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In 1984, the Rev. Jerry A. Moore Jr., a Republican, ran for a fourth term as at-large councilmember. That year, he faced a strong challenge from the right. A mailer sent to D.C. Republicans sported a sunrise logo reading “WAKE UP WASHINGTON! At last you have a choice!”—a not-so-subtle nod to Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America.” The mailer, which hammered Moore for raising taxes, supporting budget increases, and enjoying the support of Democrats, came from eight-year school board veteran Carol Schwartz.
Twenty-four years later, Schwartz is enjoying a repeat of history as she runs for her fifth term as at-large councilmember. She’s being waylaid as insufficiently Republican by 33-year-old lobbyist Patrick Mara. In his campaign, Mara has made the case to D.C.’s red households that Schwartz is essentially a Democrat in Republican clothing for supporting budget increases, passing business-unfriendly legislation, and enjoying the support of Democrats.
So what the hell—is there something about this town that slowly turns elected Republicans into Democrats?
Maybe it’s all the Democrats. Nearly three-quarters of registered voters in this city identify with the Democratic party. Only 7.4 percent are registered as Republicans, according to the most recent data. Winning citywide office as a Republican means appealing to legions of Democratic voters who typically wouldn’t elect a Republican unless they had to.
And we do have to elect Republicans—or at least not Democrats.
That’s because of a provision in the city’s home rule charter, the 1973 legislation signed by President Richard M. Nixon that essentially serves as the District’s constitution. It requires that two of the four council seats be set aside for members of parties that most District residents choose not to patronize.
Colbert I. King, who would later come to prominence as a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post editorialist and columnist on District affairs, essentially drafted the Home Rule Act as a Senate staffer in the early 1970s. He describes the history of minority-party welfare as such: “Essentially that was part of the deal to bring the Republicans [in Congress] on board. They wanted to have that set-aside so that one party wouldn’t dominate,” he says.
In other words, the non-majority-party at-large seats are every bit the product of undue congressional meddling as needle-exchange bans, the lack of a commuter tax, and the control board. Thirty-four years after D.C.’s first elections under the Home Rule Act, it’s time for them to go.
Schwartz agrees: “I happen to be a majority-rule-type person,” she says. “I would not be against doing away with the seats that have been set aside—not for Republicans, but for non-majority party individuals.”
The issue of set-asides is a touchy one for Schwartz. She rejects any insinuation that she has benefited from the provision. “I don’t like the word ‘benefited,’” she says. “I was elected to the Board of Education in a nonpartisan election, and very handily actually. I have been a Republican, and therefore I have gotten elected, but I think if you look at the number of votes I’ve gotten when I’ve run for mayor—never less than 30 percent and as much as 42 percent.”
There’s no doubt that Schwartz has developed a citywide constituency, spanning both Republicans and Democrats, in her decades of public service. The question is, would she have ever won a partisan council seat in the first place had there not been a set-aside? Probably not: In 1984, Schwartz won the nod of only 18 percent of general election voters that year. That was enough to beat the Statehood Party candidate that year, who won about 15 percent of votes, but it was still nearly 80,000 votes shy of Democrat John Ray’s tally. Moore waged a write-in campaign, but the two GOP candidates combined could only come within 40,000 votes of Ray.
Is the District of Columbia better off for having Schwartz on the D.C. Council keeping an eye on things during the Barry years—or for that matter, Hilda Mason, who spent more than 20 years on the council as a Statehood Party rep, or Bill Lightfoot, who served two terms as an independent in Schwartz’s seat when she decided not to run for re-election in 1988 after her husband’s death?
Probably, but so what. The majority should rule, as Schwartz says, and part of having home rule is having the freedom to elect bad politicians. And, as Republicans like to bash government welfare programs for removing incentives and distorting the free market, so has electoral welfare led to a series of political farces over the years, starting with the fact that besides at-large council seats, non-Democrats have not held any other partisan elected office in the city.
Furthermore, the non-Democrats who do get elected are essentially Democrats, and that’s not to make light of Schwartz’s political record. Mason had been a Democrat before running on the Statehood ticket and was a vocal supporter of Democratic national political candidates. Lightfoot had been a Democrat prior to his council run, and today he is a registered Democratic voter.
Even those elected as Republicans have only the wispiest connection to their national party, especially in light of the GOP’s rightward drift on social issues over the past 30 years. David A. Catania is a tax-cutting fiscal conservative, but he supports radical changes to the health-care system, including the importation of prescription drugs from Canada, and he ended up leaving the Republican party in 2004 over the gay-marriage issue. Schwartz, too, has a history of supporting tax cuts and railing against government waste, but she, too, has traditionally enjoyed strong support from the gay community and stuck her neck out to guarantee paid sick leave for District employees earlier this year.
Even Mara is running to the right of Schwartz solely on pocketbook and business issues. He makes a point of saying he would support gay marriage—a position that Schwartz, due to pragmatic concerns, has only recently taken.
Then there’s this point, as espoused by Paul D. Craney, executive director of the local Republican party: That with the set-aside come “institutionalized checks and balance” and a “minority viewpoint on issues,” thereby encouraging debate. Maybe that would have helped in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago, but not here. There is no central Democratic party authority; the D.C. Democratic State Committee is constantly in shambles, and local Dems split continuously into factions that act as de facto parties.
The 2008 elections further showcase the madness created by the set-asides. Two well-traveled D.C. Democrats have decided to run as independents just to get a shot at the more vulnerable of the two council seats open this year. One of the hopefuls—Michael A. Brown—is the son of a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, appears regularly on Fox News to espouse Democratic positions, and was seen schmoozing on the floor of the Democratic National Convention last week.
The other, attorney and former council staffer Dee Hunter, deserves less scorn, if only because he’s been the only candidate in town who has made a point of decrying the minority-party set-asides in his campaign. He’s forthright about running as an “independent Democrat” and says the first thing he’ll pursue if elected is throwing out second-party welfare.
The farce extends to the apparatus of the local “opposition” parties. How desperate is the local Republican Party for viability?
For one, they’ve tried to poach Democrats. This spring, Hunter says, he was approached by GOP national committeeman Anthony Parker about forgoing his run against Schwartz; in return, Hunter says, Parker offered to support him in a future run as a Republican, with the support of the local party.
Ooh, the mighty D.C. Republican Committee, with its $18,000 war chest!
“I told him, ‘I am many things, but I am not a Republican,’” Hunter says.
For two, the party has been put in the position of not simply electing the best Republican but preserving Schwartz’s reign in the at-large seat. The leadership of the D.C. Republican Committee makes absolutely no pretension about the fact that it exists for no reason this year other than to re-elect Carol Schwartz. As far as it’s concerned, Mara signed his political death warrant by choosing to challenge the only electable candidate it has.
The Republicans sound like MoveOn.org in their press releases, decrying the loads of “special interest” money and out-of-town donors giving to Mara. And they have a point: The Mara campaign is, to an extent, a cynical one, with business backers dumping tons of money into the race—not so much to elect Mara but to get rid of Schwartz and her penchant of late for do-gooder legislation.
Hunter, an attorney and former council staffer, recently explored mounting a legal challenge to the set-asides. After conducting research, with the help of constitutional scholar and Maryland state Sen. Jamin Raskin, he concluded that the judiciary is unlikely to overturn the scheme; federal courts upheld the D.C. setup in 1976, after then-Council Chair John W. Hechinger Sr. filed a challenge, and ruled likewise in the early ’80s with respect to other jurisdictions with similar setups.
Over the years, in his Post op-ed column, King has occasionally mentioned the need to ditch the set-aside, most recently in 2000, when prompted by the listlessness of the local Republicans. He stands by that today. “It ought to be taken out,” he says.
Doing so would slightly complicate what is now a rather elegant system, where each party nominates a single candidate for a general-election ballot from which voters are asked to select two at-large councilmembers. The fix isn’t too hard: Instead, voters should be allowed to choose two at-large nominees on their party’s primary ballot rather than just one, just like in the general election.
Any challenge to the set-aside will have to go through Congress. The D.C. Council itself is empowered to change some parts of the home rule charter, but the portion of the act that deals with electoral representation in the city requires Congress to step in and take action first—which is what happened when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty sought to abolish the school board last year.
Good luck with that. Expanding home rule seems not to be a priority of late; recent years have seen talk of finally giving the District an elected attorney general or criminal prosecutor, but congressional provisions to do that have thus far gone nowhere. And don’t expect current elected officials to run afoul of Schwartz or Catania by sticking their necks out and advocating an end to their sinecures.
Too bad: The District’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, says she’s prepared to act only if the D.C. Council itself acts first. Spokesperson Sonsyrea Tate Montgomery says Norton “does not introduce matters affecting the charter until the Council has acted or otherwise indicated its position.”
But take heart, Republicans. There is a sliver of hope for you, even in fair-and-square electoral competition. In 1997, Catania, then a 29-year-old lawyer and Kalorama advisory neighborhood commissioner, beat Democrat Arrington Dixon in a special election for an at-large seat.
How did Catania manage to outpoll Dixon, who had name recognition after winning a term as council chairman in 1978? At the time Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. blamed it on race (Dixon’s black; Catania’s white), but in his column King wrote that Dixon’s loss “can be traced to a spectacularly inept campaign, limp support from the Democratic state central committee that picked him for the job and, most of all, to thousands of rank-and-file voters who—knowing Dixon and his political history all too well—decided he wasn’t worth going out and voting for.”
A year later, Catania had to run to keep the seat, but this time he earned 30,000 fewer votes than the Democrat running, Phil Mendelson. However, he still managed some 12,000 more than the 82-year-old Mason, ending her council career after 22 years. Catania was still on the council, but back in the second-party ghetto and back on electoral welfare.