Patrick Mara (Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

Listening to last week’s Democratic Party unity press conference last week, you could be forgiven for thinking Republican candidates actually threatened to take some power in this overwhelmingly Democratic town.

Addressing a crowd of about 40 diehards at the First Trinity Lutheran Church, several Democrats sounded off on the GOP as if it were the boogeyman hiding under the city’s bed—instead of a party of near-irrelevance that’s outnumbered 11 to 1 in registered voters.

Labor leader Joslyn Williams, perhaps inspired by the religious setting and playing off of Almost Mayor Vincent Gray’s campaign theme, referred to Republicans as “lost souls” who needed to know that the District was “one city, owned by Democrats.”

“Let’s go kick some ass!” he finished.

There’s not much danger of a GOP victory in the District’s general election next month, even with a Tea Party surge powering the party outside the Beltway. But behind the tough talk lies a real sense of concern among local Democrats that Republicans might be able to sneak one of their own onto the D.C. Council dais soon. Maybe not this fall—but maybe not long afterwards.

Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., who has his eye on Almost Council Chairman Kwame Brown’s at-large seat that will be up for grabs this spring, warned Republicans are trying to “fly stealth” campaigns this year by running in non-partisan races to get a “foothold” in District politics.

“I’m here to tell you, don’t let the stealth fly in your neighborhood,” Thomas declared. “Vote Democrat, and don’t be fooled.”

Thomas didn’t single him out by name, but he was referring to Patrick Mara, a boyish Republican who two years ago knocked off the matriarch of the local GOP, longtime At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, in the Republican primary. Mara is running in the non-partisan race for Ward 1 School Board against Dotti Love-Wade.

Some political observers believe Mara actually has his eye on the D.C. Council. The school board race would be a way to gain credibility and run for the vacancy Brown leaves with a title attached to Mara’s name. Part of the plan to put Mara on the council allegedly includes fielding GOP candidates this fall who have no chance of winning. Why? So they can build momentum and a ground game for future races by door-knocking, sign waving, and going to candidate forums.

Ward 3 Republican candidate Dave Hedgepeth doesn’t believe rumors the party is using him. “I think it’s too clever by half, to be honest with you,” Hedgepeth says.

The well-organized local Republican Party was eager to have a full slate of ward candidates this year. (There’s obviously nothing wrong with that, but it hasn’t been the local GOP’s M.O. in previous cycles.) Hedgepeth says he became involved after joining the GOP Facebook page in a fit of pique upon learning that Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells was, to Hedgepeth’s mind, wasting time with an effort to make it easier to raise backyard chickens.

When Hedgepeth wrote the party saying he was eager to help local candidates, he got a reply from Paul Craney, executive director of the D.C. GOP, to set up a meeting. Hedgepeth says Craney broke out a printed PowerPoint presentation on how Hedgepeth could win; after a follow-up with Craney and Mara, he was in.

Ward 1 candidate Marc Morgan was another recruit. He met D.C. GOP Chairman Bob Kabel at a holiday party last December. Not long afterwards, Kabel sat down with Morgan and pressed him to run.

“It was a bit of a hard sell,” says Morgan, who worked in former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s administration.

Morgan only registered to vote in D.C. in February. He says he’s lived here for 10 years, but also lived in Annapolis, which is where he says he previously voted.

Ward 5 candidate Tim Day and Ward 6 candidate Jim DeMartino both say they approached the party to run, not the other way around. “Are we being used as pawns? I’m not, because I’m going to win this election,” says the plucky DeMartino (who, LL suspects, is not going to win that election).

The other three council candidates were equally optimistic about their chances. They say the city’s lousy budget situation boosts their message of fiscal conservatism and the idea that one-party rule isn’t healthy.

Of all the Republican long-shots, Hedgepeth would appear to have the best chance: his opponent, Councilmember Mary Cheh, endorsed Gray in the Democratic primary for mayor, but Adrian Fenty won 79 percent of the vote in Ward 3. Some scorned Ward 3 supporters of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee probably won’t be able to forgive Cheh for her Gray endorsement. But there are still almost five Democrats to every one Republican in the ward; that’s a tough environment even for the D.C. brand of socially liberal, urbanist GOP candidate.

As for Mara, he swears he’s focused on the school board. But Democratic strategist Chuck Thies says Mara would have a good shot at winning a special election for the council if he could raise enough money. Mara would have a city-wide base of 30,000 registered Republicans—who are already ticked off because they didn’t get to vote for Fenty, and would be eager for a little political payback. The rest of the sure-to-be-crowded field of Democrats would have smaller bases. Independent David Catania, after all, first won his council seat as a Republican in a special election (though he and Michael A. Brown already occupy the two at-large seats reserved for the non-majority party).

Stranger things, in other words, have happened.

Freedom Isn’t Free

Alert: If you don’t care for journalists whining about open government laws, look away.

As LL reported recently, getting even simple Freedom of Information Act request answered by Still Mayor Adrian Fenty’s office can be tough. LL asked the city for a list of all the FOIA requests made during Fenty’s tenure, trying to find out how responsive the administration had been, but was denied on a technicality.

Fenty isn’t the only politician whose administration isn’t very good at responding to records requests. Every couple of months, LL gets an e-mail from Alaska’s attorney general saying the state is still working on a request from 2008.

Still, LL got an interesting tip from a former FOIA officer in the Fenty administration, who gave the impression that the Fenty administration’s rule of thumb is to deny information requests whenever possible.

“As soon as one detail is wrong in the request, the FOIA officer can say ‘Oh, that document doesn’t exist,’” says the tipster, who adds: “The administration has an extremely broad view of ‘deliberative process.’ If an [internal] e-mail has a question mark in it, it is most likely going to be considered to fall within the deliberative process privilege.”

The idea of the deliberative process privilege is that government officials need to get candid advice from their aides without fear of that advice being made public. In defense of the administration, the tipster says “requests for e-mails produce about a gajillion e-mails, and there is no way to efficiently and carefully review them, so reviewers err on the side of withholding.”

The tipster added that the FOIA officer job ain’t easy, as you have to deal with ridiculously overbroad requests, supervisors reluctant to hand over info, and a busy IT office.

All good points, but LL doesn’t think it’s too much to ask for a FOIA officer to try and err on the side of being helpful.

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