Opinion: Columnists

Jonetta Rose Barras: Is the third time a charm for Mara?

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Surely Patrick Mara has mastered the science of citywide campaigns. He has run twice for the at-large seat on the D.C. Council. The April 23 special election will be his third attempt.

He's racked up several endorsements -- the D.C. Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee, for example -- that raise his chances to be victorious. But the obstacle Mara faced previously still confronts him. He's a Republican in a predominantly Democratic town.

Sure, he received 11,851 votes in the 2011 special election. But he was bested by Democrat Vincent Orange, who won with 13,583 votes, according to the D.C. Board of Elections.

Nevertheless, Mara told me, during a recent interview, his history of trying and not succeeding has served him well this time around. "I have never had a better grass-roots organization than I have today," he said, adding that he has called more than 20,000 homes and knocked on 5,000 doors.

That all sounds good. But off-season contests suffer notoriously low turnout. In 2011, only 10.3 percent of the city's 455,842 registered voters actually showed up at the polls, according the elections board.

That victory could be had with such paltry numbers may account for the popularity of special elections. Mara is one of seven candidates appearing on the ballot, along with Elissa Silverman, Perry Redd, Paul Zukerberg, Anita Bonds, Michael Brown and Matthew Frumin.

Mara, a member of the DC State Board of Education, has made schools a key talking point during the campaign. "Five years ago, we heard people say they were moving to Montgomery County or Fairfax," Mara said. "That threat continues. Now it's 'I'm going to send my kid to a charter school.'

"The rounds I made in the last two years to schools have helped me understand what the issues are," he continued, noting the problems are not just centered on pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. "How do we go back and create opportunities for adults we missed?"

Mara has argued for more effective use of those tax incentives the council passes around like water. He supports free enterprise zones and has said he would encourage people east of the Anacostia River to become more "entrepreneurial."

Government finances and ethics are inextricably linked, Mara told me. He doesn't "think we do a good enough job measuring how we spend our money." Who's getting the contracts is one issue, but the other critical concern is whether contractors are fulfilling their obligations. The council doesn't really ask that latter question. "It seems like they just sweep things under the rug. One benefit I would bring is that I wouldn't be looking the other way," Mara added.

He proved that earlier this week. He called for Mayor Vincent Gray to replace D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe.

"Public safety is the first responsibility of all elected officials," Mara said, describing Ellerbe's tenure as "unremarkable and checkered by controversy. ... Chief Ellerbe is not the best person for the job."

It's equally fair to ask if Mara is the right person for the city council.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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