Like Sisyphus rolling boulder up a hill, D.C. Republicans make push for local office Republicans have become something of a unicorn in much of urban America, but some local GOP contenders think left-leaning D.C. could do with a dose of contrarian thinking.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

Like Sisyphus rolling boulder up a hill, D.C. Republicans make push for local office

David Krucoff, at left, is running as a Republican for the Ward 3 seat on the D.C. Council. He says he spends 15 hours a week knocking on voters' doors to make his pitch. Martin Austermuhle/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

When David Krucoff knocks on a door in D.C. and introduces himself as a Republican running for local office, he's often ready to deliver a set of quick additional disclosures.

"The first thing I say is that I'm the conscientious, centrist, pro-choice Republican. It comes right out of my mouth. So I try to disarm that issue fast," he says.

He compares himself to Dwight Eisenhower and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. "And if they get into the former president, I say that I'm not from the authoritarian side of the Republican Party. I'm a democracy warrior," he says.

That Krucoff — who is running for the Ward 3 seat on the D.C. Council — has to so thoroughly preface his pitch to voters is an unfortunate reality of the political context he finds himself in: He's not just a Republican in a largely Democratic city, but also a member of a political party whose fortunes in much of urban America have faltered in recent years.

But this year Krucoff and a small group of like-minded Republicans have again opted to swim against the political tides in what they concede are challenging fights to win office in D.C. But they say it's a noble cause, a push to inject a dose of contrarian thinking into the city's left-leaning politics.

Article continues below

"The whole notion of political diversity is a major emphasis of our campaign," says Krucoff, 55. "To sort of break through what I think is an unhealthy monopoly in the District of Columbia, one that's not conducive to outside-the-box thinking and which is self-siloing and in a variety of ways unhelpful for us in the Wilson Building and on Capitol Hill."

And while some of the Republican candidates say they feel their broader message — which focuses on public safety, fiscal conservatism, and better relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill — is being well received, they also concede the challenges to being elected in D.C. remain real.

"I like to say it's like Sisyphus, where every single day is an uphill battle," jokes Giuseppe Niosi, 30, who is running for an At-Large seat on the council.

'All urban areas basically became Democratic'

That hill has always existed for Republicans in D.C., but what seems to have happened in recent years is that it just got much steeper.

There hasn't been a Republican on the D.C. Council in almost 15 years, and Republicans today make up a smaller proportion of the city's electorate than ever before. As of the end of August, Republicans represented barely over 5% of the city's half-a-million registered voters, down more than a full percentage point from a decade ago. (Democrats are 76% of the electorate, independents 16%.)

The last great Republican hope in D.C. politics was former councilmember Carol Schwartz, who claimed 42% of the vote in her 1994 mayoral run against Marion Barry — but was primaried by Republican voters in 2008 over her support for a paid sick leave bill. She ditched the GOP in 2014 during another unsuccessful run for the city's top office.

That same political reality is playing out in many urban areas across the country, says Michael Hendrix, a scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute who has written about the decline (and possible rebirth) of urban Republicanism.

"It honestly wasn't until the 2000 election that all urban areas basically became Democratic," he says. "And now today, Democrats are basically a grouping of urban interest groups. You're getting to this point today where Democrats are becoming the party of software, the GOP the party of hardware. Democrats are becoming the party of the educated, Republicans are becoming the party of the working class."

Hendrix also ascribes the GOP's faltering fortunes in many cities to culture war issues taken up by the right. That was evident in D.C., where David Catania, once a well-regarded Republican D.C. councilmember, renounced the Republican Party in 2004 over the party's support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. He unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2014 — as an independent.

"We've seen politics become nationalized," says Hendrix. "You can even see this in state party platforms. It used to be, you know, if you had a Nebraska GOP platform, it was about agricultural issues and, you know, take your statewide issue. And that's what was in the party platform. But increasingly over the past 20 years, party platforms have been about national issues."

The last Republican to formally hold elected office in D.C. was Ashley MacLeay, who served on the D.C. State Board of Education from 2017 to 2021. But that race is non-partisan; no one really knew of her political affiliations when she ran.

On the issues

Krucoff and Niosi say that after they reassure voters with words like "centrist" and sentiments equating to "not like Donald Trump," they quickly shift to meat-and-potatoes issues they believe can win over voters. (Schwartz once famously quipped, "There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the trash.")

Niosi — who grew up in Brookland, attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and now works as a systems engineer at the Navy Yard — is focused on public safety, improving schools, and promoting small businesses. He says he believes the city needs to hire more police; the current situation means officers work long hours and are denied meaningful and necessary training opportunities. He supports parental choice in education, but also wants D.C. schools to offer more trades and technical education. And he wants "less government red tape" for local businesses. (His father owned an Italian deli in Brookland.)

"There's a phrase I kinda like, which is 'diversity without displacement.' I don't think some of these big conglomerates need to come into the city and displace some of the brick-and-mortars that have historically already been here," he says.

To that end, Niosi opposes Initiative 82, which would eliminate the tipped wage in D.C., because he worries it would increase operating costs for businesses. (If voters approve it, though, he says he would not vote to overturn it.)

Krucoff, a commercial real estate professional by day, similarly advocates for more funding for police and continued improvements to D.C. schools, and wants to restrain taxes and spending to keep the city competitive relative to Maryland and Virginia.

"We do not live on an island," he says. "We live in a community that includes Maryland and Virginia. Americans are quite mobile, and if we do not peg or benchmark our systems versus other systems, then we're looking for ways to disincentivize people from staying here."

"We had a tremendous surplus. You don't raise taxes when you have a tremendous surplus. And if you do, you're sending the wrong message," he says, referring to the council's decision in 2021 to raise taxes on wealthy residents to pay for expanded homeless services, assistance for low-income households, and pay raises for child care workers.

But he's also focusing on Ward 3-specific issues, notably the proposed protected bike lanes along Connecticut Avenue (he opposes them), building more housing (he supports additional density on already dense corridors), and the use of housing vouchers to place low-income people and families in apartments in Ward 3 neighborhoods (he agrees with neighbors who say that crime has increased and some of the new residents are not well-supported by the city).

Stacia Hall is the Republican contender for mayor. Hall is Black and she lived in public housing and experienced homelessness as a single mother. She says she would better support police officers, expand school choice and oppose over-regulation of charter schools, use vacant buildings and homes for housing, and end D.C.'s sanctuary status to ensure that Republican governors in Texas and Arizona stop busing migrants to the city. (DCist/WAMU tried on multiple occasions to speak to Hall but was unable to).

"For these governors, sanctuary city means D.C. is a city that allows for these migrants to have a temporary place to live. There's almost 7,000 D.C. residents who are homeless who need to be taken care of first," she said during a debate hosted by the D.C. Office of Campaign Finance earlier this week.

Hendrix says that many of the issues that urban Republicans focus on — crime, schools, homelessness — are in fact winning issues with many voters.

"The more that Democrats become this kind of omniscient party at the local level, facing no serious competition, frankly, they can have a tendency to just get lazy and not really listen to local concerns. You see this on homelessness, you see this on crime woes, but you also see this lagging educational performance," he says.

'I am a choice, not an echo'

But for many of the GOP candidates, being a Republican isn't only about advocating for certain things — but also breaking up what they say is monolithic thinking on the council.

"What I'm looking to do is build rapport and to politely but thoughtfully put the brakes on things, in contrast to my opponent," says Krucoff, referring to Democratic candidate Matthew Frumin. "I look to prevent a block on the left from forming [on the council].

"The biggest thing is I am a choice, not an echo," says Niosi.

D.C. Republicans believe that the value of political diversity is the very reason that Congress included a provision in the city's Home Rule Charter specifying that two of the council's four At-Large seats have to be occupied by non-Democrats. "One party rule is not healthy for democracy or good government," says Nelson Rimensnyder, a longtime historian and Republican candidate who is running to unseat D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Republicans have been especially critical of the recent trend of Democrats renouncing their party affiliation in order to run for those At-Large seats. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Councilmember Christina Henderson (I-At Large) did it, as has Kenyan McDuffie, the current Ward 5 councilmember who is running for an At-Large seat. (Another candidate for the seat, Karim Marshall, served in a leadership post in the city's Democratic party before changing his affiliation to run.)

"People run for this minority seat kind of nefariously, as a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Niosi. "We all know that most of the people who ran as independent actually were at one point a Democrat. And so I don't really think that brings forth the diversity of thought that we're looking for."

And historically, local Republicans have said there would be another benefit to having GOP presence on the council — in short, holding off any attempts from congressional Republicans to interfere in local affairs. That, says Krucoff, would be even more important considering a possible Republican takeover of the House and increasingly radical propositions from Capitol Hill on repealing home rule altogether.

"I would be in significant opposition to many of their platforms right now regarding the District of Columbia," he says. "But I think that I might be a little more of a better person to make our points than our delegate or our council as it's presently constituted."

Challenges remain

All those arguments aside, Republican candidates still face a battle that Niosi alluded to when he compared the task to pushing a boulder uphill.

While Krucoff and Niosi have both qualified for public financing to fund their campaigns (through August Krucoff has raised $88,000, and Niosi $139,000), other candidates have raised little money to be competitive (as of August Hall had taken in just over $3,300 and had $600 left in the bank). Two Republican candidates — Council chairman contender Nate Derenge and Clarence Lee Jr. in Ward 5 — have not even created campaign committees, meaning they're extremely limited in how much money they can raise or spend.

And though Ward 3 has the second-most Republicans in any of the city's eight wards, the tally is still extremely lopsided — there are 4,791 Republicans to 42,128 Democrats. As Krucoff knocked on doors recently in Van Ness and repeated his well-honed pitch that he's a centrist Republican, one voter seemed amused, albeit unconvinced. "Good luck in this city," he said.

Still, Krucoff says his attempt to win as a Republican, even if unsuccessful, could serve to make a broader point about D.C. politics. And if he had his way, this wouldn't even be an issue — he believes D.C. should have non-partisan elections.

"I'm somebody who thinks that we should have a better system of government in D.C. that's more enfranchising to our residents," he says, "so they're not pigeonholed into one party or another."

This story originally appeared on DCist.com.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5