Patrick Mara seems determined that the DC Republican Party and its members will be part of the local political mix this election cycle. “We’ve cast a wide net. We have a dozen persons interested in running for office,” he told me last week during an extended telephone interview, noting some have expressed interest in competing for advisory neighborhood commission posts while others want to jump into races for the DC State Board of Education and the DC Council.
“It is an important time for Republicans to be involved, as our elected leaders have never been as far left as they are today,” Mara continued, echoing a statement he made when he was named local party chairman in January. “Our city needs a multi-party system of government.”
He’s right. I have decried for years the tactics the Democratic Party leadership has used to keep itself in power, including a deliberate decision to run closed primaries even as the demand has grown to open them. At least 21 states hold what is akin to open primaries.
In DC, independents like myself are locked out of primary elections because we are not affiliated with any party. The DC Board of Elections reported that as of March 31, there were 87,435 registered independents; it’s the second largest bloc, accounting for 16.52% of the total 529,200 registered voters. Republicans come in at 29,970 or 5.66%.
Registered Democrats made up 76.36% of the total — 404,094 voters. Those numbers have allowed their party to behave like political bullies in the public square.
Perhaps Democratic elected officials and party leaders are worried that open primaries could lead to new political coalitions, upsetting their decades of dominance. If independents were allowed to participate in the primary, Republicans could join with them, eking out victories for candidates who represent interests of more centrist or conservative residents.
That scenario could affect issues like the ongoing fight over the future of policing in the city. The far-left-leaning council has embraced defunding the police, cutting the force and other changes that some residents worry could make their communities less safe.
Undoubtedly, most DC residents want restrictions on dangerous police behaviors like those seen last year in Minneapolis. Yet a sizable number, who have been described as a silent majority, think defunding the police goes a tad too far.
Last week, the DC Republican Party blasted the recently released report of the DC Police Reform Commission, a diverse group of residents, academicians, government managers, business owners and civic leaders. The commission — which was created last summer by the DC Council — submitted 90 recommendations, including reducing the size of the police force and redirecting resources to other agencies.
The DC GOP urged the council to “dismiss this report, which is driven by hatred of the police, instead of on the basis of empirical evidence and a desire to keep residents of the District of Columbia safe and secure on the streets and in their homes and businesses.” While making it clear that the party “supports all necessary measures to secure our city,” Mara called for an “inclusive and open debate about how to best secure our communities that includes a full array of citizens, police and our elected officials.”
“The DC Council’s approach of top-down mandates is akin to policing approaches seen in banana republics, not what we should expect in America’s capital city,” Mara continued in the prepared statement. He added that legislators “should look at ways to curb violence, as opposed to trying to defund the very police keeping DC citizens safe. Then maybe we will see our crime numbers decrease.”
Expect Mara’s GOP to be equally animated around any push to raise taxes. A group of council members, mostly from the far-left wing of the legislature, has been discussing raising taxes on people whose income is $250,000 or higher. Mara said his party also will “champion small businesses and entrepreneurship.”
The party has been troubled by the city’s failure to open schools during the pandemic, Mara said, noting that children from middle-class families, like his own, probably will recover. But what about disadvantaged or vulnerable children? Many face additional challenges to attending and navigating in a remote learning environment, resulting in schools being unable to account for some of their previous students.
“At one point, we were missing thousands of kids. I don’t know why there wasn’t more urgency,” he continued, laying some of the blame at the door of the Washington Teachers’ Union.
He argued that the city’s economy is too reliant on DC government jobs. “You go to [the Office of the State Superintendent of Education] and there are hundreds of cubicles, filled with people who live outside of DC.”
That last comment sounded an awful lot like a complaint I have heard multiple times from progressive at-large Council member Elissa Silverman. “That pains me a bit,” Mara replied.
Truth be told, the DC Republican Party has always been mostly a gang of moderates. In 1974, it elected the Rev. Jerry Moore Jr. as an at-large council member. For many years, Carol Schwartz was its standard-bearer; she was first elected as an at-large council member in 1984, having served on the District’s school board before that; she came back in 1996 and served until 2008 when she was defeated by Mara in the Republican primary. He subsequently lost his bid in the general election. He took a couple more passes but missed the mark each time.
In 2010, Mara was elected to the DC State Board of Education in a nonpartisan race; he chose not to run for reelection. From 2015-2017, he served as the DC Republican Party’s executive director.
The party’s local involvement dates to 1855; it was formed by a group that fought slavery and would later include Frederick Douglass. At that time, it was the party of President Abraham Lincoln.
Over time, the national committee shed those roots. It embraced Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and most shamefully, Donald J. Trump. Now, it’s fighting for its life.
The local committee is doing the same, but for different reasons. There had been some internal strife, including theft of party funds by an employee.
Nevertheless, District Republicans may have a better chance of making a decent comeback, given the traditional strength of moderates within their ranks. In an off year, without a presidential nominee on the ballot, Mara thinks this could be their moment. So, they have been organizing aggressively. He named chairs for each ward. They have held a dozen Zoom meetings — one is planned for this week in Ward 5. And, they have been raising money.
“If we don’t have money, we don’t exist,” Mara said.
Theirs could be mostly a Sisyphean exercise — except a closer examination of the numbers reveals possibilities. In the last election, candidates in crowded races claimed victory with small fractions of voting totals. Consider that Brooke Pinto won the Ward 2 council seat after receiving only 3,142 votes in the Democratic primary, according to results posted by the DC Board of Elections. That could mean a sharply targeted ward race might take Republicans to the winner’s circle, although they’ve never been able to accomplish that before.
They have a presence across the city — not just wealthy areas. It’s true the largest memberships are in Ward 2 (5,198), Ward 3 (5,578) and Ward 6 (8,183). However, in Ward 1, there are 2,877 registered Republicans; in Ward 5, 2,645. Meanwhile, Ward 4 has 2,220 and Ward 8 — yes, Ward 8 — has 1,720. Mara lives in the Randle Highlands section of Ward 7, where 1,549 residents are registered Republicans.
Further, any monetary disadvantage could be offset by the city’s Fair Elections law, which provides public financing for candidates able to generate a specific number of small donors. Will GOP contenders tap into public money as Democrats and independents did last year? Equally important, the city may continue to use mail-in balloting for all of next year’s elections, providing a greater degree of privacy that could make it easier for Democrats to embrace non-Democratic candidates.
To pull off any wins, the DC Republican Party will have to execute a finely choreographed political dance. Can it?
This article first appeared at TheDCLine.org