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Asking The Tough Questions: D.C.'s Carol Schwartz

After three decades on the D.C. Council and school board, after the death of her husband, after losing four campaigns for mayor, Carol Schwartz says she is "sort of used to having things work out not so well. I've led kind of a chaotic life."

But the District's only Republican elected official is an eternal optimist, as sunshiny as her bright yellow convertible and as big a booster as this city has ever had.

It's fashionable in this year when the political mantra insists on urgent but undefined "change" to conclude that elected officials who have been around for a long time must be cleared out to make way for a new generation. In Tuesday's Republican primary, a political novice named Patrick Mara, who at 32 is half Schwartz's age, argues that the 7 percent of city voters who belong to the minority party should dump the woman he calls a reckless spender and closet Democrat.

It's certainly true that Schwartz is no comfortable fit in the GOP of Sarah Palin. Schwartz is a champion of gay rights, a self-professed liberal on most social issues and architect of the District's new law requiring businesses to grant a few days of annual sick leave to workers -- a move that has the city's business establishment coughing up big money to get rid of her.

But going back to the Marion Barry era, Schwartz, now in her fourth term as an at-large council member, has been a rare fiscal conservative in a government that views taxpayers as a bottomless source of cash for every fly-by-night contractor and every community group that purports to be doing something good.

When her deep adenoidal voice rings out in a council hearing room, it's often the public's only chance to discover how the millions vanish and how little the people get in return. Not a real Republican? Well, maybe, but it is Schwartz who has spent the past year and a half preventing movement on Barry's bill that would give ex-offenders special protection under the city's human rights law.

"I don't think if you are a jewelry store, you should have to hire a jewel thief and if you don't hire them, they could sue you and the city has to pay for the lawyer," Schwartz says. "I mean, please."

And she's frozen for nearly two years a bill that would force such large retailers as Macy's or Target to pay the city's $11.75 an hour "living wage." She says: "It would chase away exactly the kind of retailers we're working so hard to bring into our city, so I bottled it up. And I'm anti-business?"

(Schwartz says she's voted for all but one Republican presidential candidate in her voting career; she coyly refuses to say which one.)

Only the District's 30,000 registered Republicans get to decide whether Schwartz stays or goes -- she says she's unlikely to mount a write-in campaign as an independent should she lose the primary -- but the entire city benefits from Schwartz's non-ideological insistence that the city cannot afford the corruption and incompetence that has held it back for so long.

"She's beyond meticulous about knowing where every dollar is spent," says Lawrence Guyot, a longtime Democratic activist who says he works to defeat all others save Schwartz and former Republican David Catania (I-At Large). "She is where the Republican Party should be, watching the spending without opposing helping people."

Mara, who says he has knocked on the doors of more than 5,000 D.C. Republicans, argues that Schwartz's actions are so far from party principles that most voters he talks to don't even know what party she represents. "She doesn't use the word 'Republican' in her literature, she's never endorsed Republicans in local elections, and most of her staff are Democrats," he says.

"Certainly she calls herself a fiscal conservative, but she did nothing to halt a 51 percent increase in the D.C. budget in four years," Mara says. "I'll have no problem being the one dissenting vote." He paints Schwartz as someone who set out to battle the bureaucracy but "became part of that system."

After all those years in office, Schwartz is not exactly an outsider rebelling against the system. But she does still frequently poke the powers that be. I don't know whether Schwartz was right to stand up as one of only two council members opposing Mayor Adrian Fenty's takeover of the school system -- the jury will be out on Chancellor Michelle Rhee's efforts for a good deal longer -- but I do know that without Schwartz, hardly anyone would be keeping tabs on where the torrent of new school money is really going.

Schwartz does occasionally tilt at windmills. For years, she's pushed to strip the Washington Redskins of their name because it's supposedly offensive to Indians, a silly crusade on something that's none of the city government's business. And she's not always consistent: She was against the deal to bring baseball back to the city until she was for it.

This newspaper's editorial board advised voters yesterday against returning Schwartz to office, calling her "unrelentingly negative," a term I'd think any legislator charged with overseeing a sprawling, profligate bureaucracy would wear proudly.

Mara says he's "extremely optimistic" he will prevail. When I ask Schwartz whether she's confident of victory, she answers uncharacteristically monosyllabically: "No."

Schwartz tears up at the prospect of losing because of her role in winning sick leave for the women who work the cash registers at chain stores. "It's just a humane way of treating people who are trying to better their lives by working," she says. "Isn't that a Republican principle? If I go down on that one, I will really be proud."

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By Marc Fisher |  September 4, 2008; 8:41 AM ET
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Marc, you say she "fights corruption" and is against wasteful spending, but where are the examples? Isn't it your job to dig a little deeper than the Schwartz campaign rhetoric?

For instance -- and I checked into this after seeing the video below -- it appears Schwartz did absolutely nothing to hold the disastrous summer jobs program accountable and on-budget. On the major issue before the committee she chairs, it seems like she essentially sat on the sideline and cheered for the program to spend money.

Posted by: charliew | September 4, 2008 9:56 AM

Its funny how they use just that one quote, but I was actually at that hearing and she actually was tough on them. She has said over and over that it is important to spend money to educate our youth and train them to become productive parts of society, but at the same time it is important that we watch waste.

Posted by: Bowtie Bandit | September 9, 2008 2:12 PM

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