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Why Schwartz Runs: 'I Have No Choice'

By R.H. Melton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 1994; Page B01

She is subsisting on four hours of sleep nightly, struggling against a lingering case of bronchitis, and when her mood turns dark, as it sometimes does these days, Carol Schwartz confronts the awful arithmetic of running for D.C. mayor against her old nemesis, Marion Barry.

"I can count the numbers," sighs the candidate whom Barry trounced in 1986, the third time he ran for mayor. "I mean, I happen to know I'm a white, Jewish Republican who lives in Ward 3. ... I have a complete life separate and apart from all this. I don't need this job. I don't need it for my ego. I don't need the money. I don't need the power. I have a trillion friends who love me, who adore me all the time."

So why attempt the seemingly impossible, to become, finally, a mere footnote to Barry's astonishing comeback, to reprise the loss of '86, when he rolled up a victory margin of nearly 2 to 1?

"I can't see this city go down the tubes, it hurts me," Schwartz says in a voice that is part Bacall, part Abzug. "Everybody knows this is what gets me up in the morning. This is what fires me up."

And then: "Everybody that knows me really well knows that I have no choice. This was not a free-will decision here."

If any politician were entitled to confuse destiny with ego, that person would be Schwartz, who has experienced more heartache than a lot of other 50-year-olds on the planet. When she talks about her love of Washington's beauty, her many good works as a volunteer all over town, or the hazards of returning Barry to office, the former member of the D.C. school board and D.C. Council does so with a full-throated vehemence born of long struggles against the odds.

She has endured her husband's suicide and the taunts of those who see her only widening the divides between rich and poor and black and white in the nation's capital. Life has made her outwardly tough and given her a wide and diverse set of friends, but it has also left her a bit bruised, those friends say.

Her campaign today is all about self-reliance and her own vast energy: It was Schwartz, after all, who came up with the idea of splashing just "CAROL" across her distinctive yellow posters; Schwartz who drives herself to campaign events; Schwartz who writes the speeches and brochures; Schwartz who acts as campaign manager, setting the day-to-day rhythm of this longest of long shots.

There is none of the Barry swagger, no imperial entourage to the one-woman whirlwind tour of the District that will end in three weeks, on Nov. 8. Some of her supporters fear she won't capture even 40 percent of the vote. Schwartz says the final margin be damned: Let's get in Marion's face and pray for a lot more free exposure by the news media.

"I'm loving every minute of it, other than the media frustration," she says. "I'm going to deal with Marion Barry's record. His handicap is his record."

Barry and Schwartz have performed an odd duet in the month since he secured the Democratic nomination, a vital victory in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1. Toward her he is generally polite, occasionally even courtly and gracious.

Even so, Barry is quite cocksure about the final result, telling reporters the transition to a new administration began the day after the primary. And he's dismissive. Asked the other day how strong a competitor Schwartz is, Barry replied: "When all is said and done, we're going to get the great majority of the vote, regardless of what kind of competitor she is."

The Outsider

Her only peer in town as a campaigner is Barry himself, and what he has in suave she has in hustle. She is fearless in pursuit of votes, shaking any hand, embracing any stranger, eating any mystery meatburger if it helps her get a smidgen closer to a voter. There's also still a bit of the strong-willed high school teacher in Schwartz -- lecturing, hectoring, hugging, calling people "Honey" with affection as often as anger.

The weekend before last, on that glorious Saturday, Schwartz waded into a block party in a drug-ravaged corner of Petworth in Northeast, past the two Barry posters in the window of Powell's Barber Shop, around a foursome playing cards ("We know who you are, Carol," grumped one), around a microphone positioned directly across from a house where someone had slapped on a bright green Barry bumper sticker. She asked one woman to consider voting for her, and the woman guffawed, saying, "Oh, I'll be voting for someone, all right!" But the two shook hands, and Schwartz moved on to the next prospect.

"I can't make the call on who's going to win here," said neighborhood activist Joanne Thomas. "Marion is strong, but I think {D.C. Council member John} Ray was stronger. People are quiet right now."

They were anything but quiet three hours later across town at a fund-raising fair on the grounds of Grace Episcopal Church, where lifelong members of the New Deal generation grabbed eagerly for their free "Democrats for Carol" lapel stickers. Pam Moffat told Schwartz excitedly about sending her some money, the first contribution of Moffat's life. And Frank Haendler, a retired U.S. government employee and another lifelong Democrat, looked astonished as he told everyone within earshot that Schwartz would be the first Republican he had ever voted for.

For all of her avowed enthusiasm, there is a certain defensiveness, an insecurity, about Schwartz, both on the stump and off, a need to remind people how extensive her public and private resumes are.

Cornelius Baker, one of her closest friends, said, "People don't take time to recognize the vulnerability of this woman who appears tough.

"She is extremely compassionate, she's out there going every place to help people, and yet when the public discovers that, it's in a rejecting way -- that she's white, Republican, Ward 3," Baker said.

Not that she hasn't been to those places before.

She grew up an outsider in a small town in west Texas. "She has experienced life as a Jew," said Baker. "She has experienced life as the younger sister of a mentally retarded brother who she's had to protect. She's felt all of the little slights: 'You're brunet, not blond, and heftier, not slim and thin.' As a good person does, she's taken these life experiences and come to a set of core values."

Complaining one day to a Washington Post reporter about where the newspaper had played a story about her campaign, Schwartz grew visibly upset about the unequal treatment accorded her and Barry.

"I am living on no sleep," she said. "I am running my campaign. I am doing a good job of all of those things on four hours sleep, night after night. I get out in the media and on forums. I'm not falling apart on anybody. But it is frustrating."

Later, reflecting on her in-your-face style of politicking -- the lecturing, the arguing, the returning to a point time and again -- she said, "Part of me is that teacher" of long ago.

Teaching, special education to be exact, was one of Schwartz's first jobs after she made it out of Texas and settled in Washington with her husband, David, a lawyer she had met on a blind date. In 1974, her love of the classroom and instruction helped propel her to a seat on the D.C. Board of Education from Ward 3.

Betty Ann Kane, a Democrat who first met Schwartz in that campaign when she was running for Barry's old at-large seat on the school board, said her Republican friend showed from the beginning the traits on display today.

"She was energetic, she ran her own campaign, she knew what she was doing," Kane said. "We had a lot in common. We were concerned about controlling expenditures, the need for parental involvement, the value of small schools."

The 30-year-old newcomer to city politics had a good run on the board, rising to vice president and staying in the thick of the battles over the direction of education in the city. To this day, she wears the fact that her children attended public schools like a badge of honor.

"Most people looked at me like I should have been taken in to the Society for Abused Children," she said. "I felt very strongly, if those of us who are committed to our city don't commit ourselves to the public schools, then who's supposed to?

"That's why it's always been so ironic, you know, me, this Republican, this 'weird' Republican. How many liberal Democrats do you know who have committed their children to where their mouths are?"

In time, Schwartz and Kane wanted to move up the ladder, and in the constricted world of Washington politics, that meant jumping to the D.C. Council. Kane went in 1978; Schwartz followed in 1984, and the two charted independent courses as budget hawks doing battle with a council majority that saw political dividends in fat budgets and hefty bureaucracies.

"Had I been listened to, we wouldn't be where we are today, with all this financial chaos and deficits," Schwartz said.

Tragedy and Renewal

Schwartz turned 44 on Jan. 20, 1988, a year and two months after she had lost the mayor's race to Barry. That had been midway through her council term, and she says today she never expected to win more than 10 percent of the vote against a mayor then at the height of his powers of incumbency. In fact, she captured 33 percent, demolishing Barry in affluent and largely white Ward 3, a result that highlighted like never before a growing divide along lines of race and class.

David Schwartz, a prominent real estate lawyer and man of blazing intellect, had helped coordinate that campaign, just as he had her bids for school board and D.C. Council. The Schwartzes had taken the loss hard; his mother had died recently, as had hers.

David Schwartz was also suffering depression and on that winter morning of his wife's birthday, he left their home in Northwest, went to a nearby wooded area and shot himself. Two handguns, one in his hand and another in his pocket, were found. So was a brief note in which he said he was sorry. More than 1,000 people attended his memorial service.

It was the start, Carol Schwartz says today, of a "pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty awful" time for her and the children, then ages 19, 18 and 16.

"It was devastating on so many levels for Carol," said Tay Hahn, a friend of 27 years. "Her children were not doing too well. She had to heal her family. She was able to use close friends, but it took its toll on them."

"It was terrible," said David J. Myerson, David Schwartz's best friend who had been on that blind date back in 1966.

"One of the things that she did when she lost David, she turned her attention to the impact it would have on her kids. Here was this outgoing lady wondering, 'How can I help them? How can I provide for them?' "

It was all too much, and time to reorder things. So, in early June of 1988, saying her "thick skin" had been "rubbed raw" by personal tragedy, Schwartz announced her retirement from the council.

She did not, however, retire from life. She concentrated on healing herself and her family, leaning on her huge circle of friends and devoting long hours in volunteer causes, which now include the Whitman-Walker Clinic, the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs and a Kennedy Center outreach program, just to name a few.

She joined the 32-member Whitman-Walker board shortly after her husband died, and Executive Director Jim Graham says Schwartz has been a "major contributor" to the city's leading program in the fight against AIDS.

"She speaks her mind and she's not afraid of being controversial," Graham said. "She brings a lot of candor to our deliberations."

Kane, who shared a Rehoboth Beach condo with Schwartz that year and the next, saw her regain her emotional strength step by step. Hahn agreed: "That family is all recovered. She's got her energy and vitality back."

A few months ago, with her kids grown and her house suddenly too big, Schwartz began thinking about "downsizing my life" and thought for one brief moment about relocating to the suburbs. "Even having that thought come into my head scared me to death," she recalled.

It was a realization that she couldn't walk away from a city where she had built a life, a family and a career based on 20 years trying to make things better. And with that, the second Schwartz campaign was born.

Up Against the Odds

Schwartz talks very little about her brand of moderate Republicanism. "People don't look at me and think, 'Republican!' " she said. "They look at me as an individual. It's just the media that looks at me and just, you know, thinks I need to have a big R on my forehead."

She says the sexism out there, made all the worse by four lackluster years of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, bothers her too.

"I've had so many people come up to me and say, 'We tried one woman and she screwed it up,' and I stop them," Schwartz said. "It's usually young black males and I say, 'Wait a minute, isn't Lorton filled with a lot of your black brothers?' And they'll say yeah, and I'll say, 'Well, am I supposed to hold you responsible for their behavior?'

"And they say no, and I say, 'Well, I'm not going to be held responsible as a woman for Sharon.' "

Nor should the politics of race influence the outcome, she said.

"I am inclusive. This is not a black-white thing. Most of the people in Washington don't love and hate on the basis of color."

In the end, it may not be a party label or insurmountable sexism or racism. The toughest obstacle of all is the street-level charisma of one Marion Barry. Those closest to her have done the Election Day math and find the result discouraging.

"We all know the odds are against her doing it," Cornelius Baker said of a Schwartz victory. Added David Myerson: "It's really a shame that the numbers being what they are that the District will be deprived of a voice like hers, which would really tell people from the heart what the problem was."

Schwartz hears that all the time, but forever hustles about in her red convertible, portable telephone to her ear, prowling for converts.

She takes a deep breath to sum up the credo: "What turns me on, what gets me excited, what gives me satisfaction and peace is working on problems. I'm also one of those people that I need 100 problems to work on at once, not two or three."

© The Washington Post Company
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