Try and Try and Try Again
There are many Pat Maras in D.C.
They are the young college strivers from around the country, who flock post-graduation to jobs at the Capitol where they answer constituent mail, get coffee, and move up in the ranks. After a few years on the Hill, they cash in/sell out/move on to better paying lobbying and consulting jobs. They buy a house, they start a family, they grow roots.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know I was staying,” says Mara, 38, echoing what thousands of other District transplants could say.
What these newer residents tend not to do is run for a D.C. Council seat three times, and certainly not as Republicans in a town where Democrats enjoy a nearly 12 to 1 advantage on the voter rolls. But Mara, a socially liberal fiscal conservative who has lived in D.C. for the past 16 years, is in the midst of his third GOP bid for a Council seat and is pretty confident that he’s going to win this time around.
Mara says he’s learned from his failed runs in 2008 and 2011 how to put together a data-driven campaign that clearly identifies his supporters and focuses its attention on making sure they vote. In an interview last week, Mara said his campaign has already identified 10,000 of his voters, compared to only 6,000 his 2011 campaign had identified at a similar junction.
“I mean, dude, we’re so ahead right now,” says Mara of his current campaign compared to his last one. (He got 11,851 votes in 2011 and lost to Councilmember Vincent Orange by 1,732, so if his organization has really identified 10,000 voters, he could be right about that.)
The April 23 contest was rocked this week by former Councilmember Michael Brown’s announcement that he’s dropping out of the race for “personal and family reasons,” a move that adds even more instability to what was already a difficult outcome to predict. No poll in the at-large Council race has been made public, though LL has heard of a couple being conducted by as-yet mystery candidates/and or outside groups.
Mara has also apparently heard of these polls. Asked whether he’s familiar with what the results show, Mara says, “I’ve heard good things. I’ve heard very good things.” When pressed for details, Mara asked if his comments could be retroactively put off the record. When LL denied that request, Mara said he “must have misspoke.”
Mystery polls aside, Mara still has reason to be confident of his chances. He barely lost two years ago, finishing close to Orange even though Mara split much of the western half of the city’s votes with other candidates. This time around, Mara scored the influential Washington Post endorsement (though that wasn’t enough for him to win when the Post endorsed him in 2011 or 2008), has endorsements from the Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club, and is raising money faster than he did in 2011. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, Mara’s pulled in $75,000, second only to Ward 3 school activist Matthew Frumin.
And efforts by competitors Elissa Silverman (a former LL columnist) and Councilmember Anita Bonds to tie Mara to the more noxious parts of the GOP brand don’t appear to have gained much traction. Mara did have to return a $1,000 campaign donation from the far-right Freedom’s Defense Fund political action committee. The group supports hard-line conservatives, including former Rep. Todd Akin, who declared last year that some rape was “legitimate.” But most voters are probably well aware by now of Mara’s party affiliation. He was a delegate to Mitt Romney’s presidential nominating convention and is a regular donor to Republican candidates. Mara says he made the decision to be a Republican when he was 18 and has not wavered since, and he thinks it might actually help him appeal to corruption-weary voters.
“It’s the greatest level of independence,” Mara says. (On a more practical level, it also helps that the D.C. Republican Party can raise money and campaign on Mara’s behalf, though the party’s small base of registered voters here might not be such a boon.)
If he does win, it’ll be the culmination of five years of work by Mara, who burst onto the local political scene when he defeated Carol Schwartz in the 2008 Republican primary.
That year, business interests were eager to get rid of Schwartz, an icon of city politics who would have been nearly impossible to defeat in the general election. In Mara they found a perfect candidate: a 33-year-old Republican lobbyist with Boy Scout looks, a sunny disposition, and a willingness to knock on thousands of doors.
Mara grew up in Rhode Island, went to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and moved to D.C. in 1997 to work in the office of former Sen. John Chafee, a moderate Republican. After a few years, he left to work at ML Strategies as a lobbyist mainly on environmental issues. (Some of his listed clients included Goldman Sachs, Cablevision, and eBay.) He said by 2008, he was feeling a pull to launch a political career of his own and by that time felt like D.C. was his home. After he won the GOP primary that year, he quit the lobbying firm.
Since then, Mara has worked as a fundraiser for nonprofits and a consultant on several start-up businesses to pay the bills. (He received an MBA from Babson College while working as a lobbyist.) He says confidentiality agreements prevent him from disclosing whom he helped raise money for (“no one bad”) but says he’s made a conscious decision not to get involved with any organization that does business with the District government.
When he won the GOP primary in 2008, Mara ran to the right of Schwartz, highlighting his fiscal conservatism. His 2008 campaign website boasted that Mara was a proud signee of Grover Norquist’s anti-new-tax pledge. Meanwhile, deep-pocketed construction and parking interests bought tens of thousands of dollars in negative campaign mail ads to paint Schwartz as anti-business.
Only 4,000 Republicans voted in that election, with Mara winning by 18 points. But his victory was short-lived. Schwartz ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for the general election that effectively killed any chance Mara had of winning. Some political observers, as well as Mara, say Schwartz appeared motivated more by a desire to see Mara lose than to actually win the race. (Michael Brown won the seat, while 11 percent of voters cast write-in ballots and Mara got 10 percent of the vote.)
Schwartz says that’s untrue and that Mara should have disassociated himself from some of the negative attacks paid for by his supporters: “I ran to win the seat he took away from me in a very nasty—on his part—primary.”
Former Ward 5 Republican Council candidate Tim Day isn’t a fan, either, saying Mara was a selfish and unreliable ally when Day ran in 2010. “Pat is out for himself,” says Day, who is backing Bonds in the special election.
Mara says he doesn’t know what more he could have done to help Day. Mara also says he’s moved on from the 2008 race and bears Schwartz no ill will. In fact, he says, “I bear nobody ill will.” That presumably includes Ward 1 activist (and 2014 Council candidate) Bryan Weaver, whose candidacy in the 2011 special election Mara believes was a main factor in his defeat. Weaver scored most of his votes in his home turf of Ward 1, where Mara had pulled off an upset 2010 victory for the mostly powerless school board seat.
Besides politics, the Columbia Heights resident used to own a stake in Meridian Pint (a bar where he met his wife, Shannon O’Leary). Mara also sells political and sports paraphernalia on eBay, ranging from a 1948 ticket to the Democratic National Convention ($99.95) to a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker from 2000 ($3.95). Mara says it’s more than a hobby but doesn’t pay enough to make a living by D.C. standards.
Don’t hold your breath that any local D.C. political memorabilia that doesn’t have the name Marion Barry on it will be worth selling online soon. But if they do, Mara might be in a prime position to collect items for a while.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, this story originally incorrectly characterized the results of the at-large D.C. Council 2008 election. Patrick Mara did not finish in a distant third to Carol Schwartz; he got about 1 percentage point fewer votes than write-in did, but not every write-in was necessarily a vote for Schwartz.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery