With only a few political contests in this off-year for elections, Republicans may have found an unlikely spot to score a notable upset: a special election for city council in the nation’s capital.
“You have three big races this year: the governorships in New Jersey and Virginia in November and the councilman-at-large race in Washington, D.C., on April 23,” Ron Phillips, recently elected Republican chairman of the District of Columbia, told me.
“If the last one goes Republican, believe me, the whole country will be talking about it.”
Republicans usually have little hope of winning any kind of election in Washington, where the voting registration for Democrats is better than 9-to-1, and where Barack Obama won more than 90 percent of the tally last November.
However, the rules surrounding the upcoming special election, and a dynamic young candidate with a libertarian bent, give Republicans a fighting chance in this liberal bastion.
Patrick Mara is a centrist Republican and a member of the city’s school board. If triumphant in the council race, Mara would be the lone GOPer representing any major office in the city.
The rules for special elections in the District are different from those in a general election, and they can help non-Democrats in a multicandidate race. In a special election to fill a vacancy on the 13-member council, all candidates, regardless of party, compete on the same ballot and the top vote-getter wins, even with less than a majority.
Mara, an elected member of the city’s school board, is the only Republican running in a field that includes three Democrats and candidates of the Statehood and Green parties.
Mara has tailored a brand of conservatism to broaden his appeal in the liberal town. He is a strong proponent of statehood for the District, which most on the right traditionally oppose, and says he is “pro-school voucher and pro-charter school” in a city where there is support for such measures.
A self-styled reformer who doesn’t own a car and gets around Washington on the Metro and bus system, Mara accepts the label of “fiscal conservative and social liberal,” giving him common ground with some D.C. voters
“I took the issue of gay marriage off the table in my [school board] race and carried quite a lot of gay precincts,” Mara said. “When you get past that issue, you find a strong libertarian and even conservative streak in the gay community.”
The candidate says his mentor and “political hero” is the late liberal Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, who was often a thorn in the side of traditional conservatives. Mara worked on the Senate Environment Committee staff when Chafee was chairman.
The Republican hopeful also wants a strong code of ethics for the municipal fathers in a city plagued by corruption.
When Democratic Council member Harry Thomas Jr. came under fire for ethics violations last year, Mara marched in parades wearing a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “Harry Thomas Must Resign!” Thomas finally did resign after pleading guilty to felony charges.
In fact, the council seat that Mara is vying for opened up when Councilman Phil Mendelson was elevated to become the panel’s chairman, following the indictment of his predecessor, Kwame Brown.
Enthusiasm for Mara is running strong. Supporters say they have made 20,000 telephone calls so far on his behalf and knocked on the doors of 5,000 households.
Ellie Becker, community leader in the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood, hosted a reception for Mara last weekend and told me: “I expected five people and 25 showed up. And several more called offering to help.”
Although it wouldn’t exactly spark a Republican takeover of the John Wilson Building, where D.C.’s city government is headquartered, a Mara win could well prove a textbook case of how Republicans can make gains in historically unfriendly turf and among constituents not exactly endeared to the GOP.
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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