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Matthew Frumin knows a thing or two about long-shot political campaigns.
In the mid-’90s, his father tried to get him to run for Congress as a Democrat in a safely Republican district near Detroit.
Frumin begged off. An attorney with a young family living in D.C., Frumin didn’t want to move back to the city of his childhood just to lose an election. To get his dad off the phone, Frumin says he said something to the effect of: If you think it’s such a good idea, maybe you should run yourself.
So Frumin’s dad Morris, then a 75-year-old psychiatrist with no history in politics, did just that. And Frumin wound up moving back to Detroit anyway to manage his father’s campaign. Frumin’s father lost that 1996 contest, 61 percent to 36 percent, to Republican incumbent Joe Knollenberg.
“I don’t think he had any illusions,” Frumin says of his father. “He wanted to say his piece.”
Four years later, Frumin decided to take his father’s earlier advice, and he left a post as a Clinton administration appointee at the State Department to take on Knollenberg himself in the 2000 election. The end result was the same, though Frumin did better than his dad, losing 56-41.
Thirteen years later, Frumin’s running for office again, a little closer to home, as a candidate in the April 23 special election for an at-large D.C. Council seat. It’s a crowded field of eight candidates (though two might be booted through challenges to the petitions they used to qualify), including several who are much better known around town than Frumin. But Frumin doesn’t want to hear what you think his odds are.
“A longshot? Are you serious?” a very serious Frumin asks LL during an interview this week.
The 53-year-old father of three says he’s not suffering from any illusions: He’s a bona fide contender. An ANC commissioner in Ward 3 since 2008, Frumin says his years spent as an education advocate—first as a parent weighing in on the redesign of Wilson High School and later on education issues citywide—have given him a broad base of support that can help him win what will likely be a low-turnout affair. He’s lived in the District for 30 years. He says his message of inclusion—his campaign theme is “Let’s Grow Together”—resonates throughout the city, including in poorer eastern neighborhoods where white candidates like Frumin haven’t done well in recent contests. And he says he’ll outwork any opponent: “When I’m in, I’m all the way in.”
Virtually anyone running for office tends to have that kind of abundant optimism, regardless of whether they have a chance of winning. But Frumin may have earned the right to be taken seriously with the first round of campaign finance reports that came in last month. Better-known candidates, including newly appointed Councilmember Anita Bonds, former Councilmember Michael Brown, and Republican school board member Pat Mara, reported tepid fundraising totals. But Frumin raised a respectable $72,000. That total was more than double than that of his closest competitor, former Loose Lips columnist Elissa Silverman. Frumin’s haul is a faster start than anyone had in the last special election, in 2011, and already puts him close to the $100,000 total raised in that contest by Mara, a close second place finisher to Councilmember Vincent Orange. (Though it’s still early: That year, Orange raised more than $322,000, with a large assist from embattled businessman Jeff Thompson.)
Fundraising may come a little easier for Frumin than some of his rivals: He’s an international trade attorney with stints in two large law firms (Arnold & Porter and Steptoe & Johnson) whose friends, neighbors, and colleagues from upper Northwest can afford to write $1,000 checks to at-large Council campaigns. Frumin also has practice in the sometimes delicate art of asking for political money, having been a top fundraiser of a pro-Bill Clinton young professionals group known as the Saxophone Club in the mid-’90s. (This was by no means high-stakes fundraising; Frumin says it consisted mostly of getting $250 checks from his colleagues at his law firm. But it did get him a gig introducing Al Gore at a rally once.)
Money isn’t everything in elections, of course, and his opponents still have plenty of time left to catch up. Among Frumin’s many challenges will be convincing skeptics that he has the ability to appeal to voters outside the rich, white parts of the city west of Rock Creek Park. A persistent speculation LL’s heard from political wags is that Frumin’s campaign this time around is really an attempt to set himself up for a challenge to Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in the April 2014 Democratic primary.
But Frumin bristles at that suggestion, and says everything he’s done as an education advocate in D.C. has been about pushing for greater equality across the city. He says he wants to join the Council to be a “bridge” between the city’s rich and poor, black and white. He supported Vince Gray over Adrian Fenty in the 2010 mayoral primary, he says, because he supported Gray’s message of “one city.” On policy issues, Frumin would likely be on the more liberal side of the Council on budget matters (he says he wants to spend part of the current surplus on affordable housing and job training rather than put it in the bank like the mayor wants) and has done well with the smart-growth set in a series of online polls put together by Greater Greater Washington’s David Alpert.
As for black voters living in the eastern half of the District, who have largely rejected white candidates in past at-large elections, Frumin’s campaign chairwoman, Leticia Barnes-Long, says plenty of her neighbors in Ward 7’s Hillcrest would vote for a white candidate if the right one came along. And she says Frumin, whom she’s worked with for several years as members of the same PTA, is that guy: He “transcends this whole racial thing.”
“We all talk diversity, he actually practices it,” Long says.
But political consultant Tom Lindenfeld doubts Frumin will have any sizeable support among black voters, which would leave him competing with Mara and Silverman for the same group of white voters. And those voters, Lindenfeld says, will be looking for guidance from the Washington Post editorial board.
“His chances are entirely dependent on the vote of two people. If he gets the vote of Jo-Ann Armao and Fred Hiatt, he could be somebody,” Lindenfeld says, referring to the Post’s local editorial writer and editorial page editor. “If he doesn’t get them, he’ll be on the pile of also-rans who are soon forgotten.”
Frumin says he’d be thrilled to get the Post endorsement, but doesn’t count it essential to win. The paper endorsed Mara in the 2011 special election, Sekou Biddle in last year’s Democratic primary for Orange’s seat, and Fenty in the 2010 mayoral primary.
“There is no question of the sincerity of my message,” he says. “The question is how much traction can my message get.”
If he keeps outraising his opponents at the current clip, he might be able to buy some sizeable traction.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery