Bowser’s power play

D.C. mayor tak­ing big do­na­tions to shape city’s pol­i­tics

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY AARON C. DAVIS

Close al­lies of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) have be­gun amass­ing large sums of money that could have un­prece­dented sway over city pol­i­tics.

They have cre­ated a po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee sim­i­lar to a fed­eral su­per PAC, in that it can ac­cept con­tri­bu­tions of un­lim­ited size, and are push­ing to raise $1 mil­lion be­fore the end of the year.

That would be enough to fi­nance the bulk of a may oral re elec­tion bid three years early, but Ben Soto, trea­surer of the PAC and former cam­paign trea­surer for Bowser, says the money will prob­a­bly be spent long be­fore then, be­gin­ning with bol­ster­ing her D. C. Coun­cil al­lies on the bal­lot next year.

“We’re reach­ing out to folks who are happy with the mayor and who want to sup­port her, and we’ve had a re­ally good re­sponse,” Soto said. “We’re do­ing what we think is best to move the city for­ward,and it is in­de­pen­dent of her .”

How the PAC is be­ing funded, though, is be­gin­ning to draw in­tense crit­i­cism for a mayor who was elected by promis­ing a fresh break from the cam­paign-fi­nance scan­dal that clouded the ten­ure of her pre­de­ces­sor.

More than $300,000 has poured into the pro-Bowser PAC, mostly from cor­po­ra­tions that either have busi­ness be­fore the city or that are ac­tively seek­ing it, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign dis­clo­sures filed last week.

Mul­ti­ple de­vel­op­ers bid­ding for

rights to parcels in the city’s $200 mil­lion re­vi­tal­iza­tion of the South­west Water­front area, one of the na­tion’s largest pub­lic works projects, have each do­nated $10,000 or more. So has Phi­nis Jones, a long­time sup­porter of Bowser who stands to profit from a de­vel­op­ment near the mayor’s planned $55 mil­lion Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards’ prac­tice fa­cil­ity in South­east.

Three men that Bowser has ap­pointed to pow­er­ful boards and com­mis­sions also have con­trib­uted $10,000 each be­fore or af­ter their po­si­tion con­fir­ma­tions. A fourth has given $2,500, and a fifth is serv­ing as the PAC’s at­tor­ney and is paid by the fund.

Health-care com­pa­nies and their ex­ec­u­tives have been the most fre­quent and largest con­trib­u­tors.

Two — a Vir­ginia com­pany and a board mem­ber of a health-care non­profit—have al­ready­times the limit al­lowed to a may­oral cam­paign of $2,000.

“It’ s ex­ceed­ing ly trou­bling. This is nur­tur­ing a lack of rea­son­able reg­u­la­tion to keep com­pa­nies from try­ing to buy gov­ern­ment con­tracts,” said Craig Hol­man, who lob­bies for stricter cam­paign-fi­nance laws for the non­profit Pub­lic Cit­i­zen. “I fully ex­pect the city to run into sim­i­lar scan­dals that we saw un­der the pre­vi­ous mayor: This is on the road to doso.”

Top aides to Bows er and the he PAC push back strongly on that sug­ges­tion, say­ing there are few sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the pro-Bowser PAC and the al­leged “shadow cam­paign” con­ducted by city health-care con­trac­tor Jef­frey Thomp­son on be­half of the 2010 may­oral cam­paign of former mayor Vin­cent C. Gray(D).

“What peo­ple were up­set about with Vince Gray was that money was given that was not re­ported,” said Bowser’s chief of staff, John Fal­ci­c­chio, who is not af­fil­i­ated with the PAC .“What you have here is an en­tity that was formed out­side the gov­ern­ment to pro­mote and ex­pand the mayor’s agenda, and every­thing they do is re­ported.”

Bowser can­not le­gally af­fect how the PAC spends its money, and it is not af­fil­i­ated with her of­fice. But she can fundraise for the PAC and has done so twice, ap­pear­ing at a Dupont Cir­cle steak­house and an H Street NE restau­rant where or­ga­niz­ers were so­lic­it­ing do­na­tions.

The PAC spent more than $30,000 on polling this year, Soto said, in­clud­ing ques­tions to gauge the mayor’s pop­u­lar­ity.

Un­der a quirk in a re­cently re­vised D.C. elec­tions law, the pro-Bowser PAC can raise un­lim­ited amounts from con­trib­u­tors in non­elec­tion years. Un­like a fed­eral su­per PAC, the source of all con­tri­bu­tions must be pub­licly dis­closed. The ex­is­tence of the PAC was first re­ported by WAMU (88.5 FM).

Last week, Soto, the PAC’s trea­surer, told The Wash­ing­ton Post that the mayor’s back­ers were em­bark­ing on a fundrais­ing sprint to try to raise $1 mil­lion by the end of the year. Af­ter that, con­tri­bu­tions to the PAC will be lim­ited to $5,000 per per­son.

In a riff off her cam­paign slo­gan last year — a “fresh start” for all of the Dis­trict’s eight po­lit­i­cal wards — Soto dubbed the group Fresh-PAC.

“If there are ini­tia­tives that she is tak­ing on that we think are con­sis­tent with . . . bring­ing pros­per­ity to all eight wards, then we’ll help in any­way pos­si­ble ,” So to said.

Among other lo­cal con­tests next year that the PAC could in­flu­ence will be a race for a full, fouryear term for the Ward 8 D.C. Coun­cil seat. LaRuby May, a Bowser cam­paign or­ga­nizer, won the right to fin­ish the term of the late Mar­ion Barry there last year with the help of more than $100,000 in con­tri­bu­tions from Bowser al­lies.

With the PAC money, May’ s con­nec­tion to Bowser could fig­ure promi­nently again.

Even be­fore next year, the PAC’s swelling cof­fers could af­fect the po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics on the coun­cil, es­pe­cially if mem­bers think that their votes will be viewed neg­a­tively by the mayor and that the con­sid­er­able resources of the PAC could be thrown be­hind a chal­lenger.

Coun­cil Chair­man Phil Men del­son( D ), who has sparred most with Bowser as she has at­tempted to con­sol­i­date power in her ad­min­is­tra­tion and away from the coun­cil and the city’s first elected at­tor­ney gen­eral, of­fered a terse re­sponse when asked about the PAC. “No com­ment,” he said.

Soto said it was too soon to dis­close who of the six coun­cil mem­bers up for re­elec­tion next year the PAC would back.

But FreshPAC said it will sup­port the “coun­cil mem­bers who think in the same way” as Bowser, he said .“Or if it’ s in­con­sis­tent with mov­ing all eight wards for­ward, their op­po­nent may get our help.”

And there prob­a­bly will be pol­icy ini­tia­tives be­yond next year’s coun­cil races in which the PAC may be­come in­volved, Soto said, in­clud­ing pub­lic-re­la­tions cam­paigns.

The con­certed ef­fort by Bowser al­lies to fun­nel money into the PAC is unique for a mayor in the 40- year his­tory of home rule in the Dis­trict and a rar­ity na­tion­wide among big-city may­ors.

In Los An­ge­les and Chicago, su­per PA Cs roiled re­cent may oral elec­tions with mil­lions in out­side spend­ing. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg also worked with fed­eral PACs to fur­ther his ef­forts on gun-con­trol leg­is­la­tion.

Hol­man, the Pub­lic Cit­i­zen lob­by­ist, said the pro-Bowser PAC is tak­ing the city in the wrong di­rec­tion, away from other no­table bigc­ity may­ors who have re­cently sought to tem­per the in­flu­ence of out­side money, in­clud­ing Philadel­phi­aMayor Michael N ut­ter( D ).

Linda Beebe, pres­i­dent of the League of Women Vot­ers of D.C., said the or­ga­ni­za­tion has just be­gun to study FreshPAC and has a se­ries of meet­ings planned next month about money and in­flu­ence in D.C. pol­i­tics. Of FreshPAC, she said, “I am sure this will be part of our dis­cus­sion.”

Bowser ap­pointees who have con­trib­uted $10,000 to the PAC in­clude Fred­er­ick Hill, whose ex­pe­ri­ence for a seat on the Board of Zon­ing Ad­just­ments was ques­tioned; Alan Bubes, a mem­ber of the Wash­ing­ton Con­ven­tion and Sports Author­ity Board of Di­rec­tors; and Buwa Bini­tie, a Hous­ing Fi­nance Agency board mem­ber. Mes­sages left for the three were not im­me­di­ately re­turned.

Bini­tie is also among a core group be­hind the PAC with close ties to former mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), in­clud­ing Jones, Bryan S. Irv­ing, Earle C. Hor­ton III and Soto, who also served as Fenty’s cam­paign trea­surer.

Soto said that be­cause the PAC’s in­ter­nal polling is show­ing Bowser as pop­u­lar in her first year, it was the per­fect time to press for fundrais­ing.

“D.C.,” he said, “to me, man, it’s al­ways po­lit­i­cal sea­son in D.C.”

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