Final Push For Council Highlights D.C. Rivalry

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008

Candidates in the contentious contest for two at-large seats on the D.C. Council crisscrossed the city yesterday to make a last pitch to voters in a race that has become the latest skirmish in the power struggle between Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and council Chairman Vincent C. Gray.

The race puts six candidates -- Democratic incumbent Kwame R. Brown, Republican Patrick Mara, Statehood Green David Schwartzman and independents Michael A. Brown, Dee Hunter and Mark Long -- on the ballot. Meanwhile, council member Carol Schwartz (R), who lost the GOP primary in September, is waging a write-in campaign to capture a fifth term.

Two candidates will be elected, and under the Home Rule Charter, one of the seats must go to a non-Democrat. In the Democratic-dominated city, Kwame Brown, popular with constituents and among his colleagues, is considered a safe bet for a second term, leaving the other candidates vying for that second seat.

Michael Brown, Mara and Schwartz have emerged as front-runners in terms of endorsements and campaign financing, and their competition has grown more frenetic in the race's final days.

Schwartz, 64, whose popularity has crossed racial and party lines, spent yesterday on a grocery store tour that wound through five wards, including stops at a Safeway in Ward 7 and a Whole Foods in Ward 3. Brown, 43, a three-time candidate and the son of the late U.S. secretary of commerce Ron Brown, went on a church circuit, gripping the hands of parishioners. Mara, a 33-year-old former staffer to the late senator John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), went to a Mass in Ward 7 and then canvassed in wards 2, 3 and 6.

The election, according to political observers, hinges on the organization and influence of Democrats Gray and Fenty.

Last week, Gray announced that he would endorse Brown, breaking a council code that dissuades members from supporting candidates against incumbents. Gray has been joined by council members Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).

Schwartz later announced that she had endorsements from members Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). Political chatter also places Fenty in her camp. Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, has said the mayor is staying out of the race.

Even so, Fenty's political operatives are working for Schwartz. Bowser, who is also up for reelection, said she planned to put her volunteers to work for Schwartz. Bowser's base, however, is interchangeable with Fenty's base.

Meanwhile, Mara has been endorsed by council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), a former Republican with whom Schwartz has had a rocky relationship.

Gray and Fenty are reaching the two-year mark in their tenures as the city's top elected officials. They have disagreed on budget and education issues. The ability to round up council votes is critical for each. Gray, a former Ward 7 council member, is acquiring a reputation for getting most of his council members to agree with him on major issues. A Michael Brown win could shore up an anti-Fenty voting bloc.

If Brown loses, Gray will have spent political capital that in the long run could cost him in stature because his endorsement would not have delivered a win.

The various divisions promise to create an odd scene at the polls on Tuesday since all of the council members except Schwartz have also endorsed Kwame Brown. Yesterday, he said he thinks council members simply made individual decisions based on relationships and beliefs. "I think we have a collegial council. At the end of the day, people will pull together," he said.

Gray also played down the rival endorsements, saying they were isolated to the at-large contest. "We'll continue to work together," he said. "A lot of our votes are unanimous or near unanimous. When this is over, people will go on to the next issue."

On Election Day, Gray will roam the polls around the city on behalf of Michael Brown. He said he met with all of the candidates except Schwartzman before making a decision to support Brown, who he said has the Democratic ideals he wants on the council. Brown, Hunter and Long are all Democrats turned independent.

Schwartz has not revealed the mechanics of her write-in campaign, in which voters must not only write her in but also connect an arrow on the ballot.

She said she is also fighting underhanded campaign tactics, pointing to Mara's campaign literature that features a photo of him and Fenty and looks like an endorsement at first glance. "The public needs to be aware that the mayor has not endorsed anyone," she said.

Mara said the literature is legitimate. "What the photo says is that I support the mayor's efforts to reform the schools," he said.

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