The Capitol and the John A. Wilson Building are separated by less than 3 miles, but sometimes it seems like the buildings where Congress and D.C. government work are in different countries, let alone quadrants, and their elected officials speak different languages.
It helps to have “ambassadors,” people whose experience working on Capitol Hill or the administration of a president can help translate what’s going on to local officials as well as communicate to federal officials what’s happening on the local political scene.
Two such would-be ambassadors are among the five candidates vying for an open at-large D.C. Council seat in the April 23 special election: D.C. State Board of Education member Patrick Mara and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Matthew Frumin.
In recent conversations with CQ Roll Call, Mara and Frumin spoke about their diverse careers that originated outside the local political sphere and shared how those experiences have informed the work they do now and the work they’d do if they got elected to the council.
Mara came to D.C. the summer before his senior year of college, in 1996, to intern for then-Sen. John H. Chafee, R-R.I. When Mara graduated in spring 1997, he returned to work full time for the senator, who was then the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Later pursuing a career as a lobbyist for issues related to clean energy, technology and education, Mara came back to Capitol Hill frequently to meet with lawmakers and their staff, which has helped him keep his finger on the pulse of congressional activity, especially that which affects the District.
And as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic local political scene, Mara’s strategy, he said, is reaching out to fellow Republicans especially.
“I see Democratic and Republican staffers quite a bit, whether at school auctions or committees, but I’ve tried to focus in on Republicans when I talk about D.C. issues because those seem to be the [people with whom] nobody in the District [government] has a consistent conversation,” he said.
Frumin, a Democrat, was a special assistant to the undersecretary of global affairs in President Bill Clinton’s State Department and ran for Congress in Michigan in 2000.
Those experiences have helped him operate effectively on the local political scene, Frumin said. It’s what he learned while doing international work as an election monitor, though, that has in particular prepared him for the task of building metaphorical bridges between the D.C. Council and Congress, should he win the election next week.
“I’ve worked on projects in dozens of countries all over the world and worked with political parties all over the world,” he said. “I have the ability to work with people who are very different from me, with very different backgrounds and perspectives, but at heart we all believe in the same thing. That’s a skill I think that will serve me well.”
David Grosso, the other at-large councilman who was elected last November, used to be the legislative director for Democratic District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. In addition to learning practical skills about how the city runs itself in relationship to Congress, Grosso said he also walked away with a unique understanding of how Congress sees the city.
“I think people downplay the challenge that we have before us and the reputation of our city. Elected officials do have impact on our credibility and the way we look on the Hill,” Grosso said. “Obviously it shouldn’t matter because there are ethical issues all over the country, but unfortunately because of our unique relationship with the federal government, I think we have a higher bar to earning credibility.”