- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2018

Its telephone number now belongs to a car donation charity, and its website hasn’t been updated since August.

So where is the D.C. GOP?

According to Chairman Jose Cunningham, the District of Columbia Republican Party is raring to compete in citywide elections this year and make inroads in increasingly gentrified neighborhoods where registered Democratic voters outnumber registered Republicans by a ratio of 12-to-1.

“We’ve been recruiting candidates over the past year, and you’ll see Republicans on the ballot,” Mr. Cunningham told The Washington Times. He said he can appoint candidates to specific races after the city’s Republican primary on June 19.

One of the declared candidates on whom the party is pinning its hopes and future is Michael Bekesha, an attorney for a government watchdog group who is aiming to unseat D.C. Council member Charles Allen in Ward 6.

“We’re volunteering on his campaign, knocking on doors with him, getting signatures for him and helping him raise money,” said Mr. Cunningham, a marketing executive. “He’s a terrific candidate, and he’ll make a fantastic council member.”

But Mr. Cunningham acknowledged that Republicans in the city are working on something of a comeback. He said the departure of Patrick Mara as the party’s executive director means that “many of the political and administrative functions and details have fallen temporarily to me and other leaders at the D.C. GOP.”

Though its website has been neglected and its phone number reassigned, the local party has maintained an active presence on social media with multiple daily postings on Facebook and Twitter.

Mr. Cunningham said he recently hosted “a D.C. GOP Advisory Council reception on Capitol Hill for our large donors” and that the party plans to roll out a new website and phone number soon.

Though Republicans control all the levers of federal power in Washington, they have been in the opposition at the local level since the District won home rule in the 1970s.

Of the District’s 469,022 registered voters, 28,959 — or 6 percent — are Republicans, according to the D.C. Board of Elections’ most recent data. Democrats account for 356,803 registered voters, or 77 percent. A total of 77,183 registered voters, about 17 percent, have no party affiliation, a voting bloc that the Republican Party is keen to address and win over.

Democrats hold 11 of the 13 seats on the D.C. Council, and independents fill the other two seats. Democrats also have the mayor’s office, the attorney general’s office, the majority of the school board and the office of the District’s nonvoting congressional representative.

“It’s just not normal,” said Mr. Mara, the local party’s former executive director a former D.C. school board member.

However, friction within the party has frustrated its cohesion and fractured its message.

Carol Schwartz served on the D.C. Council for 16 years and ran four times for mayor. She became the only Republican to receive more than 30 percent of the vote in a D.C. election since home rule. In office, she supported fellow Republican council member David Catania’s fight for marriage equality.

She lost the 2008 Republican primary for her at-large council seat to Mr. Mara, who in turn lost the general election to independent Michael A. Brown. She said she left the party entirely in 2014.

“I became an independent because the party I had belonged to for many years — about 50 years — had become much too conservative for me,” Mrs. Schwartz told The Times.

The last Republican to serve on the D.C. Council, Mr. Catania, left the party in 2004 over President George W. Bush’s opposition to same-sex marriage. He had served on the council since 1997 and was re-elected in 2006 as an independent. He could not be reached for comment.

“It’s always tough to get everyone on the same page,” Mr. Mara said.

The biggest obstacle to conservative campaigns in the District is finding a candidate who can do it all with a limited voter base, he said.

“You need to have a pretty sophisticated voter identity and get-out-the-vote effort. You also need to be a worker bee when it comes to campaigning,” Mr. Mara said. “The average voter is someone who voted for Hillary Clinton for president. You need to know how to effectively communicate with them. That’s an extremely rare animal to find.”

D.C. GOP officials think they may have found that rare candidate in Michael Bekesha of Judicial Watch in the race for Ward 6’s council seat.

“I am running because we need more diversity of thought on the council,” Mr. Bekesha said.

“When Carol was on the council, other council members knew they could not get away with shenanigans. Someone was watching,” he said.

“He’s probably one of the best candidates we’ve ever had at this stage of the campaign,” Mr. Mara said.

Mr. Mara noted that Ward 6’s incumbent council member, Mr. Allen, will have to spend money to fend off a Democratic primary challenge by health care executive Lisa Hunter, but Mr. Bekesha can save campaign funds because he faces no opposition in the Republican primary.

Although registered Republicans make up 6 percent of the electorate citywide, he said, they account for 11 percent of voters in Ward 6.

Mr. Allen was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Bekesha is developing policy ideas on affordable housing, paid leave, and local police and fire recruitment.

This month, he gained attention for an online post in which he accused the council of being hypocritical in supporting the #MeToo movement while commemorating the late Marion Barry with a statue. “Barry was a powerful man who used his power to terrorize women,” he wrote.

Mr. Bekesha also was an early voice calling for the resignation of D.C. Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who stepped down last month after a school transfer scandal involving his daughter.

When asked if the rash of D.C. Public Schools scandals help increase his visibility, Mr. Bekesha said, “It helps to vote out incumbents. And Virginia shows the longtime majority party candidates are no longer safe.”

• Julia Airey can be reached at jairey@washingtontimes.com.

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