Carol Schwartz is at Busboys and Poets on Fifth Street, pressing the flesh, charming, cajoling. The former D.C. Council member and five-time mayoral candidate is back in campaign mode, racing around the city with her signature optimism and outsized personality.
Instead of asking for votes, though, she wants you to buy a book. Specifically, her autobiography: "Quite a Life! From Defeat to Defeat . . . and Back" — the story, according to the cover, of a "Republican gal from Texas who tried hard to become Democratic Washington, D.C.'s Mayor."
Oh, but it’s so much more: 744 pages containing just about everything you need to know about the most famous Republican in local politics — and plenty it never occurred to you to ask. It’s self-published, because an editor would probably have lopped off a couple hundred pages with a meat cleaver. Schwartz spent three years writing it, using 105 scrapbooks filled with personal and professional memorabilia as inspiration for her thoughts on life, loss and her ongoing love affair with Washington.
“I realized it could be motivational and inspirational,” says Schwartz. Close friends encouraged her to tell her entire life story — a brutal childhood, her husband’s suicide, her political defeats — and how she survived it all.
“Most of the people I’ve met and really gotten to know, with a few exceptions, don’t have much more confidence than I have,” she explains. “Much of mine has been bravado over the years. When you’re lonely and sad and have no confidence, you think you’re the only person in the world. You think everybody has it made except you. I’ve learned most people don’t have it made.”
Old and new friends are hosting very fancy book parties for the first-time author, who shows up to do what she does best: talk, laugh, talk some more. On Sunday she’ll be at Ben’s Chili Bowl, whose owners are throwing a book signing and tribute for all her years of public service.
Schwartz, to put it mildly, is thrilled. She’s back on her soapbox and having a ball.
Ask voters, especially those who've been in the heavily Democratic District for a few decades, to name one local Republican, and the name you hear most is Carol Schwartz.
At 73, she still has the wide smile and shock of dark hair that make her easily recognizable on the street. She lives just north of Dupont Circle in an expansive, sun-soaked apartment filled with art, tchotchkes and — at the moment — dozens of cardboard boxes holding copies of her book.
She was just 30, a wife and mother of three, when she first ran for the District’s Board of Education in 1974. That led to a seat on the D.C. Council a decade later, a position she held on and off for the next 25 years — until a devastating defeat in 2008.
“I really went through a year of what I call my wound-licking stage,” she says. “I was really like a ship without a rudder. It wasn’t just my job. It was my life.”
That life included running for mayor — and losing — five times. The closest she came to victory was in 1994, when she ran against Marion Barry for the second time. The Mayor for Life, out of prison and back in politics, was reelected, but Schwartz received 42 percent of the vote, the highest number for any Republican in modern D.C. history. To this day, people still tell her, “You’re the only Republican I ever voted for!”
And she was a proud Republican for decades — a fiscal conservative strong on defense and moderate on social issues. But four years ago, Schwartz announced that she was becoming an independent. “The party became too extreme for me,” she says. “I couldn’t identify with it at all anymore.”
Asked about the current administration, she offers a curt assessment: “I’m the opposite of a fan.”
Her doubts began earlier, however, about 10 years ago, but she resisted changing her affiliation for a long time. “I thought that if every moderate Republican leaves the party, then we’re going to give it to all the real extremists. The party of Lincoln was worth fighting for.”
In retrospect, she thinks she might have become mayor if she’d switched parties earlier.
“I think if I had just run as an independent in those five races I might have won,” she says. “I don’t have any regrets about my life, but looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have been so stubborn about that.”
But her real motivation for writing the book wasn't to re-litigate her political past. It was to share the improbable journey that brought her to Washington from Midland, Tex.
“What makes me run . . . and run . . . and run?” she writes. “Even when I know deep down it’s probably a lost cause. I think the reason is a strong desire to overcome the odds, the undying optimism in my soul, an overwhelming drive to effectuate change, and a survival mechanism that allows me to surmount fear, risk failing and falling, and still get up, dust myself off and carry on.”
Schwartz grew up the younger child of general store owners. Her older brother was mentally disabled, and her parents were always working. It was hard enough to grow up poor, female and Jewish in Texas, but her father was also violent — he beat his daughter for years — and her mother couldn’t or wouldn’t stop the abuse.
“I never confronted him for his brutality or her for not coming to my aid,” she says. “I just didn’t do it.”
Schwartz escaped to the University of Texas and then to Washington, a city she visited after graduation and never left. At 22, she married lawyer David Schwartz — bright but depressed and an alcoholic — and had three children in three years.
In 1980, while dealing with three preteens and a failing marriage, she got pregnant again and decided to have an abortion. “My husband’s terrible depression had not improved,” she explains in the book, “and I was afraid of bringing a new baby into the situation.”
Eight years later, her husband shot and killed himself in a wooded area behind their home. It was Schwartz’s 44th birthday.
Thirty years later, she looks back with compassion, not bitterness.
“I think of David with his what I know now was clinical depression — probably a lifetime of it — and how he got up most every morning and just kept going” she writes. “What an accomplished life, especially when you consider the endless inner doubts and pain.”
Schwartz never remarried, although there were plenty of boyfriends and a couple of long relationships. “I realized as the years went on that I liked my freedom,” she says. “I liked doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. I liked having total control of the remote control.”
So she lives alone in a too-large apartment, which serves as the setting for fundraisers and pet causes. The decor is somewhere between Sotheby’s and souk, filled with objects she has collected over the years. “There’s a thin line between good taste and overdone, and I crossed it years ago,” she says proudly.
After leaving the D.C. Council in 2009, she traveled and joined more nonprofit boards. “It wasn’t enough,” she says. Friends urged her to run again. Instead, she dove into her book and spent six months going through the overflowing scrapbooks.
In 2014, she decided she should be living her life instead of writing about it. She ran for mayor one more time. And lost. Again.
After another mourning period, she went back to writing, which was harder and more emotional than she’d expected. Her childhood was the saddest, her husband’s death the most traumatic. But writing also reinforced the good: Her three kids, two grandchildren and “a marvelous cadre of friends. They have made up for a lot of voids.”
She’s done running for office. She still adores the city (“It’s the only love affair I haven’t been able to get over”), but she’s had her shot.
“I’ve been there and done that,” she says.” “I wanted to be mayor very badly, but I think our mayor is doing a good job, and I’m fine on the sidelines.”
She pauses and considers her words. “I never thought I would say that,” she says, and laughs.