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Sweeping the Red Out of Our Region

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Slowly but surely, voters in the Washington area are purging Republicans from the ranks of local government.

After eight years of an unpopular president and five years of a war most people believe was launched under false pretenses, voters in the District, Maryland and Virginia are taking out their anger on the GOP.

The search-and-destroy mission is nearly complete. While Democrats have long held an advantage in state and local government, until recently both parties claimed their share of victories. Now, though, Democrats have a near monopoly on power in Washington and the close-in suburbs.

Consider:

· In the District, the GOP once occupied two seats on the D.C. Council, but next month that number drops to zero. That's because Carol Schwartz, a fixture of D.C. politics since the Ford years, just lost her write-in bid, a campaign necessitated by her primary loss to Patrick Mara. David Catania, elected as a Republican in 1997, remains on the council, where he is a leading advocate of health care for the poor. But he is an independent now, having switched parties in 2004 to protest President Bush's opposition to marriage equality.

· In Maryland, Rep. Connie Morella, a skillful, conscientious politician, was ousted in 2002 by an electorate that held her in high regard even at the end. The always-charming Morella voted with Democrats often, never mentioned party in her campaign literature, provided great constituent service and voted "present" rather than support Newt Gingrich's bid to remain House speaker. Still, voters showed her the door.

· Other Maryland Republicans in the Morella mold have met a similar fate in recent years, including Jean Cryor, who lost her seat in the House of Delegates, and Howard Denis and Nancy Dacek, former members of the Montgomery County Council. As a state senator, Denis once delivered an impassioned speech against a bill to make English the official language of Maryland. Cryor served on a commission that advocated an increase in funding for underperforming school systems. And many of Dacek's top supporters were Democrats. But despite middle-of-the-road credentials, all three were defeated by voters who had reelected them many times before.

· Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was popular when he ran for reelection two years ago, but he was no match for the anti-Republican tide in 2006. His running mate, Michael Steele, still calls Prince George's County home, but no one with an "R" next to his or her name stands a chance of winning office there.

· In Virginia, the Republican Party just lost the House seat held by Tom Davis since 1995 and the Senate seat occupied by John Warner since 1979. Now both Davis and his wife are out of politics. Last year, state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, a pragmatic moderate like her husband, got bounced -- a victim of voter frustration with the do-nothing-on-transportation legislature and voters' desire to send a political message.

· State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, not a moderate, almost suffered the fate of Jeannemarie Devolites Davis in Fairfax, but Landslide Ken was able to eke out a 101-vote victory over a school board member who did not run a strong campaign.

· Only two of 10 members of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors are Republicans. The last GOP member of the Arlington County Board, Michael Lane, won a special election in early 1999 but couldn't persuade voters to reelect him in 2000. The Alexandria City Council hasn't had a Republican since 2003.

So should local Democrats be happy? Perhaps, but there's peril in this approach. Having watched politicians of all stripes at close range for two decades, I can tell you the system works best when there are checks on government power. Journalists and citizen-activists do their best to shine a spotlight on fraud, incompetence and cronyism, but we don't have the access to information that elected leaders have. Also, the mere presence of members of the opposition party in the corridors of power acts as a check against abuse. In addition, there are times when local leaders need something from the state or federal government. Being able to deploy members of both parties in the lobbying effort can help open doors.

While the current situation is bleak for the GOP locally, it won't be permanent, because nothing in politics is. But it may take some time for voters to get over their anger. Republicans are going to need the right issues, a new generation of attractive candidates and some luck. Until that day comes, the Democrats are large and in charge.

-- Bruce DePuyt

Washington

The writer is host of "NewsTalk" on NewsChannel 8. He has covered local politics since the late 1980s.

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