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Last Tuesday, supporters of incumbent At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz gathered at her U Street campaign headquarters to await the results of her Republican primary tilt against young challenger Patrick Mara.
They didn’t have to wait very long. Shortly before 9:30 p.m., with about 20 percent of the vote in, Schwartz issued a “reality check” to the crowd. It was streaked with fatalism: “Had I gotten out there a year ago, I think wouldn’t have mattered in the long run. Because when they are doing that kind of barrage—that negative, negative, negative—I think it’s hard to overcome that,” she said. “I just want to thank all of you for helping, and I’m sorry we couldn’t pull it through, but life will go on.”
Seconds after the address, Schwartz told LL that she “would never wage a write-in campaign.”
Give the four-term councilmember credit: Her political instincts, at least in this instance, were finely tuned, correctly predicting the race’s outcome even ahead of faulty returns issued later in the evening by the Board of Elections and Ethics. The five-minute speech was a rare moment of reality in a Schwartz campaign that’s been mostly surreal.
Sure enough, less than a week later, the surreal had returned to SchwartzCenter. On Monday, in the same room where she had delivered her “reality check,” beneath a row of yellow posters from three decades’ worth of citywide runs, Schwartz launched a write-in campaign.
Her decision came after a week of seclusion. In the wake of the primary, she told reporters, “I was, you know, pretty disillusioned by the vote count and was just kind of feeling a little down and out.” She left the District Thursday evening for her Rehoboth Beach getaway; she did not, however, leave her political echo chamber, saying she heard from “maybe 100” folks urging her to wage the write-in campaign she said she’d never undertake.
Schwartz returned to her Kalorama apartment on Sunday afternoon; she wrote her write-in speech and that evening spoke to her closest supporters. One person who weighed in was former council colleague Sandy Allen, the erstwhile member from Ward 8 and a close Schwartz friend. Even Sunday night, Allen says, Schwartz didn’t sound completely convinced. “Carol sort of makes most of her own decisions,” she says. “I’m quite sure I kind of boosted [a write-in campaign] Sunday when I talked to her, and then she probably called other people.”
Make no mistake, this is a seat-of-the pants undertaking. In response to a question from the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher, who asked Schwartz how much cash she thought it would take to wage an effective write-in push, she betrayed an incomplete notion of how she’d pull it off. “I just decided to do this like a day or so ago, so I really haven’t started figuring that out at all. I do think I do have very strong name recognition. I’ve never done polls, but I understand there have been polls done by others over the years that show I have a name recognition that actually matches Marion Barry, so I think that’s probably pretty strong.”
Another reporter asked what she planned to change from her failed primary campaign: “I can’t say I’ll do anything differently,” she says.
Those answers, and the rest of her speech Monday, do not bode well for Schwartz, who has stubbornly refused to adapt to the modern era of District politics. Where political campaigns here for a decade now have been tightly run operations waged by experienced paid consultants and fueled by loads of cash, the 2008 Schwartz campaign has essentially been waged as a folk revival, trading on the impression that Schwartz has loads of citywide appeal and name recognition, when no one seems sure if that’s actually true or not.
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Time for LL to deliver his own reality check:
• Schwartz knew for months that she intended to run but delayed announcing her campaign—per her usual practice—until June. To kick-start her re-election push, Schwartz loaned her campaign some $40,000.
Reality check! Do names like Charlene Drew Jarvis, Jim Nathanson, and Harold Brazil mean anything to you, Carol? Did you feel somehow immune to the energetic-young-challenger phenomenon in this town? Fellow at-large councilmember Kwame R. Brown got the message this year, declaring well over a year in advance and raising a boatload of cash.
• Schwartz hired a single paid staffer, 24-year-old Kristan Higgins, who has had no prior experience in District campaigns, to run her re-election operation. Schwartz has relied on volunteers, but mostly her high regard for her own name recognition, to carry her through the day.
Reality check! Name recognition doesn’t cut it. Mara hired a Republican political consulting firm and spent months doing what real campaigns do: finding his voters, by knocking on doors and making scads of phone calls, then getting them to the polls on Election Day. Schwartz had no discernible GOTV operation last Tuesday.
• Schwartz’s decision to press on, as much as anything else, is fueled by spite for Mara, who she believes ran the “nastiest, most unrelentingly negative campaign I’ve ever seen in the District.”
Reality check! The mailers sent out by Mara and the Citizens for Empowerment PAC were negative, but they weren’t particularly nasty. Certainly, local elected officials here live a charmed life considering the flimsy slams higher-profile politicos endure. But the mailers were squarely within the mainstream of political discourse. Does the mail campaign fully reflect Schwartz’s record? Of course not—what political ad campaign does?—but a Swift Boating this was not.
• Schwartz is planning to stage a six-week blitz, hoping to convince tens of thousands of District voters to write in a name that will not be present on ballots. And she’ll be doing it without the support of most deep-pocketed business interests.
Reality check! What does it take to win a successful citywide write-in campaign? Take it from the only man who has done it—Ted Carter, the top-notch hand who swooped in to save Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ 2002 re-election effort after faulty petitions knocked him off the Democratic primary ballot.
“What is the secret?” asks Carter, now an executive for commercial real estate giant CB Richard Ellis. “Money.”
A war chest of several hundred thousand dollars allowed Williams to issue mailers, produce radio spots, and distribute tens of thousands of pencils and self-inking rubber stamps bearing his name. The campaign hit community meetings across town for weeks, urging people to “do the write thing” and “write in and connect” for Williams.
“If she doesn’t have the resources, she should think twice,” says Carter. A week before the primary, Schwartz had about $85,000 in the bank. She raised an additional $18,850 in the days leading up to the election.
Can Schwartz still pull it together?
Well, she has a shot. Mara says his message of fiscal responsibility and support for the Fenty schools takeover can propel him to victory. But in a town that’s likely to give nearly 90 percent of its vote to Barack Obama, it’ll be all too easy to tar a fellow who has bragged about being an alternate delegate for John McCain. Former council staffer Dee Hunter talks a good game but has yet to assemble a meaningful war chest. Late entrant Mark Long threw up a bunch of signs last week, but good luck to a man who couldn’t muster any better than a fifth-place showing in the Ward 7 special election last year. Statehood Green candidate David Schwartzman, with less than $1,000 on hand, has yet to show any intention of waging a serious campaign.
Then there’s Michael A. Brown, who will be the toughest competitor, thanks to his willingness to pump his own money into his campaign and the fact he boasts a familiar name—one shared by the Democrat on the at-large ballot. But Brown has skeletons in his closet and the stench of two failed political runs in the past two years.
Schwartz admits she’s an underdog, but she can do it—if she gets her campaign in gear.
Tony Bullock, the former Wilson Building aide who saw Williams through his write-in campaign, paraphrases Dr. Johnson on that matter: “Nothing so concentrates the mind,” he says, “as the prospect of one’s own hanging.”
• At-large Republican nominee Patrick Mara has garnered the backing of all sorts of local business types, on the strength of his support for issues important to the District’s commercial barons.
Well, there’s at least one business arena where the Chamber of Commerce’s golden boy has failed to post a spotless record: When it comes to respect for intellectual property, Mara fails big-time.
As LL is not a registered Republican voter, he’s had a hard time getting his hands on the many mailers sent to local GOP voters in recent weeks by Mara and political action committees working on his behalf. LL’s first time seeing many of the materials came on Election Night, when, after giving her “reality check” speech, Schwartz displayed the pieces to reporters.
LL had an odd sense of déjà vu with several items. A photograph of Schwartz used on six of the mailers—four issued by the Mara campaign and two by the Citizens for Empowerment PAC—looked awfully familiar.
That’s because the photo had been taken by Washington City Paper Staff Photographer Darrow Montgomery at a January schools meeting and were used to accompany LL’s stories on the race. The photos were used without the permission of this columnist, Montgomery, or anyone else at City Paper.
Mara says his mailers had been put together by his paid consultants at Jamestown Associates, a Capitol Hill GOP consulting firm. “The photo,” he says, “came from Google Images.” Searching “Carol Schwartz” turns up the photo, hosted on the Web site of now-defunct candidate Adam Clampitt. LL recalls having to ream out a Clampitt aide earlier this year for posting his column in its entirety, complete with Montgomery’s photo. It was apparently never taken down.
Brett McMahon, the treasurer for Citizens for Empowerment, says the use of the same photo was a coincidence and there was no coordination with the Mara campaign, which would have been a breach of District regulations. “We take the campaign finance laws seriously,” he says in an e-mail.
McMahon posits that the picture’s popularity might be attributed to its status as one of the few recent photos of Schwartz “in the act of speaking,” as way of explanation but not excuse. “Our use of it without permission was wrong,” he says. “Speed seems to have overtaken good judgment.”
• On Election Night, LL made his way early in the evening to Mara headquarters, where he was treated to a star-studded display of luminaries from the local business community.
Barbara Lang, president and CEO of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, was in attendance, along with chamber colleagues Janene Jackson and Chris Knudson. Restaurant megalawyer Andrew J. Kline was also on hand, as well as consultant and fundraiser David Julyan.
The question of the hour: Who actually cast a vote for Mara? After all, the chamber crowd usually has to flex its muscle in Democratic contests.
Lang says she put her vote where her mouth was, switching her voter registration to Republican for this year’s primary race. Not a total surprise: Not only did Mara win the chamber endorsement, but a few days before the election, Washington Post reporter Nikita Stewart caught Lang manning phones at Mara HQ.
Lang says it’s not the first time she’s voted GOP. “I had been a registered Republican when I came to D.C.,” she told LL. But now will she switch back? “I probably will,” Lang said, “otherwise I can’t participate.”
Jackson, too, made the switch, though Knudson admitted to being that rarest of breeds: an honest-to-God D.C. Republican. Lang’s husband, UDC board member Gerald B. Lang, sported an “I Voted” sticker, but he would not cop to his vote.
Another fun sighting at the Mara bash: No fewer than five staffers for At-Large Councilmember David A. Catania were on hand. Earlier in the day, another Catania staffer had been spotted planting Mara signs at a Ward 2 polling place.
Why is it noteworthy that staffers for the former Republican would be present? That might be because Schwartz has implied that Mara’s candidacy was part of a conspiracy hatched by Catania, no fan of Schwartz.
So what gives?
Says the normally verbose Catania, “I really don’t have any comment on that.”
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