Schwartz Touts a Lack of Political Baggage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 1998; Page D01
As mayoral candidate Carol Schwartz eased into a lotus position on the sofa in her D.C. Council office, newsletters and memos touting her accomplishments were just an arm's length away. But the self-assured Republican preferred to focus first on weaknesses and the one thing she says she lacks: political baggage.
Critics, she said, question her level of productivity as a council member and say she hasn't been in the forefront on critical issues such as education and crime.
Unfair, she says, quickly dismissing both criticisms. She is selective about the legislation she sponsors, opting for "quality over quantity."
"I don't want to introduce legislation just to showboat," Schwartz says.
She says even her critics acknowledge her strong advocacy over the years for balanced budgets and lower taxes. And she's willing to buck public opinion for what she believes in, pointing to her unsuccessful sponsorship of a death penalty bill.
As for baggage, she travels light.
"I don't have any baggage," she said. "I have never been accused of unethical conduct. I have a 99 percent attendance rate at the council. I attend meetings and stay for the full meetings. I have never taken a trip at government expense, and I have never used a government vehicle."
She counts voting for balanced budgets and two legislative initiatives as her top accomplishments since returning to the council in 1997 after an eight-year absence. She sponsored a whistle-blower protection law to encourage city workers to report illegal government activities and a law creating several hours of free meter parking on evenings and Saturdays to encourage more people to shop in the city.
In her third attempt to become mayor, Schwartz's campaign slogan urges voters to "Bring It Home." She bills herself as the hometown candidate who as a 33-year resident has demonstrated her love for the city, cares about good government and wants to provide good government: "I think people think I have paid my dues and it is my turn," she said.
Yet some question whether Schwartz's legislative record has the depth voters expect of a mayoral candidate.
Ask her supporters how her record measures up, and some react as if they were being lured into a labyrinth. "I'm not going to fall for that," one said. Others prefer to dwell on her commitment rather than her council work.
"It is more than her record," said James Archie Jr., a Republican who has lived in the city for 52 years. "People should vote for her because she is a person to trust, she has compassion and she knows the city. I'm from east of the Anacostia River, and she knows the difference between Congress Heights and Marshall Heights, and she knows what the problems are for each part of the city. I can't say that about her opponent."
Supporters such as Regina James, a native Washingtonian and a lifelong Democrat who volunteers as many as 20 hours a week for the Schwartz campaign, said the candidate is winning converts because in a word, she makes them feel "comfortable."
Critics say Schwartz supporters are trying to substitute the candidate's popularity for her weak legislative record and are confusing commitment with the vision necessary to move the city beyond its bureaucratic and financial woes.
"She has never managed an agency or a program," said Tersh Boasberg, a Democrat and chairman of the Committee of 100, an activist city planning organization. "Carol is very much identified as a . . . member of the city council. She has not established any self-identifying cluster of issues that appeals to voters other than 'I ran against Marion Barry.' "
Schwartz, who ran against Barry in 1986 and again four years ago, is infuriated by such criticism. She argues that she has successfully managed her campaign and council office and that "good mayors hire good managers." She distances herself from responsibility for the municipal management that drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy three years ago.
"When I was gone, that's when the ship went down," said Schwartz, who left the council when her first term ended in 1988. "They can't paint me into that corner. I wasn't there."
When Schwartz decided to run for a council seat in 1984, she had served two terms on the school board, including three years as vice president. Schwartz, known for her sharp tongue, had championed such controversial issues as banning out-of-town travel for board members, requiring competency tests for teachers and ending the practice of passing a student to the next grade based on the student's age.
She played the role of political maverick in that council race, challenging 10-year council member Jerry A. Moore Jr., also a Republican. She defeated Moore twice: once in the GOP primary and again in the general election, when Moore ran a write-in campaign with the support of six Democratic council members. That year, Schwartz also adopted a political survival strategy that has been effective ever since in this city where 78 percent of registered voters are Democrats. She deemphasizes party affiliation in the general election.
During her first 21 months on the council, she secured passage of just one bill for which she was the sole sponsor, a measure to study the feasibility of creating enterprise zones in economically distressed areas. She got more attention as a fiscal conservative who opposed "bloated" city budgets and advocated tax relief.
She helped to get the inheritance tax rate and personal income tax rate lowered. In 1985, she proposed cutting the District's $3 billion budget by $100 million.
In 1986, the political outsider ran against Barry. A long-shot candidate, she argued that she could win because "there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash." Schwartz received 33 percent of the vote.
In 1988, the same year her husband, David, committed suicide, Schwartz opted not to seek reelection. She focused on her family and did volunteer work before returning to politics in 1994, when she received 42 percent of the vote in the mayoral race against Barry.
Over the years, Schwartz developed a reputation as a gutsy politician for challenging Barry and for taking controversial stands. She urged Republican members of Congress to override President Ronald Reagan's veto of economic sanctions against South Africa. She voted with the majority of the D.C. Council to bar discrimination by insurance companies against people with AIDS. She supported cost-of-living increases for welfare recipients. She supported abortion rights.
Since returning to the council in 1997, Schwartz has worked more closely with other members in an effort to broaden her political agenda.
Despite that, it has not been easy for a Republican to muster the seven votes necessary to adopt legislation, said council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3). Schwartz is known as a tenacious fighter.
"She can highlight bills and get something done," Patterson said. "On fiscal responsibility and tax issues, she has been very vocal."
Schwartz, chairman of the council's committee on city, regional and federal affairs, maintains that the District government continues to be plagued by a "crisis of confidence."
To address it, she has introduced or cosponsored a variety of bills and amendments aimed at improving government accountability, fiscal management and responsibility, quality of life and public safety.
To foster government responsibility, Schwartz pushed for the whistle-blower protection law, now considered one of the strongest in the country. She also introduced a bill to require competitive bidding for surplus government property, cosponsored measures establishing council criteria for reviewing government contracts and pushed for greater accountability in agency spending.
To improve life in the city, Schwartz spearheaded the measure for free meter parking and co-introduced a bill to reinstate curbside recycling.
She sponsored measures to prohibit alcohol advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and other areas where children gather and another bill to lower the blood alcohol threshold that determines drunken driving.
She gets high marks for constituent services.
Her office receives as many as 40 calls a day from residents, most of them complaining about property taxes or problems with maintenance of streets and trees. Her staff is instructed to respond to every complaint.
Last year, Bob Smith, a Ward 4 resident who owns an auto repair shop in Ward 5, called Schwartz for help in collecting a three-year-old, $80,000 debt the school system owed him for repairing school buses. Smith said he was about to lose his business.
"Without her help, I would still be there fighting to get my money," Smith said. "At one point, a procurement officer for the schools said, 'Why don't you get Carol Schwartz's office off my back?' I'm encouraging everyone to support her."
But the council rejected the measure, noting that 68 percent of District voters had rejected capital punishment in a 1992 referendum.
That position may cost her votes, said Lawrence Guyot, a Democrat who opposes the death penalty but supports Schwartz. He argues that she is still the best hope for the city, especially for the poor.
"I don't see anyone else who can withstand the congressional pressure that will come and will provide the access and support for the common, ordinary citizens," Guyot said.
Democrat Philip Pannell, a coordinator for Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony A. Williams in Ward 8, the city's poorest ward, argues that Schwartz does not back up her pledges with action.
"I watched Carol visit the poor community as a backdrop for some political announcements, but she really has not done that much in terms of things that would make life better for the poor," Pannell said. "I would think she would have been a stronger advocate for education."
Pannell, who crossed party lines to support Schwartz's 1986 bid for mayor, argued that this time around, voters want fresh ideas and a new vision.
"Carol is not it, and there is no reason to cross party lines," he said.
But some political observers say Schwartz's legislative record may not matter that much on Election Day.
"Voters are not looking at records, as is evident from the Democratic primary, when several council members had excellent records and lost," said Bernard Demczuk, Barry's former chief lobbyist and a longtime Schwartz friend. "Voters are looking for independent leaders. Carol's record will not be as helpful as her spirit and personality."
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