The last time I interviewed Carol Schwartz was in 2014.
She was running for mayor. Again. And for Schwartz, in spite of the fact that she faced considerably tougher odds than usual, the scene was in many ways undistinguishable from her previous runs for mayor — or, for that matter, any of her runs for an at-large Council seat, a seat she had occupied on and off for 14 years.
With Schwartz, there’s always an atmosphere, there’s always a tone, there’s always people, a little bit or a lot of noise. You can see and hear her coming.
That day we had lunch in Dupont Circle at Kramer Books & Afterwards Café, fit for bookworms and politicos alike.
We talked about the campaign, which featured some unique things. Schwartz was running as an independent against fellow independent David Catania and Democrat Muriel Bowser, the odds-on favorite at the time, having vanquished her main rival, incumbent Vincent Gray (also a Democrat).
It was one of those casual, midweek afternoons in Washington, tourists jostling with regulars, young and not-so-young professionals making their way through the book stacks, having a late lunch.
Schwartz was in good spirits. She seems a person of moving parts, hopscotching through topics and moods like a cast member of “Singing in the Rain.” Sitting there talking, you got a sense of who she was and even what she meant to the city. People kept saying hello. “I’m voting for you,” a middle-aged black woman said, coming up for a greeting.
This process repeated itself later when we took the 42 bus to Adams Morgan, during which a woman introduced her to the rest of the passengers as a candidate for mayor. People gave her a cheerful round of applause.
People, in short, know Schwartz. And if there are people that don’t know her, that omission has been taken care of with the coming of her book “Quite a Life! From Defeat to Defeat … and Back.” The book’s subtitle is “The story of a Republican (now an Independent) gal from Texas who tried hard to become Democratic Washington, D.C.’s Mayor.”
Schwartz has been working on the book in the aftermath of her defeat in the 2014 election, won by Bowser, who is up for reelection next year. The result has been major league and hefty, 744 pages of memoir, stories, anecdotes (plus notes), pictures and musings. She told one writer it could have been 1,500 pages, and it’s hard to argue with that.
We talked by phone this time, but I’ve seen her at work — in her office at the Wilson Building when she was on the Council, out on the street carrying election signs, dancing on election night as results streamed across a television screen the night George W. Bush became governor of Texas.
Schwartz grew up hard, working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and finally in Midland, Texas, where, raised in the Jewish faith, she got a taste of anti-Semitism.
She fell in love with Washington on her first visit in 1966. “I was engaged, mind you, back in Texas, but in a way I dropped everything. This is where I wanted to be, to spend my life, to make my way.”
And she did. Politically, it isn’t exactly like she made it easy on herself. Washington, on the verge of statehood, was a Democrat-dominated political entity that would have a Council that left room for non-Democrats. It then had a powerful schoolboard, which was a jumping-off point for many political wannabes, Schwartz included.
“To me, it was such a rich town, so full of life and everything this country stood for,” she said. “I miss that, to some extent. The city is losing a lot of its diversity now, it’s just not the same. It’s become richer, sure, but that sense of neighborhoods, of variety, that’s starting to disappear now. People can’t afford to live here. It’s especially tough on the working class, and the notion of affordable housing. That diversity, that’s a treasure of this city. It’s harder for older people, for low-income people and the homeless.”
Schwartz was elected to the Board of Education, twice, before deciding to take the next step forward.
There may be that “from defeat to defeat” reference in the title of the book, but there are also a few wins, most notably her first one, when she decided to run for Council in the Republican primary against the Rev. Jerry Moore, an ally of then-“mayor for life” Marion Barry. She not only won — with fierce opposition from a flustered Barry — but she did it by running a write-in campaign. It was, needless to say, an upset of major proportions.
But here’s the thing. Although she took on Barry a number of times, getting the highest percentage of votes (42 percent in 1994), time often healed all political wounds, or most of them.
“Moore and I became good friends, I think, and for all that you could say about Marion, he was a phenomenal politician. And after my husband died, he came over to the house and stayed the whole day to offer condolences,” she recalled.
Schwartz has a way of giving people their due, even if she disagrees with them or has fought them hard in political combat. Somewhere, in the course of telling campaign tales, there’ll be a compliment about two-time Mayor Anthony Williams and his abilities, or how she became friends with his mother, the late Virginia Williams (who did not?).
She has an intense curiosity about people, a passion and a deep love for her close-knit family, including her daughters, who invariably get enlisted and help their mom.
The history of District of Columbia politics, elections and personalities is rich with bigger-than-life folks — and some not so big. It’s a tapestry, and in that tapestry, Schwartz stands out. Some admirers like to say she brings her humanity to the political game, but it’s more than that. She has a genuine gift for politics, true enough, but it’s a bracing and embracing kind of gift. She likes what she does, who she is and, more often than not, was a standout in her surroundings, a Council and political scene that did not lack for stars.
And she’s accomplished things that bear her name: the Whistleblower’s Protection Law, a Sick and Safe Leave for non-government workers. She worked with the Whitman-Walker Clinic for 27 years and was the first woman president of the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Clubs.
Admittedly, the book is a challenge, in terms of its length and contents. Sometimes, it’s wise to take a break from it and just look at the pictures. Most of the time, they’re small, from various periods of her life — relatives, aunts, grandad, the Texas Impala, sections marked “one of the last visits with dad in Midland” or “1994 Mayoral Campaign.”
Just as the writing is vivid, almost breathless, trying to get everything in that you could possibly get in, so is the woman who’s doing it.
There’s a picture — taken in September of this year — full page, ebullient, not so much larger than life, but full of life, still and all.
Quite a life, indeed.