Economic Crunch Dominates Race For At-Large Seats

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Most candidates in the race for an at-large seat on the D.C. Council are shooting for second place Nov. 4.

The Home Rule charter requires one of the two at-large seats on the ballot this year to go to someone who is not a member of the majority party. In a city in which 74 percent of registered voters are Democrats, the six non-Democrats have essentially forfeited a first-place finish to incumbent Kwame R. Brown (D).

Each is vying for second place with a message about how to help the District get through tough economic times.

Like the rest of the country, the District is tightening its belt. It faces a $131 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2009 and a $30 million budget overrun for this summer's youth jobs program. In addition, $48 million has been embezzled from the Office of Tax and Revenue.

The city is also grappling with such issues as how to help the chronically homeless and mandating employers to provide paid sick leave to workers.

"Just a couple of years ago, education was far and away the most important issue," pollster Ron Lester said. "But it has been overtaken by the economy."

The personal struggle with finances will probably affect the city's revenue stream, Lester said. "People don't have the kind of disposable income . . . to go downtown. It could have an effect on bars and restaurants, entertainment venues."

The candidates have painted the town with signs, including yellow ones for Republican incumbent Carol Schwartz, teal for independent Mark Long and, of course, green for the Statehood Green's David Schwartzman. The race is rounded out by independents Michael A. Brown and Dee Hunter and Republican Patrick Mara, who defeated Schwartz in their party's primary Sept. 9. Kwame Brown ran unopposed in the Democratic primary as Schwartzman did in the Statehood Green primary. The general election is complicated. Michael Brown, Long and Hunter, who are actually Democrats, entered the race as independents to avoid having to take on Kwame Brown in the primary, and Schwartz has launched a write-in campaign. At a debate that several candidates said was the first time they had all been in one room together, the first question focused on how they would handle the city's financial crunch.

Patrick Mara

Patrick Mara, a 33-year-old government relations manager who lives in Columbia Heights, jumped into local politics this year after spending much of his time on Capitol Hill, including a stint in the office of Sen. John H. Chafee (R), who represented his home state of Rhode Island.

With a targeted door-knocking campaign and a financial boost from local business leaders, Mara won 59 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, in which he accused Carol Schwartz of abandoning her party roots.

His campaign materials highlighted his post as an alternate delegate for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, at their party's national convention. With Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic presidential nominee, expected to win overwhelmingly in the District, Mara isn't quick to put McCain on his résumé when speaking to potential voters.

But he continues to push the agenda of what he calls an "urban Republican," focusing on improved education and "fiscal responsibility."

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