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Carol Schwartz wants votes. Unluckily for this mayoral candidate, though, actually finding a registered District voter at Sunday’s Adams Morgan Day street festival proves tough.
As Schwartz recounts an event she did the day before at deaf student–friendly Gallaudet University, she interrupts herself to woo another passer-by. The man keeps going, apparently pretending not to hear the 70-year-old candidate’s appeals.
“Speaking of Gallaudet!” Schwartz cracks.
So goes Schwartz’s fifth run at the mayoralty. A lot has changed since her last try 12 years ago: She’s off the D.C. Council, after losing her seat in 2008 in the Republican primary. This time around, she returned the favor, refusing the GOP’s offer to be its mayoral candidate. Instead, she’s running as an independent, a more palatable choice for District voters, and one she promotes on the front page of her campaign lit.
While Schwartz’s party affiliation has changed, her main campaign strategy—betting on the sheer appeal of her own personality—hasn’t. As Schwartz’s hands roam ceaselessly over potential constituents, grabbing one’s wrist, plucking a piece of funnel cake from another, it’s clear that what you see with Schwartz is what you’re going to get.
That decision to present herself basically unedited sets Schwartz apart from her two main rivals, who are both much more likely to actually win in November. Democratic nominee Muriel Bowser’s operatives carefully control her public image, most recently by committing to just four debates. Schwartz nemesis David Catania, meanwhile, has tried to recast his infamous temper as “passion.”
Schwartz’s cult of personality still has some pull years after she left office. Clusters of gay men, always a reliable Schwartz constituency despite her earlier waffling on same-sex marriage, approach and ask for stickers and hugs. One man introduces himself as Schwartz’s biggest fan.
No one is more zealous about guarding her image than Schwartz herself. She refuses to take a picture with at-large Council candidate Khalid Pitts, wary of how he’ll use it.
But there are times that nearly six years out of public life appears to have tarnished the Schwartz brand—for those who even still remember it. At Adams Morgan Day, a woman approaches her to say she liked Schwartz on the Council, but accuses her of disappearing years ago.
Schwartz comes away from the encounter upset. “When people say I disappeared,” Schwartz says. “I would never have disappeared.”
Schwartz’s comeback campaign—running for a place in the District’s public life again as much as for mayor—is filled with such indignities. She pleads with reporters to take her as seriously as Catania and Bowser, carrying charts that show how many more votes she received in previous Council elections than her rivals. At her campaign kickoff last week, Schwartz found herself struggling to explain why her almost 40-year career in the District had drawn just a few dozen supporters.
But as Schwartz has discovered, there’s a downside to running on your personality: When you lose, the voters aren’t saying they don’t like your policies. They’re saying they don’t like you.
The Schwartz indignity tour took another stop last week at a tiny black box theater on Capitol Hill for a forum on arts education. With her two main rivals nowhere to be seen, Schwartz found herself sandwiched between Bruce Majors, the Libertarian hopeful whose tiny party membership meant he needed only a handful of signatures to make the ballot, and Faith, the perennial Statehood Green candidate who interrupts other candidates with blasts from a trumpet.
Like most Schwartz campaign speeches, this seems as much stand-up routine as stump speech. As usual, she cracks that many in the audience are likely too young to remember her. She hits the usual highlights of her education record on the Council, including her role in creating Banneker Academic High School.
This time, though, there’s a new edge. Taking the mic, Schwartz asks for another round of applause for Faith, whom she describes as a District institution. No, Schwartz clarifies, she’s not saying that Faith belongs in an institution.
Schwartz describes herself as “devastated” by her 2008 Republican primary loss to Patrick Mara and subsequent failed write-in campaign, which cost her the set-aside seat reserved for non-Democrats that she had held for four terms. She blames the defeat not on voters but on collusion between business interests, newly registered College Republicans, and Catania himself.
Still, the loss amounted to a harsh rebuke for Schwartz, a native Texan who claims that she’s so devoted to the District that she hesitates to let Maryland and Virginia drivers merge into her lane on the highway.
“I call the first year my wound-licking period, because the D.C. Council wasn’t just my job, it was my life,” Schwartz says.
Schwartz has passed much of her post-Council life since her defeat traveling internationally with friends.
“I think they were glad that Carol finally had a chance to come out and play,” Schwartz says.
There have been domestic trips, too—to Florida, staying in a house she inherited from her mother-in-law, and to her longtime vacation house Rehoboth, Del. Jabs about Schwartz’s home away from home have become so common that Schwartz tweeted over the summer about how little time she was spending in Rehoboth. She proudly notes to LL that on one weekend trip, she didn’t even spend the night.
Schwartz voted in this year’s Rehoboth mayor’s race (property owners there can vote, even if they’re registered elsewhere), a fact that she asks LL not to mention on the grounds that it will play into her unnamed detractors’ hands.
“They’ve loved to spread rumors that I lived in Rehoboth or moved to Florida,” Schwartz says.
When Schwartz is in the District, she’s found that the city’s big-ticket donors have been reluctant to support her. As of the August finance reporting deadline, Schwartz’s campaign account lagged behind her opponents by hundreds of thousands of dollars, even after she personally loaned herself $33,000. (Schwartz blames her poor fundraising on her own anxiety about raising money and not, say, that few are willing to risk large sums on a longshot.)
Perhaps by necessity, then, Schwartz’s campaign apparatus is dwarfed by her opponents’. Schwartz claims to have collected thousands of the nominating signatures to make the ballot herself, while one of her daughters, normally a stand-up comedian, has taken a position as one of her top aides.
There are signs that Schwartz isn’t headed for utter humiliation: A leaked Catania campaign poll memo described Schwartz as having 14 percent of the vote. That number puts her far behind Bowser and Catania, but in the enviable position of potentially spoiling Catania’s own unlikely mayoral hopes.
But Schwartz isn’t trusting the numbers. Instead, in typical Schwartz fashion, she’s relying on the people she talks to on the street.
“They miss me,” Schwartz says.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery