Michael Bekesha, a Republican candidate for a D.C. Council seat in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, stood by his booth at the H Street Festival on a sunny October Saturday, having a perfectly civil exchange with two Ward 6 residents.
They seemed to agree with many of the stands that Bekesha — a first-time candidate challenging incumbent Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) — touted on his banner as “socially progressive”: more resources for schools, subsidized housing for cops and teachers, an end to stop-and-frisk policing.
Ann Corbett, who works as an environmental advocate, pressed him on global warming. Bekesha agreed it was an “urgent” problem.
“I’m not a Republican who denies climate change,” Bekesha said.
“You mean you’re a Republican who can survive in D.C. politics,” replied Corbett’s partner, Simon Billenness, a human rights advocate.
“I call myself an ‘urban Republican,’ ” said Bekesha.
The pair moved away after wishing the candidate luck.
But would they vote for him?
“Not this year,” said Corbett, in an “Elect Women” shirt, after she was out of Bekesha’s earshot. “There are cycles I would consider voting for a Republican. This is not one of them. He needs to be repudiated at the ballot box.”
By “He,” she doesn’t mean Bekesha. “He seems like a reasonable guy,” Corbett said. She means President Trump.
It’s never been easy for Republican candidates to run in the District, a city with 12 times more registered Democrats than Republicans. But partisan fuming over Trump means local Republicans find they have a bit more explaining to do when they ask for votes.
“I think it’s a little more difficult right now,” acknowledged Bekesha. “I spend a lot of time making it clear that I’m not that kind of Republican.”
Bekesha, 37, is the kind of Republican who wrote in the name of Ohio Gov. John Kasich for president in 2016. The kind who doesn’t own a car, lives in a Navy Yard apartment with a Democratic wife and a rescue beagle. The kind who supports D.C. statehood. A Massachusetts native, he reveres that state’s brand of moderate “community-building” Republicanism and cites its former Republican governor William Weld as a political hero. Another is the late Sen. John McCain.
The words “Republican” or “GOP” don’t appear anywhere on the flier he has been leaving on porches around Capitol Hill — once pounding out 30 miles in a weekend. “Proud Member of a Bipartisan Marriage” is as close as it comes. “Socially Progressive and Fiscally Responsible.”
“I don’t feel the need to promote a party line,” Bekesha said, especially in a ward where just 7,500 of the 79,000 voters are Republicans.
Bekesha is one of three GOP candidates who will appear on the city’s ballot Nov. 6. Ralph Chittams, a former D.C. GOP vice chairman, is challenging at-large council member Elissa Silverman (I), and Nelson Rimensnyder is running against Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) to be the District’s nonvoting congressman. The party hasn’t fielded an electoral winner since longtime at-large councilwoman Carol Schwartz left office in 2009.
Bekesha’s Republicanism is mostly federal and fiscal. He wants the national government to do less, and he wants the local government to spend less, or at least to not spend more than it takes in. On recent local issues, he supported the council’s repeal of the mandated wage hike for restaurant servers, and he opposes the move to restrict Airbnb-style rentals in the city. Mostly, he thinks the entire city government would benefit from a little two-party scrutiny.
“There’s no accountability with one party in power,” he said.
Some of his fellow Republicans have pushed him to embrace the president, he said. He responds that his arms-length posture is not just strategic, it’s personal. He has considered leaving the party since Trump won the nomination and then the White House. If the GOP continues to morph into a Trumpian institution, he says he still may.
“But I’m not ready to give up on it yet,” he said.
The city’s top Republican, D.C. GOP Chairman Jose Cunningham, said he is okay with Bekesha’s Republican campaign that is non-Republican, even though he himself is a fervent Trump supporter.
“From my perspective, he’s running a good campaign for his ward,” Cunningham said. “He’s doing the right things.”
A far bigger headache for Cunningham are the Trump-hating members of his party who have gone to ground and closed their wallets. Even as he has seen fervor for the president grow at GOP gatherings around the country, Cunningham returns home to find Washington’s Republicans still treat Trump with disdain.
“This is a town where, early on, a lot of Republicans decided they were going to be Never Trumpers,” Cunningham said.
Party coffers have suffered as a result. Campaign finance documents show the party raised more than $370,000 in 2015 and 2016, but raised just over $240,000 — from about half the number of contributors — in the two years since.
“Some of them say they won’t give with this president in office,” Cunningham said.
Unlike Bekesha, Chittams is running as an avowed conservative.
“REPUBLICAN” was stripped across the top of the pamphlet he was handing out at the H Street Festival. He said, in particular, black voters — Chittams is an African American pastor — are warming to his message of personal responsibility and even his vocal support for Trump.
“I think now people are waking up to the failure of one-party rule in this city,” Chittams said.
At a recent forum, one man came up to him to say he agreed with every point Chittams made.
“Then he said, ‘But I still can’t vote you because you’re a Republican,” he said. “Some people are still locked in hyper-partisanship.”
Bekesha said that only two voters have harangued him for belonging to the GOP, one of them outside a polling place on primary Election Day. Immediately, a volunteer for Allen, the Democratic who Bekesha is running against, stepped over to apologize for the voter’s outburst.
“Actually this whole experience has been extremely positive,” he said. “I’ve grown both personally and professionally from it.”
When he is going door-to-door, the few voters who aren’t brushing him off as fast as possible want to talk about the future of RFK Stadium, or used condoms on H Street, or a recent pair of shootings near D Street. It is only the reporters, he said, who ask about hot-button national issues such as Obamacare (he was opposed to it becoming law but thinks it would be too disruptive to repeal) or Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court (He supported Kavanaugh until the assault allegations and the judge’s “emotional outburst” in the final hearing).
Only the reporters ask about his employer, Judicial Watch, a conservative group that was a legal thorn in the side of the Clinton administration. Bekesha, a lawyer who continues to look into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, describes his motivations in filing countless Freedom of Information Act requests as forcing the kind of transparency that every administration should show. He points out that Judicial Watch has been an annoyance to both Democratic and Republican White Houses.
“On transparency, Obama was probably no worse than Bush was,” he said. “And the Trump administration is definitely no better, probably worse.”
He says there is a way for him to win by turning out nearly every one of Ward 6’s 7,500 registered Republicans and luring a good chunk of its 14,000 independents. He also said he’d consider it a triumph to be the first GOP candidate to crack 15 percent of the vote in the ward.
That may depend on enough Democrats willing to control a partisan gag reflex that is a hair trigger at the moment.
Ward 6 resident Becca Damante, 23, listened with interest as Bekesha talked about community policing and keeping schools under the control of the mayor. A Democrat, she thanked him, accepted a pamphlet and, outside of his hearing, said no way.
“I don’t have a lot of respect for the Republican Party right now,” she said.
Peter Jamison contributed to this report.