Romney Voters? In Washington, D.C.?

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A tiny political minority is seeking to fight fraud, corruption and waste in the heavily Democratic District of Columbia. Oh -- and they also voted 70 percent for Romney.

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Reuters

Presumptive Republican nominee Willard Mitt Romney hasn't paid all that much attention to the District of Columbia during campaign 2012, but he managed to come out on top with 70 percent of the vote in yesterday's primary here, netting twice as many delegates as in the contest in Guam.

A closer look at those number show why he didn't bother to waste much time reaching out to voters inside the much-derided seat of big government: The Republican electorate in the District consists of just over 30,000 registered voters, and only 15 percent of them made it to the polls on Tuesday. That means that in Washington, Republican general election candidates get about the same number of votes as a front-runner to represent one of the city's eight wards on the D.C. Council. In contrast, the city has more than 343,000 registered Democrats, and 80,000 residents who haven't selected a party, making the city-state's three electoral college votes decidedly blue.

But just because D.C.'s Republicans are small in number doesn't mean they are not a hardy band, like liberals in South Carolina or Alabama. In recent years the small pool of die-hard Republicans in the city has found a niche, thanks to a swell of corruption and evidence of wasteful government spending on the part of the Democrat-dominated city government.

When Paul Craney was hired by the D.C. GOP as a twenty-something in 2007, his first order of business was to put local Republicans on the political playing field (forget leveling it). And over the last five years, he's had some success: the party has gone from marginalized to, well, significantly less marginalized.

"I wanted the D.C. GOP to define itself," says Craney, who recently left D.C. to work at a non-partisan fiscal policy think tank in Romney's former home state of Massachusetts. After former mayor Adrian Fenty took office in 2007, the city's GOP went on the offensive, criticizing his oversight and management style.

But Fenty's hiring of Michelle Rhee as D.C. Chancellor of Schools, along his fierce support of her controversial reform policies, made him popular among D.C. Republicans -- so popular, in fact, that he was the GOP write-in candidate of choice during the 2010 D.C. primary, getting 822 votes, even as he lost the Democratic primary to then-D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray. (Fenty opted not to run as a Republican, probably saving himself a further trouncing from Gray.)

In defining itself, the D.C. GOP has positioned itself to take a stand against fraud, corruption, and waste -- an easy thing to do when all three have become a regular feature of local politics. The spectacular fall of Democratic Ward 5 Council member Harry Thomas, Jr., a political scion who stole $400,000 from kids' programs, was a chalked up as a win for the party, which helped kick the story into gear. After Republican opponent Tim Day started looking into Thomas' spending, Thomas brokered a deal to pay back the city $300,000, without being forced to admit any wrongdoing. While members of the D.C. Council remained silent, District Republicans began calling for his resignation. Thomas was indicted by the feds this year, pleaded guilty, and was forced to resign.

"No one likes to see anyone go down in flames," Craney says. But, "it was justice, not just for Ward 5, but for the city."

Add to that: A recent scandal where dozens of D.C. employees collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in unemployment checks while still employed by the city, proposed increases in Metro fares while the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's top execs make more than their counterparts, and an ongoing investigation of suspicious money order donations to council members from a city contractor.

The numbers of Republicans running for office in D.C. has been on the rise, with moderate success. Patrick Mara was elected to a nonpartisan slot on the D.C. Board of Education, and narrowly lost a seat on the D.C. Council a few months later to Vincent Orange, after a late push by an anonymous band of "concerned residents" to paint Orange as more in touch with the black community.

According to Mara, "ethics figure prominently" in how Republicans participate in such a blue environment. The concerns D.C. GOPers share: "holding contractors accountable, and awarding dollars to someone who can do the task." He references the golden age of corruption under Marion Barry -- the former four-term mayor and current council member -- who built his base through job creation and awarding contracts, with little regard to the quality of the work the city was purchasing.

"You can get at least a plurality of Democrats to agree with you," Mara adds, when it comes to wasteful spending. "The cash is not real to a council member, which is why they're always looking at ways to raise revenue, and not how to make things more efficient."

There are other areas where the District's Democrats and Republicans agree, too. School choice and charter schools are popular among both parties in D.C., given the state of the city's public schools. And urban Republicans are more tolerant, and even supportive sometimes, of gay rights. They regularly part way with the national party on social issues.

In 2004, when President George W. Bush was trying to create a federal definition of marriage, Craney says, "D.C. was the only state party at the time that thought the states should handle it."

"We wear social issues a heck of a lot less on our sleeves," Mara says.

Last month was the 41st anniversary of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, which gave D.C. the right to vote in presidential elections. Today, statehood is a populist rallying cry in D.C. and unlike Republicans in the rest of the country, D.C.'s Republicans support it to varying degrees. From an old-fashioned federalist perspective, voting rights and full representation for District residents are only fair.

But when used as a shield or a distraction from ethics issues -- which some have accused Mayor Gray and D.C. council members of doing during recent trips to New Hampshire and Florida to plead for support -- the tolerance drops. "There's a lot of blame to go around in both parties," Mara says. "And I think that we really need to have a calculated plan when we attack statehood and voting rights."

So what's it like to be a D.C. Republican? Well, on a policy front, the urban Republican isn't terribly distinguishable from the urban Democrat. Being outnumbered may be the biggest difference.

"Some will say 'it feels lonely,' or they'll have sob stories," Craney says. "At the same time, as a Republican in D.C., you can say with a straight face that 'I'm not a part of the problem.' "

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Shani O. Hilton is a staff writer at Washington City Paper.

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