he bought a house in 2004.

Like many Republicans, he said, he has been removed from local, Democratic-centric politics.

"I always wanted to run for D.C. Council. Obviously, as a Republican, it's a pretty tall mountain to climb," he said.

Now he's trying to do it one Republican at a time. His door-to-door campaign is focused on wards 2, 3 and 6, where most of the city's 29,008 Republicans live. But looking ahead to November, Mara has canvassed in other wards, too, he said.

He also said he has continued his volunteer work, serving as a mentor to students at Banneker, Ballou and Woodson high schools.

It's the kind of volunteerism that first endeared Schwartz to District residents.

She grew up in Midland, Tex., one of two children of working-class but highly educated parents. The couple eventually became owners of a shoe store. Schwartz had an older brother with special needs. They were non-practicing Jews, she said. But the anti-Semitism and living on a poorer side of town in Midland, where Schwartz said Christianity and cattle were king, got her uninvited to slumber parties and meant many a canceled date in high school. Prejudiced parents would often keep their children away.

Still, Schwartz said she managed to win over her classmates, was elected homeroom president in sixth grade and nominated for Cattle, Oil and Cotton Queen. After high school, she went to the University of Texas at Austin and majored in special education, inspired by her brother. There, she joined Alpha Epsilon Phi, a Jewish sorority that taught her about the religion.

She moved to the District on her 22nd birthday, later met her husband through a friend and married him four months after they were introduced.

Her husband, David H. Schwartz, a successful lawyer, went to work for the council in 1970. He returned to private practice, but Carol Schwartz, who was a special education teacher, liked public service and in 1974 was elected to the school board.

In 1988, her husband committed suicide, and Schwartz, a mother of three, decided to leave public life for a while.

Today, she said, she feels at home in the John A. Wilson Building and in the Republican Party.

"I'm a fiscal conservative. Always have been, always will be," she said. "Socially, I'm certainly a moderate to liberal. . . . I feel very comfortable in the Republican Party."

Elsie Smith, a Democrat and a campaign volunteer who has known Schwartz since the 1970s, said the city would be at a loss without Schwartz. "It's absolutely crucial," she said of Schwartz winning the election. "Carol is a very dedicated council member. . . . She knows the city. She knows the people. The people know her and love her."

What about running as an independent in the general? What if?

"People have asked me about that," she said. "It has crossed my mind."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company