Wrestling The Alligator: DC Council and Campaign Finance Reform

July 9, 2017

     THE Republicans on Capitol Hill and in the White House may be having a hard time delivering on campaign promises. That doesn’t appear to be an issue for D.C. Council member Charles Allen, however. 


Soon after being appointed chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, he pledged that campaign finance reform would be at the top of his agenda. He already has held a hearing focused on public financing of campaigns for qualifying candidates. Allen and eight other legislators introduced the “Fair Elections Act of 2017."


“Campaign finance reform is an issue to which I have long been committed. During my own campaign, I made the personal choice not to accept corporate contributions, a decision grounded in how I believe campaigns should be funded,” Allen said in a prepared statement on the day of the hearing.


If he ran his Ward 6 campaign and won without the Fair Elections Act that means other candidates could make similar decisions. There are examples of individuals winning their bids with less money than their opponents. Ward 8’s Trayon White had less cash than that of then-incumbent LaRuby May when he beat her last year. Moreover, using taxpayers’ money to finance mediocre candidates seems a gross misuse of public funds.


Proponents of the Fair Elections bill are some of the same folks who fought against tax cuts, arguing the city could find better use for public money. They also have asserted, as did Allen, that a large portion of money for political campaigns comes from outside the District. “Our current system of campaign finance…is wildly out of balance: too much influence in our elections is wielded by a small number of large donors—donors who do not accurately represent the diversity of the District in income, race, gender, and background.”


Allen has a simplistic view of campaign financing, ignoring cultural and historical patterns that have been and continue to be at play. Consider that many African American residents don’t donate to campaigns because they lack the resources but rather they don’t see their interests represented by a candidate or they do not have faith in the overall political process.


Ironically neo-nativists like Allen and others supported the new Family Paid Leave Act, although the majority of its beneficiaries likely will not be DC residents. They are also among those who quibble about the city’s certified business enterprise law, which provides additional points to local companies during the contracting and procurement scoring process; they seem happy to allow large corporations from outside the District to scoop up taxpayer dollars with little return to the city coffers in the form of income or sales taxes.   


In other words, many of these pro-public-financing officials are walking contradictions. Their positions frequently shift with the mood of special interests.


Consequently, expect them to push forward, yielding to the instigation of mostly national organizations that have been advocating public financing and other legislation designed to counter the effects of Citizens United v FEC.  Allen is expected to dive into four other campaign finance proposals. One would put the kibosh on developers and other business people receiving contracts and making donations to elected officials with control or oversight of those contracts.


Muzzling citizens whose only crime is trying to participate in the election process and run a business, seems to violate the spirit of the First Amendment. Some observers have said it may also open the door for a legal challenge based on the Supreme Court 2010 ruling in Citizens United: “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders. We have made clear that Congress may not regulate contributions simply to reduce the amount of money in politics or to restrict the political participation of some in order to enhance the relative influence of others,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.


That law essentially affected federal elections. Will the District have two sets of rules: one for federal candidates and another for local candidates? Will Congress, which retains ultimate control over District affairs, step in preventing the city from enacting the proposed anti-contractor/ anti-business election participation?


Who knows?


Allen’s committee also is reviewing a proposal that would clarify the relationship between declared candidates and independent expenditures by Political Action Committees. Another bill would require full retirement of all campaign debts six months after an election.



      It’s understandable that citizens want to know and feel their government is above reproach. They want to know elected officials aren’t engaging in wrongdoing or at least there are barriers to such behavior. This country certainly has a history of corrupt political leaders, as I learned when writing my book—The Last of the Black Emperors--about Marion Barry’s short-lived mayoral comeback. 


The state where I was born had more than its quota. Decades ago when visiting home, I noticed by grandfather had a campaign sign in our front yard for Edwin Edwards, a man I believed without any scruples. I asked my grandfather why he would support such an official-- someone with documented ethical and legal lapses. My grandfather replied: Yes but he’s our corrupt governor. 


Edwards, who served four terms as governor and eventually served more than eight years in prison, put it this way during a 2014 interview with the New York magazine: “With me, the people know the butter might be rancid, but it’s going to be spread on their side of the bread.”


That thinking helped Barry get elected four times as mayor and multiple times as council member. That thinking got Donald Trump elected president and, thus far, has kept articles of impeachment from being written against him.


     People elect the candidate they like—warts and all. What can campaign finance reform do about that? 


Ward 7 Council member Vincent C. Gray was elected last year, although there was a cloud over his head related to the illegal activity that permeated his 2010 mayor campaign. White got a chance to return to

political office, although he had resigned in the middle of his term on the DC State Board of Education.


Further some of the people who have introduced reform legislation are themselves violators of a few of the proposals being offered. Consider, for example, that Gray wants to limit the practice called bundling where one individual collects donations from several others—co-workers or friends. His 2010 mayor campaign benefited greatly from bundling by financial donors and a master shadow campaign that involved packaging “fake contributions.”


Attorney General Karl Racine, who has been advocating putting an end to passing the donation plate among contractors, worked with a firm that held a DC government contract. He also collected a bunch of money during his initial run from lawyers at firms that also may have had contracts with District government agencies or routinely lobbied the executive branch or legislative branch, hoping to secure adjustments to existing public policies or enactment of new laws favorable to their clients. Racine also has not fully retired his debt from his 2014 campaign.


Those facts make these campaign finance reform maneuvers by some suspect. Are Gray and Racine pushing to stop contractors from making donations because they fear their fundraising would be puny when measured against incumbent mayor Muriel Bowser?


Is At-large Council member Elissa Silverman looking to inoculate herself against the business community? Some key leaders have been searching for someone to run against the one-term legislator. It’s expected that a few might establish independent PACs that will finance ads and other activities against her. Is that why she, among others, wants a clarification of when an independent expenditure should be classified as a contribution to a particular candidate’s campaign?


            Truth be told, the political or elections corruption that has haunted the DC government, like that in other jurisdictions, isn’t the absence of laws or regulations rather it is the absence of aggressive enforcement and oversight.  The District already has on its books laws regulating independent expenditures, for example. Further there are rules surrounding the details about donors that must be included on candidate’s reporting forms, which, if enforced, would offer insight into questionable relationships.  


None of that matters, however. It also won’t matter what laws are approved by the council in this latest round of frenzied and nationally-driven reforms—unless the executive and the legislature take a critical look at the Office of Campaign Finance.


OCF is charged with enforcing existing laws and regulations. It is, however, one the worse performing agencies in the government. Consider that despite the myriad laws and regulations violated by Gray’s mayoral campaign, the OCF fined it only $10,000.


Council member Brandon Todd’s two campaigns came up short a total of more than $100,000. The OCF knew about his reporting problems but failed to make them public during either the special election or the campaign for his current four-year term. Todd eventually was fined only $5,100.


Council member Mary Cheh has introduced legislation to expand the definition of lobbyist. But how much investigation is being conducted into the activities of current lobbyists. Is an extension of the definition the cure?


If the council is serious about good government and campaign finance reform its prime order of business should be a focus on OCF, including termination of the current director, Cecily Collier-Montgomery, and restructuring the agency for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.


If reforming OCF is not part of the council's book of business, then the new laws it seems determined to enact will have the same effect as the old laws.






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