The April 23 Special Election Primer

The District Beat

If you're feeling a little electoral fatigue, we hate to break it to you: there's another election coming on April 23. On that day, DC residents from across the city will choose the new At-Large councilmember to fill the seat once held by DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson, now occupied on an interim basis by Councilmember Anita Bonds (D-At Large). Seven candidates are all in: Bonds, Ward 1 State Board of Education Representative Patrick Mara, Initiative 70 activist Elissa Silverman, former At-Large Councilmember Michael Brown, Ward 3 ANC Commissioner Matthew Frumin, defense attorney Paul Zukerberg, and social activist Perry Redd.

The context of the election is both quite similar and quite different than in the past. Ethics remains an issue on the forefront of many voters' minds—Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) was recently reprimanded for his controversial role in a Metro land deal—while lawmakers begin to tackle education challenges ranging from school closures to chronic truancy. And while the city recently posted a $417 million surplus and continues to grow (55 cranes dot the city's sky, officials like to boast), the squeeze on neediest residents is acute, with affordable housing remaining in short supply and a persistent homeless population (including 600 children) at DC General.

Still, this is a special election, so the dynamics are different than in most races. Turnout is likely to be anemic at best—in the 2011 At-Large special election it barely exceeded 10 percent—and candidates have less time to raise money and campaign. How will it shape up? Here's a quick review of the top candidates.

Patrick Mara

For the current Ward 1 representative to the DC State Board of Education, this could well be it. While he failed in two prior bids for the DC Council—in 2008 and 2011—he's now among the best-positioned. Mara can draw on a database of supporters gathered in previous efforts. And, while many would say that that's the case despite his party affiliation—he's a Republican, a rare breed in these parts—others say it's because of it that he might well win.

Republicans haven't held a seat on the council since 2008, and they've suffered a steady string of defeats since. Special elections are low-turnout affairs, and with a targeted and spirited effort Mara will be able to attract enough local Republicans to his cause. Additionally, being anything but a Democrat isn't a bad thing in scandal-ridden DC; Mara's message of political diversity could play well to the many new voters who are opting to remain independent.

Finally, Mara is of even rarer breed than just any Republican—he's an urban Republican. Socially progressive, fiscally prudent, heavily involved in education, and a proven vote-getter, Mara can appeal to many crowds. Still, will his usual calls for lower taxes resonate in a city suffering from a severe affordable housing crunch and enduring surpluses? And will his strongest bases of support—wards 1, 2 and 3—remain as solid with other competitors vying for them? More importantly, can he repeat his last success in the city’s largest ward, Ward 6? There, Mara polled strongly in the neighborhoods surrounding Eastern Market.

Elissa Silverman

The former Washington Post reporter and policy wonk at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has transitioned smoothly into her role as an At-Large candidate: she has a well-known political sponsor (former Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson), a snappy campaign slogan (“Integrity, Accountability and Investment”) and wonky-yet-approachable answers to many of the city's most intractable problems.

Silverman has translated her work on Initiative 70—which would have banned corporate contributions to local campaigns—into a pitch for why she'd be best-placed to address the council's lack of ethics, while hammering home the need for more affordable housing and better-spent workforce development dollars. Silverman also has access to the network of activists that very nearly placed Initiative 70 on the ballot. This rolodex no doubt gives her an edge in volunteers.

Silverman’s natural base seems to be among the city's young progressive set, but even there she'll have to temper any enthusiasm for their causes with appeals to the Ward 3 voters that Patterson will insist she attract. At a recent forum, for example, she said she was opposed to a DC plan to scrap parking minimums at new developments. That might sound like music to the ears of some Ward 3 residents, but it'll be nails-on-a-chalkboard for those in denser parts of town.

Will Silverman’s progressive appeal attract the same demographic that turned out strongly for David Grosso in Wards 4, 5 and 6? Can Silverman secure the endorsement of the Washington Post Editorial Board, who have given Mara the nod in the past?

Michael Brown

The former councilmember wants his old job back after having been handed a humbling defeat by Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) last November. It's not impossible to see it happen: Brown is affable and approachable, has citywide name recognition and can tout many of the progressive causes he championed—affordable housing, jobs—while on the council.

Given that prominence of issues of affordable housing and unemployment in recent months, Brown is in a perfect position to capitalize. Still, his biggest obstacle seems to be his own inability to muster an aggressive campaign. With little raised as of the end of January—a mere $9,500 from 10 donors—and talking points premised on what he once did instead of what he plans to do, Brown runs the risk of sounding like he merely expects to get the job back.

Matthew Frumin

Despite being a novice in citywide campaigns, Frumin isn't a total political newbie. A Ward 3 ANC commissioner and former congressional candidate, Frumin led all his competitors in fundraising at the end of January, taking in over $80,000 from over 200 contributors.

Frumin’s work on Wilson High School's modernization gives him education credentials. His mediation of sensitive development matters in his ward allows him to claim that he can handle those that are difficult and divisive. He's also got a heck of a campaign slogan for the moment DC finds itself in: “Let's Grow Together.” Frumin is challenged by low visibility, though with the money he has, he could well spread it far and wide by Election Day.

Anita Bonds

The current Interim Councilmember has been a behind-the-scenes operative in DC politics since the era of Marion Barry. She knows the ins-and-outs of the city's political machinery—the DC Democratic State Committee, which she leads, is backing her—and can call upon many people for favors.

But in these uncertain times, Bonds close ties with the Democratic establishment can do more to sink her candidacy than help her to victory. The DC Democratic State Committee hasn't elected new members in over four years (and that might be the least of the issues it has faced). And, for as much as Bonds professes to favor stronger ethics laws, the fact remains that for years she was on the payroll of Fort Myer Construction, one of the biggest DC contractors.

The Remainder of the Pack

Redd and Zukerberg are worthy candidates in some respects, but they simply haven't raised enough money to be viable. Money isn't everything, but rare is the candidate that wins with none of it. To their credit, both have brought diverse perspective to candidate debates: Redd speaks passionately about helping returning citizens reintegrate into society, while Zukerberg insists that the possession of small amounts of marijuana should be decriminalized.

The Horse Race

How is each candidate going to approach the race? For Mara, Silverman and Frumin, Grosso's successful campaign in unseating Brown is instructive. Focus your efforts on Wards 2, 3, 4 and 6. All of these wards are rich in voters and have shown an inclination to dump the incumbents. Ward 6, in particular, powered Grosso ahead.

For Brown and Bonds, much like Mayor Vincent Gray, Wards 5, 7, and 8 hold the key: Brown drew most of his votes in the race against Grosso from these eastern localities. These neighborhoods provided the votes for Fenty’s defeat. Here, Bonds can rely on her institutional contacts to help push her candidacy. Yet, the lack of a strong, single African-American candidate may reduce their influence and turnout. The battle therefore is likely to be won elsewhere.

Given the lineup, though, this election won't break down the same way that the 2011 At-Large special did. Mara won't be able to corner the market on Ward 3; both Frumin and Silverman have significant claims to some of those voters. Additionally, Wards 1 and 6 will remain in play: Mara is proven vote-getter in both, but Silverman calls Ward 6 home and can appeal to younger voters packing into Ward 1. Brown and Bonds will fight for votes in wards 5, 7 and 8, but the biggest question is whether Brown will be able to seek amends among the Ward 4 voters that can be so decisive in most local races.

Money, of course, will play its usual role. Frumin took in an exception haul, while Silverman did well with $35,000 raised. Mara seemed a little limp at $20,000 collected, but a few high-profile fundraisers in February might reverse that trend. (He said he plans to raise $100,000.) Neither Brown nor Bonds seems particularly aggressive about raising money, which could make them non-factors come Election Day.

Still, given the nature of the race, Mara will be tough to beat if he can get his party faithful to the polls. Yet he is far from having a lock on the election. An aggressive Silverman is bent on contesting every vote in Wards 3 and 6, threatening Mara’s support at The Post, and organizing a GOTV effort using the bones of Initiative 70. Frumin will also erode Mara support in northwest precincts. In the absence of polling data, the race is much too early to call.


Martin Austermuhle is Editor-in-Chief of and a freelance writer. He lives in Columbia Heights.