By Joshua Marks
The latest polling in the Washington, D.C., mayoral race shows Democrat Muriel Bowser leading her main challengers, David Catania and Carol Schwartz – both former Republicans running as independents – by a wide margin. But out on the campaign trail you could be mistaken to think Schwartz, 70, is on track to be the District’s next mayor by the enthusiastic reaction she receives from residents.
Washington Jewish Week joined the only Jewish candidate on the ballot last Wednesday as she greeted potential voters between a busy schedule that included a morning meeting with Christian ministers and an evening education debate. Along the way, as we traversed this rapidly changing city from the Atlas District to Anacostia, the former four-term at-large councilmember, two-term Board of Education member and five-time mayoral candidate talked about her Jewish background that began in the unlikeliest of places.
Over warm chicken noodle soup at Corner Bakery in Chinatown on a cool, overcast fall day, Schwartz, whose maiden name is Levitt, told her personal story. She was born in Greenville, Miss., to Jewish parents who were Reform, but says she didn’t have a religious upbringing. After moving to Tennessee and Oklahoma, her family settled in Midland, Texas, when she was around 7 1/2 years old. That was where Schwartz experienced anti-Semitism for the first time.
“I remember a fella I really liked in elementary school. He seemed to like me too and then he came one day into class and he started calling me a dirty Jew,” recalled Schwartz. “I guess he had heard it from his family. I just learned to deal with it.”
She eventually met an Orthodox Jewish guy named Ivan Edelman and was introduced for the first time to what it means to be an observant Jew. They got engaged and then broke up before Schwartz moved to Washington, D.C., in January 1966 at the age of 22, after graduating from the University of Texas-Austin with a degree in elementary and special education.
She married David Schwartz from the Bronx and held their wedding at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, where her grandparents were members. They had three children who all attended D.C. public schools in Ward 3’s north Cleveland Park neighborhood. Her son, Doug, is an artist in Los Angeles; her daughter Stephanie is a lawyer for abused and neglected children in New York City; and her other daughter, Hilary, is a stand-up comedian in NYC who drove down to D.C. to become Schwartz’s deputy campaign manager.
Her real estate lawyer husband, David, committed suicide in 1988, an event that Schwartz still gets emotional talking about.
Schwartz’s campaign coordinator picked us up (on nice days Schwartz drives her yellow Pontiac Trans Am convertible with the top down), and we drove through the booming H Street Corridor, past the shiny new streetcars being tested, the packed bars and restaurants, to the Hechinger Mall Safeway at Bladensburg and Benning Roads Northeast.
While fighting D.C. traffic, Schwartz said that she used to write a column for Washington Jewish Week called “Carol Schwartz Reports.” She remembered a column confronting Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan over anti-Semitic remarks he had made and receiving a thank you note from civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
At Safeway, Carol jumped out of the car and enthusiastically greeted shoppers, most of whom were African Americans. “Hey! D.C. voter? You looking for a good mayor? Look no further,” Schwartz proclaimed. A woman exclaimed, “I know you!” Carol responded, saying, “I hope you’ll vote for me for mayor.” The woman smiled and nodded her head in approval. Other shoppers passed by, with a friendly “Hey, Ms. Schwartz!”
As we left Safeway for the next destination – a quick stop at Van Ness Elementary School in the Navy Yard area for a D.C. Streetcar meeting – Schwartz told me how proud she was about dealing with two issues during her time serving on the City Council. She was “green” before being environmentally friendly was the cool thing to do, calling herself “the environmentalist of the century.” She established the Department of the Environment, and got passed the strongest tree bill in the country, brought back recycling and banned gas-guzzling SUVs from the D.C. government. She was also way ahead of her time in calling for Washington pro- football team owner Daniel Snyder to change the team’s name. In 2001, Schwartz brought forward a resolution to the council calling on Snyder to change the name, which passed 12 to 1. At the same time she was also chair of the Metropolitan Council of Governments and got it to pass a name change resolution by a vote of 11 to 2.
“Snyder doesn’t listen to anybody, but one day he’ll listen,” said Schwartz. “Oh yeah. Eventually. Or no one will go to his games and that will be OK too.”
Next stop was the Giant supermarket in Congress Heights – “East of the River” via Anacostia. As we cruised down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in the heart of Ward 8, Schwartz rolled down her window and waved to drivers next to us. “This is Carol Schwartz.” A woman answered, “I know who you are. How are you doing?” Schwartz responded, “I’m good.” The woman asked if she was running for mayor. “I am.” The woman responded, “You’ve got my vote.” Schwartz thanked her and blew her a kiss. “You’re welcome. It’s about time,” said the woman before driving ahead of us. “I really didn’t have to do a lot of talking to get that, right”? mused Schwartz.
While driving up MLK, Schwartz explained why she left the Republican Party in 2013 and became an independent. “They’ve just veered too far off to the right. The tea party took over, and I thought, no way. I can’t do it anymore.”
As we avoid potholes on the city streets, Schwartz said she is particularly proud of establishing a perpetual fund for ongoing street and sidewalk repairs that the council got rid of after she left. If elected mayor, Schwartz said she would bring back this dedicated source of revenue to fix the city’s crumbling roads.
These are the kinds of unsexy but important bread-and-butter issues that appeal to many voters.
With Election Day on the horizon, Bowser (44 percent) can claim a comfortable 17 point lead over Catania (27 percent) and a 34 point lead over Schwartz (10 percent), according to a new poll of likely D.C. voters commissioned by Washington City Paper/WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show. However, 16 percent of likely voters are undecided, which gives the Schwartz campaign hope.
On our way to the Congress Heights Giant, Schwartz rolled down her window again upon spotting a pedestrian. “D.C. voter ma’am? I’m Carol Schwartz running for mayor. I hope you’ll think about me Nov. 4.”