A Republican on the D.C. City Council? It sounds improbable for a city that gave President Bush just 9 percent of its vote in 2004. But for 15 of the past 23 years, Carol Schwartz has filled that unlikely role, winning four elections and serving as the council’s only Republican for much of that time.
She has done it out of her belief that political competition leads to better government and with the help of a curious rule guaranteeing that the two victorious at-large candidates in any given election cycle are from different political parties. So far the rule has worked to Schwartz’s benefit because it leaves an opening for at least one Republican, independent or Green Party member to win an at-large council seat.
But in 2008, when Schwartz is up for re-election, competition for that opening could be intense. Two Independent candidates, both of whom say they would run as Democrats if they could, are hoping to oust Schwartz by casting her as an obstructionist to the agenda of Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty and his allies on the council.
Adam Clampitt and Dee Hunter will tackle the difficult task of keeping the public interested in the general election phase of the 2008 race in a city where the September Democratic primary normally marks the end of the political season.
The campaign also will illustrate the extent to which party identification plays a role in city elections dominated by nonideological issues such as economic development.
“She’s a big backer of President Bush, there’s no doubt about that,” Clampitt, a Capitol Hill resident who works at the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, said of the incumbent.
Schwartz donated $2,000 to Bush in 2003, according to federal election records. She also donated $1,000 this year to Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), who could be vulnerable in 2008.
But Clampitt and Hunter make clear that they intend to focus more on Schwartz’s opposition to Fenty and other members of the council than on her Republican affiliation.
“I think this is really going to be decided on the issues,” Clampitt said. “This is about making the city a better place.”
Schwartz led the fight against D.C.’s restaurant smoking ban and voted for public financing of the new Nationals baseball stadium. She also opposes Fenty’s plan to close 24 public schools.
“Frankly, some members of the council are an impediment to [Fenty’s] agenda, and one of those members is my opponent, Carol Schwartz,” said Hunter, 42, a lawyer and advisory neighborhood commissioner from the U Street area. “We’re at a crossroads in the District. We’ve elected a new mayor who has an exciting agenda of improving our schools, providing affordable housing and raising the bar across the board as it relates to government services.
“Carol Schwartz clearly has positioned herself as an opponent to the administration. From going around door-to-door, the clear sentiment is it’s time for new leadership,” Hunter said.
Clampitt, 33, added that he intends to run a campaign on the idea of change and youth, noting that Schwartz was first elected to the D.C. school board 20 days before he was born.
“She’s really representative of the old D.C. government of [former Democratic Mayor Marion] Barry,” Clampitt said. “That’s where she comes from. She’s really resisted a lot of the change happening to the city.”
Schwartz and her supporters counter that she is a nonpartisan legislator who boasts considerable achievements and experience from her more than 20 years in office. Schwartz was on the Board of Education for eight years before winning an at-large council seat in 1984. She did not run for re-election in 1988 after her husband died, but she won her seat back in 1996 and easily has been re-elected twice.
Schwartz responded to repeated requests for an interview for this article only with a phone message, in which she said people see her as a “fair-minded, nonpartisan person who does what’s right for the city.”
D.C. Republican Party Executive Director Paul Craney agreed.
“She’s been in office so long because she makes friends with a lot of constituents and has a lot of relationships with D.C. voters,” Craney said. “A lot of people will say, ‘I’m a Carol Democrat. I’m a Schwartz Democrat.’ People look at her as who she is, not as much at the party label. Because of that she has a lot of respect in the city.”
Playing by the Rules
When D.C. was granted home rule in 1973, the designation came along with some election requirements. Each political party gets only one nominee in contests for the two at-large seats at stake each cycle. (There are five at-large seats on the council; the council chairman also is elected city-wide.)
After the September primary in which Democrats, Republicans and the DC Statehood Green Party pick their nominees, those winners plus independents advance to the November general election. The two candidates winning the most votes in that election are granted the at-large seats.
In 2006, Democrat Phil Mendelson and Independent David Catania were re-elected to at-large seats.
One at-large seat up for grabs in 2008 is likely to be filled by Kwame Brown (D), who appears to be cruising to a second term (Hunter and Clampitt said they have no intention of challenging Brown in a primary). That leaves Schwartz, a Green Party candidate, and Independents Clampitt, Hunter and any other comers jousting for the second seat.
It will be a challenge for Clampitt and Hunter to get attention because the bulk of their campaigning will take place after the Sept. 9 city primary when most other races are decided.
One D.C. Democratic operative, who did not want to be identified because the party will not endorse a non-Democrat over Schwartz, said timing makes him “a big skeptic” about the chances of knocking off Schwartz.
“Once the primary is over, people just forget about D.C. politics. They just don’t care,” the operative said.
Trying to Gain Traction
The Democratic operative said that challengers should raise the issue of Schwartz’s vote last year to allow $611 million of public spending on the new Nationals stadium.
Hunter indicated that he intends to do so.
“I think it’s ridiculous to spend $600 million [of public money] on a baseball stadium,” the candidate said. “It’s something Carol Schwartz said she would vote against and then voted for. We’re being robbed.”
Hunter noted that in 2004, voters swept out of office other candidates who supported public financing.
“She got a free ride and ran unopposed,” Hunter said. “I thought about running then and didn’t, and have regretted it the last two years.”
Hunter is not new to council races. He ran in the 2002 Democratic primary against Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham and finished third with 12 percent of the vote.
“The purpose of that race was to get ready for a race against Carol [in 2004],” Hunter said, “but then I blinked.”
Schwartz wound up finishing second with 31 percent to Brown’s 55 percent. Two other candidates split the rest of the vote.
Potentially working in Hunter’s favor is that, like Fenty, he is black in a majority-black city.
“An interesting part of this race is that Adam is white, Carol is white and Dee is black,” the Democratic operative said. “You can never underestimate race in D.C. politics.”
Hunter said that while his race might help him, it won’t be central to his campaign.
“Voters are more concerned about my experience and positions than my race, but it doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” he said. “Being an African-American professional doesn’t hurt me in predominantly African-American precincts.”
The candidates also are clamoring for support from Fenty backers. Clampitt’s campaign chair is D.C. socialite Judith Terra, an early supporter and fundraiser for Fenty. Hunter has the support of Bill Lightfoot, who was Fenty’s campaign chair.
“If the mayor decides he wants to go out and defeat somebody, that becomes a marquee race,” the Democratic operative said.
Fighting to the End
Clampitt declined to discuss Hunter’s candidacy, but Hunter indicated he doesn’t see Clampitt as much of a threat.
“My base is black middle-class voters … and I don’t see Clampitt eating into my base,” he said, predicting he will do well in predominantly black Wards 4, 5, 7 and 8. “He’s a nice guy, and everyone’s entitled to run, but when it comes down to it, I have the vision and the record and I’m going to win the race.”
Craney of the D.C. GOP said Schwartz’s challengers will have a difficult time painting the incumbent as a nemesis of Fenty, and he dismissed both Clampitt and Hunter.
“The biggest question is, what are they going to do on the council? What can they offer? So far, I work in politics, and I haven’t heard anything from them,” Craney said.
But the bigger issue might not be what Clampitt and Hunter believe, but how well they are known in an under-the-radar election.
They have their work cut out in denying D.C.’s lonely Republican councilmember another term.
“Voters who aren’t sophisticated in D.C. politics, they don’t know about the council,” the D.C. Democratic operative said. “Who do they vote for in that race? They know Carol. Has she done a good job or a bad job? Well, if you don’t know the other two people in the race, it doesn’t really matter.”