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Patrick Mara enters at-large D.C. Council race

Patrick D. Mara stumps for votes in 2011. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Patrick D. Mara, State Board of Education member and prominent Republican, said he will make his third run for citywide office, contesting the special election for at-large D.C. Council member on April 23.

Mara, 37, joins a field of candidates that includes Anita Bonds, the interim member appointed by D.C. Democrats, and seven others who have started circulating ballot petitions. Outgoing at-large member Michael A. Brown and former interim at-large member Sekou Biddle also are considering entering the race.

Mara finished second in the last at-large special election, in April 2011. He took 25.2 percent of the 47,000 ballots cast, finishing about 1,800 votes shy of beating Democrat Vincent B. Orange.

He previously sought an at-large seat in 2008, knocking off four-term veteran Carol Schwartz in the Republican primary before falling well short in the general election. In 2010, he defeated an incumbent in the nonpartisan race for the Ward 1 education board seat.

Leading his list of campaign themes, Mara said Tuesday, are “ethics, fiscal responsibility, transparency — they’re all combined,” followed by education reform and improving the city’s relationships on Capitol Hill. The Columbia Heights resident also made clear he will be running against the status quo on the council, “by all measures a dysfunctional body,” and the incumbent political culture, which he said Bonds represents.

“If we want to stay the way we are now, keep electing these same people, and we will continue to be completely disenfranchised, we will continue to struggle with our ethical issues,” he said. “Or we can try something new.”

Mara said his first bill will authorize a vote on a charter amendment to change the city’s election system from closed primaries, open only to those registered with a particular party, to an open system where independent voters can vote in a primary of their choice.

“That will help to change things,” he said. “Seventy-five percent [of registered voters] are Democrats, but not all are really Democrats. They just do it to vote in primaries.”

On education, Mara said he plans to build on the work he did on the State Board of Education, which included debating graduation requirements for high school students and visiting dozens of schools. And in terms of congressional relations, he said he will be able to build on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) “fairly decent job” of communicating with Republicans who often wield leverage over city affairs.

“We treat Congress like it’s North Korea,” he said. “There’s very little engagement.”

Mara, a Mitt Romney supporter and convention delegate, touts himself as a “[Nelson] Rockefeller, John Chafee” Republican, referring to a brand of largely bygone northeastern moderates — “a different kind of Republican than folks in the District are used to seeing on the national level.”

Still, running with the GOP label has continued to prove hazardous in the District. No Republican running under the party banner has won a general or special election race since Schwartz won a fourth at-large term in 2004. The mere fact of Mara’s Republican-ness was considered damaging enough that an unknown party set up during his last at-large campaign.

There is historical precedent for Mara to follow: David A. Catania was elected to the council as a Republican in a 1997 special election, beating interim Democratic appointee Arrington Dixon in a low-turnout election. Mara also enjoys the benefit of significant name recognition and proven fundraising capacity in what is likely to be a low-turnout race that rewards both moreso than door-knocking and grassroots politicking.

But Mara said it isn’t as simple as dusting off the Catania playbook: “It is apples and oranges to compare 1997 to 2012, 2013,” he said. “If it were that easy, it would be that easy, and I know how difficult it can be.”

Mara said he plans to pick up nominating petitions Tuesday morning. To appear on the ballot, candidates must turn in signatures from 3,000 city voters by Jan. 23.

Mike DeBonis covers Congress and national politics for The Washington Post. He previously covered D.C. politics and government from 2007 to 2015.



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Mike DeBonis · December 12, 2012

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