As budding politicians go, Michael Monroe's main advantage is that he's got the look. The 25-year-old Republican candidate for Washington, D.C.'s congressional seat might not have the experience, of the money, or the ideas. But he's got the look: coiffed blonde hair, deep-set, earnest eyes, even a slight cleft to his chin. From head to me, he looks like he was born to cut ribbons at grocery-store openings, to press the flesh at shopping malls and Kiwanis Club pancake breakfasts. It's almost enough to make you believe Monroe when he argues, very sincerely, that he's got a legitimate chance at knocking off Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting, yet wildly popular, seven-term delegate to the U.S. Congress. "My plan will be clear and the end goals will be clear. She'll see that this isn't just some kid with his name on the ballot, this is a serious Republican contender," he implores, looking at me guilelessly. "People say it's crazy; it's impossible--but the only thing impossible would be not to try."
We're sitting at a table in the back of Chef Geoff's, a restaurant in downtown Washington which functions as the de facto campaign headquarters for Monroe's long-shot bid. It's 6:30 p.m., right before the dinner rush, and the clubby oaken-paneled restaurant is mostly empty, with pockets of early-bird elderly scattered around the dining room. Monroe has worked at Chef Geoff's on and off since graduating from James Madison University in 2001; he is currently, the restaurant's marketing director. Chef Geoff himself is a Democrat, but Monroe assures me that he'll cross party lines come November--"He's a swing voter." Sitting around the table are some key Monroe supporters: high school friends Quincy Waldron and John Corrigan, D.C. Young Republicans representative Jenny Lee, and Ed Garrity, a mysterious young man in a three-piece suit who won't say what he does and who eyes me coolly when I am introduced as a journalist.
By and large, this appears to be the brain trust of the campaign, which at times feels more like an overly serious campaign for student council than an under-resourced race for congressional office. Of course, that's a hard feeling to shake when the candidate just turned 25 years old in August. Far from trying to hide this fact, though, Monroe trumpets his youth. "I think I'm the youngest congressional candidate in the nation," he notes proudly. On the other side of the table, Garrity shakes his head. "Florida," he states matter-of-factly. Apparently there's somebody younger than Monroe running for Congress in Florida. Monroe is taken aback. "Younger than being 25 this month?" Garrity nods sagely. "But they're not a major party candidate," he admits.
A little later, two older men enter and sit down. They are Rick Dykema, chief of staff for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), and former foreign service officer Lars Hydle, an intense man dressed entirely in khaki, as if he just came back from safari. Monroe introduces them and then gets back to his main point: the folly of one-party politics. "In business monopolies, people are held accountable with antitrust laws," he says. "But with political monopolies, people just keep on getting elected and doing nothing." He pauses for a moment. "If I wasn't running myself, she would have already won."
She, of course, is Norton, whose resume--decorated scholar, crusading attorney, tireless activist, esteemed member of Washington's black elite--is considerably longer than that of her young challenger. Norton has held office for 14 years and remains extremely popular. "I saw that she had about a 91 percent approval rating," says Monroe. "But in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had a 100 percent approval rating, because nobody ran against him" Norton's reelection campaign office declined to comment on Monroe's candidacy, which doesn't surprise Monroe, who considers Norton the archetypal do-nothing, say-nothing pol. A Monroe regime would be different, however. "If I was elected, and I saw you walking down the street, I would stop and say 'Hi, Justin,'" he promises.
Hearty greetings for pedestrians are but one part of Monroe's platform. While he is interested in security issues and education ("You can't have 8-or-9-year-olds going to school with guns," he states, reasonably. "Give them after-school programs, or a library card"), his central issue is that of attaining voting status for D.C. in Congress. Since the District of Columbia's creation, its residents have existed in a quasi-democratic netherworld, where residents are taxed like citizens while being denied congressional representation.
Achieving voting rights for D.C. is Norton's top priority, too--but in 14 years, she has had little luck making substantial headway. And that's what makes Monroe's candidacy oddly plausible With the GOP controlling Congress (and likely to for the foreseeable future), any road to D.C. voting rights runs through the House Committee on Government Reform, chaired by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). Norton is well liked on both sides of the aisle, but her own proposal, the No Taxation Without Representation Act, has little chance of passing since it would give the District two senators as well as a member of congress. All of the new elected officials would likely be Democrats, and GOP leaders have little incentive to give Senate Democrats, in particular, additional votes in a chamber divided so closely. And so Norton's proposal has languished.
Republican leaders are, however, eager to see Utah, an overwhelmingly Republican state, gain the fourth congressional district it narrowly missed at the last reapportionment. Which is why Davis and Rep. Dana Rohrabadaer (R-Calif.) have each introduced measures that would enfranchise D.C. residents without giving the Democrats a numerical advantage in either chamber of Congress: Both proposals would make Washington a congressional district with a voting representative, while granting an additional district to Utah.
Monroe argues--not implausibly--that with Republicans taking the lead on the issue, the District would be better served with a Republican as D.C. delegate, the better to lobby his party. And he's betting that D.C. residents are exasperated enough by Norton's inability to get them the vote that they'll hold their nose and go Republican--no little feat in a town where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 10-to-1. Still, Monroe is optimistic. "Look, there are 590,000 citizens in D.C," he tells me. "300,000 registered voters, 100,000 actually come out to vote. 27,000 Republicans. If I can get all of them to come out to vote ..." He pauses, and for a moment, the table is awash in the glow of his ambition.
First, though, he needs to get his campaign in order. Monroe freely admits that his campaign treasury is "pretty much squared away at zero," but he plans to start fundraising in earnest after the RNC. "We're going to have a gigantic Halloween party before the election," he mentions. "Most young people like Halloween parties." He describes other unconventional ideas, like regular "Runs for Congress," where supporters wearing Monroe T-shirts will run through every ward in D.C., energetically spreading Monroe's message. "It'll give the campaign a fresh energy, a healthy feel," says Monroe. "Quincy says he's not going to do it, but he'll be there at the end." Quincy, a large man, looks offended at the notion of running. "I'll take the bus," he mutters. Monroe talks about getting celebrities and sports figures involved, like Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, and fantasizes about an endorsement from Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Maybe if he sees I'm doing things with physical fitness, running ..." he muses.
Involving party heavyweights in the race is important to Monroe, who admits that he would "very much like to become a national figure in the Republican Party." This, of course, seems to be the secret motivation behind this entire gambit. Whatever other reason Monroe might have for running--and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity about wanting to beat Norton--certainly the publicity value of being the youngest Republican candidate for a national office in a convention year does not escape him. As much, he's taking every possible opportunity to position himself nationally. "I'm working on a hook entitled Birth of a Candidate," he says. "It'll take my candidacy from birth, through infancy, through, you know, adolescence." This occurs to me that this might be the first campaign book ever written by a novice congressional candidate. I ask him how long the book will be. "50-100 pages. It'll give people a better idea about who I am, what I want to do. It'll be called Birth of a Candidate," he repeats helpfully.
The meeting is winding down. As Monroe thanks Dykema and Hydle for coming, I ask the other members of the committee what they do. "I work at a restaurant," says John Corrigan. "I'm a secret agent for Her Majesty the Queen," says Quincy Waldron. I don't know how to respond to this. He smiles. "Just kidding. I'm a receptionist at Gonzaga. I'm also in charge of the alumni organization for my class." Waldron pauses. "I could use a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich."
Before I leave, Monroe invites me out to a campaign event later that evening at Parker's, a bar in Bethesda, Md. "If you want to see what this is really all about, come on out. There'll be like 100 people there; to show that I'm not just a shirt-and-tie politician, that I can roll up my sleeves and eat chicken wings." When I get to Parker's, there are three people there--Monroe, Waldron, and Corrigan, sitting forlornly at the bar watching a football game. I go outside and double-cheek the sign to make sure that I'm in the right place. "Maybe there'll be more people coming by later," says Monroe. I have a beer and leave, with a promise that there'll be more people next time and an open invitation to shadow him at the RNC convention. "What a story it'd be for you," he enthuses. "The youngest congressional candidate in the nation, and you've got the story."
"There's that guy in Florida," I remind him.
His face falls. "Yeah. But there are conflicting stories about that."
Justin Peters is a Washington Monthly editorial fellow.…